South Africa’s Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene told a judicial corruption inquiry on Wednesday that he was fired by former president Jacob Zuma for refusing to approve a $100 billion nuclear power deal with Russia in 2015.
Nene is the highest profile figure to give evidence at a probe into alleged influence-peddling by the Gupta family, friends of Zuma, who are accused of using their relationship with the former leader to unduly win state contracts.
Zuma has repeatedly denied accusations by his opponents that he pushed for a deal with President Vladimir Putin at a BRICS summit for Russia to build a fleet of nuclear power stations.
Opposition politicians and local investigative journalists say the proposed deal – which would have been the biggest state contract in South Africa’s history – would have included huge kickbacks for Zuma and the Gupta family.
The Indian-born brothers – Ajay, Atul and Rajesh – have been accused of using their ties with Zuma to siphon off billions of rand in state funds and of inappropriately influencing cabinet appointments.
They left South Africa earlier this year around the time Zuma resigned under pressure from his own party and the authorities are seeking their return to face prosecution.
Nene, in the first public account of the nuclear negotiations, said Zuma became hostile towards him at a meeting at the summit when he refused to sign a guarantee letter Zuma wanted to present to Putin while in Russia.
“It was a very tense meeting that ended with us just being instructed by the president to go and find a solution, which we didn’t find,” Nene told the inquiry.
“I told the president in the meeting that I could not sign the letter without having first interrogated the financial and fiscal implications”
A spokesman for Zuma did not immediately respond to a request for comment.