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27 June 2016 22:25 (South Africa)
South Africa

Op-Ed: South Africa's most powerful man

  • John Matisonn
    John-Matisonn.jpg
    John Matisonn

    John Matisonn began political reporting at the Rand Daily Mail in 1974, and received a prison sentence for refusing to divulge his source in a report about the South African Watergate scandal known as Muldergate. A foreign correspondent in Washington for the Rand Daily Mail and back in Johannesburg for National Public Radio, he has been published in the New York Times, Financial Times, Washington Post and The Observer. After four years as a broadcast regulator in the Mandela administration and two as editorial director of the short-lived THISDAY newspaper, he became the United Nations’ Chairperson of the Electoral Media Commission in Afghanistan. He returned from a second tour in Afghanistan to write God, Spies and Lies, Finding South Africa’s future through its past, which has just been published.

  • South Africa
South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan adjusts his glasses at a news conference during the annual IMF-World Bank meeting at the IMF headquarters building in Washington October 7, 2010. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

We are talking about Pravin Gordhan, of course. If President Zuma removed him now, the financial consequences would be so much worse than his last prank that his political life would be over, which it already almost is. Gordhan knows all this, of course. He is also a patriot with integrity, and a strategist. These are the exact qualities our leaders need, those of which Zuma is so woefully short. By JOHN MATISONN.

The fact is that after last week’s debacle Jacob Zuma can still be removed by the ANC, the moment they have the will to do it. The party still does not want to do it, despite the apparent anger at his missteps and the probable electoral retribution for his blunders. But if they decide he must go, they can vote him out in Parliament any time. The rand will strengthen. The downgrade to junk status will be re-examined.

Gordhan, on the other hand, is the beneficiary of an appointment caused by panic. This is unfair to Nhlanhla Nene, of course. Nene was one of the few ministers actually groomed for six years as deputy minister to both Trevor Manuel and Pravin Gordhan. He has a B.Com Honours degree, with post-graduate studies in South Africa, the UK and US, and chaired Parliament’s joint budget committee. He knew his job. Still, re-appointing him four days after firing him was too brutal an admission of incompetence, even for Zuma. The only alternative with the gravitas to settle the markets was Gordhan. There was no other choice, with Trevor Manuel and Tito Mboweni out of government.

Firing Nene was four square within the style of Zuma’s cabinet appointment style. This became more obvious to me when I researched the communications portfolio, held by five ministers in five years. A president only does that if he is past caring about the effectiveness of his government. It takes close to a year for most new ministers, usually unschooled in the content of their new responsibility, to become comfortable with their team and learn the rudiments of their jobs.

Whatever makes Zuma appoint who he does, the best interests of the country are not his prime motivation. If they were, not only would he have kept Nene, but any replacement would have a stellar reputation, definitely not the questionable record of David van Rooyen. If, as ANC deputy secretary general Jesse Duarte assured the nation, the ANC leadership approved the decision, the question has to be asked: Why did they not reject someone who was clearly not the very best choice? And, why do they aim so low?

If President Zuma removed Gordhan now, the financial consequences would be so much worse than his last prank that his political life would be over, which it already almost is, if South African citizens show the proper determination. Gordhan knows all this. He is a very clever man. He is also a patriot with integrity, and a strategist. These are the exact qualities our leaders need, those of which Zuma is so woefully short.

But now we know what the political battlefield in the coming months looks like.

What can Gordhan do with this power? Can he end current patterns of decision-making at the Gupta family estate in Saxonwold, where Zuma’s motorcade so often comes to rest? Working in the Mandela government, it became apparent to many of us that Finance Minister Trevor Manuel was often calling the shots. In control of the public purse, a Finance Minister can be extremely powerful. On Gordhan’s last go-around as Finance Minister there were limits to how far he could stand up to Zuma’s spending ways. Now he need give less ground. His first focus is, obviously, financial: containing spending at South African Airways and other state-owned companies, stopping the nuclear deal, and containing the non-productive runaway public spending that stands in the way of a job-creating infrastructure programme. He began within hours to tackle this with vigour and intelligence.

But here comes the interesting part. Who will be his political allies? Is there a political alliance to be built to ensure a transition from Zuma to Cyril Ramaphosa, one that does not have to wait till 2017 or even 2019, when Zuma’s presidential term is due to end? I think there is.

At the top, it starts with the old National Union of Mineworkers, the political nursery of Ramaphosa, Gwede Mantashe and Kgalema Mothlante. Those ties still bind. Gordhan is on good terms with them, and they have one other thing in common: they all know South Africa better than Zuma or, let it be said, Thabo Mbeki, both of whom knew the country only as teenagers and then in middle-age. That matters when you are trying to turn a country around. Their attempt to manage on their own, ignoring internal black and white experience was dangerous hubris.

At the grassroots level, Ramaphosa has been cobbling together a constituency out of the Gauteng province and other urban ANC branches, and the backing of unions representing the majority of Cosatu members. His rival, the “premier league”-backed Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, suddenly no longer looks invincible.

Many in Cosatu see a Ramaphosa ANC presidency as the best route to re-unify Cosatu itself. Ramaphosa’s brand was indeed damaged by Marikana. The Marikana Commission exonerated him of responsibility for the appalling shooting of mine-workers, but his failure to anticipate the rising tensions at Marikana, where he was a director and major shareholder, was a severe lapse of judgement. But the Nene crisis has highlighted what informed people already know: South Africa’s economy and unemployment rate are at severe risk. Under the present leadership, it will not rise when the global economy recovers. South Africa has made too many mistakes of its own. It missed the dotcom boom, it missed the resource boom, and it was docile when its main African trading partner, Zimbabwe, cut its economy in half. Then Zuma accelerated the award of jobs and contracts for the most questionable of reasons.

Now well-meaning South Africans feel they cannot afford the luxury of holding Marikana against Ramaphosa. The rose-tinted spectacles of his backers in the 1990s are discarded, but he remains the most experienced, the father of the constitution, knowledgeable about business and labour, and a politician who is able to listen. These are key qualities for a South African president. Dlamini-Zuma, his chief rival, cannot match them. If Gordhan, Ramaphosa and Mantashe stand up to the president, there will be blood on the floor.

So many crooked interests have formed around Zuma, and they have a lot to lose. Restoring the constitution and saving South Africa from a downgrade to junk status will be hard and back-breaking work. The stakes are higher than even many pessimists realise. But it can be done and Gordhan's appointment brought it into the realm of possibility. The requirements are obvious. It’s only the political will that has been missing. Not anymore, it seems. DM

John Matisonn began political reporting at the Rand Daily Mail in 1974, and received a prison sentence for refusing to divulge his source in a report about the South African Watergate scandal known as Muldergate. A foreign correspondent in Washington for the Rand Daily Mail and back in Johannesburg for National Public Radio, he has been published in the New York Times, Financial Times, Washington Post and The Observer. After four years as a broadcast regulator in the Mandela administration and two as editorial director of the short-lived THISDAY newspaper, he became the United Nations’ Chairperson of the Electoral Media Commission in Afghanistan. He returned from a second tour in Afghanistan to write God, Spies and Lies, Finding South Africa’s future through its past, which has just been published.

Photo: South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan adjusts his glasses at a news conference during the annual IMF-World Bank meeting at the IMF headquarters building in Washington October 7, 2010. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas.

  • John Matisonn
    John-Matisonn.jpg
    John Matisonn

    John Matisonn began political reporting at the Rand Daily Mail in 1974, and received a prison sentence for refusing to divulge his source in a report about the South African Watergate scandal known as Muldergate. A foreign correspondent in Washington for the Rand Daily Mail and back in Johannesburg for National Public Radio, he has been published in the New York Times, Financial Times, Washington Post and The Observer. After four years as a broadcast regulator in the Mandela administration and two as editorial director of the short-lived THISDAY newspaper, he became the United Nations’ Chairperson of the Electoral Media Commission in Afghanistan. He returned from a second tour in Afghanistan to write God, Spies and Lies, Finding South Africa’s future through its past, which has just been published.

  • South Africa

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