By G9ija

South African Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene on Wednesday told an inquiry former President Jacob Zuma axed him from his cabinet because he refused to sign off on deals that would have benefited Zuma’s friends, the Guptas.

Nene is a pivotal figure in a probe into the three Indian-born Gupta brothers, who built a business empire during Zuma’s nine-year tenure only to see it disintegrate as the scandal-plagued leader was forced out by his own party in February.

The Gupta family and Zuma have denied any wrongdoing and say the allegations are part of an orchestrated witch-hunt.

Zuma fired Nene in December 2015 and replaced him with largely unknown lawmaker Des van Rooyen, sending markets into a tailspin before Zuma appointed investor-friendly Pravin Gordhan as his third finance minister in the space of four days.

Zuma’s successor as president Cyril Ramaphosa re-appointed Nene finance minister in February.

“I do believe I was removed as minister of finance for my refusal to toe the line in relation to certain projects.

“And in hindsight, it seems that those projects would have benefited the Gupta family and other close associates of the then president,” Nene told the inquiry into “state capture,” a South African term for corruption at the highest levels of government.

Nene added that he believed that it was his refusal to sign off on a massive nuclear expansion deal in particular that cost him his job.

Until Wednesday Nene had not given details about a dramatic period that revealed to global investors for the first time what was at stake in a battle within the ruling African National Congress over the influence of the Guptas.

Nene’s supporters have portrayed him as a principled official who sought to defend the country’s strained public finances against corrupt attacks from Zuma and his allies.

However, Nene’s detractors, including the radical opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, say he was involved in corrupt deals with the Guptas when he was deputy finance minister and head of the state pension fund from 2008 to 2014.

“He only refused to Gupta demands once he became finance minister and that was the reason he was sacked,’’ the EFF said.

The long-awaited inquiry into allegations the Guptas used ties to Zuma to win billions of rands’ worth of government contracts opened in September with witnesses testifying that the brothers had tried to bribe them or had threatened them.

Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo leads the public inquiry, which is empowered to make recommendations for prosecutions.