Finance ministers are usually the kids who were the cleverest in their class. Pravin Gordhan must have been the cleverest kid in his school district. We know this from the fact he can do two very different things at once - numbers and politics. Not many can, but he does (there is that chap called Trevor – Ed). And so his interventions in our public debate are often welcome. Well, to capitalists like us anyway. Even though he is, or used to be, officially a communist. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
On Monday Gordhan appeared to leap into the big debate we’re having about “jobs” and “decent work”. He may also have got away with a comment about that other big debate we keep on having, about you-know-who of the not-yet-mature wild feline kind. All of this while addressing the Institute of Internal Auditors. Maybe he felt he had to bring his own excitement.
The big debate within the ANC and the alliance is probably the best example we currently have of the “policy lock” within the organisation at the moment. Essentially, the theory goes, because the ANC, the alliance and the liberation movement in general are so politically broad, nothing gets done. There’s what a kindly person might call analysis paralysis, and a less kindly one might suggest is more to do with the fact that any leader who actually does anything gets punished because someone of some political hue will stop supporting them. This results in a policy vacuum: we all know we need more jobs, but the sides are so evenly matched between Cosatu and the SACP supporting “decent jobs” on the left, and the “jobs are more important, let’s help business create them” on the not-so-far-left that nothing actually gets decided.
Gordhan says, “We may have to change the way we see the labour dispensation…lowering the cost of young inexperienced low-skilled workers for firms… this is a big debate in South Africa, how do we lower the costs of doing business?” Right, there’s really no other way to interpret that than to say Gordhan appears to be on the side of “jobs”. He’s trying to say that if we don’t make a big change soon, we simply won’t create enough jobs for all the people we need them.
What’s so interesting about this is that Gordhan is really from the left-left of the alliance, the SACP. According to legend, Thabo Mbeki convinced him to run Sars by suggesting that he’d always believed in taking from the rich to give to the poor, and surely running the tax service was the best way to do that. Over time though, he has softened some of his earlier positions. No doubt Cosatu may say that he has been “captured” by government.
Either way, the point is that the finance minister, the man supposedly in charge of the job-creation process has set up his stall. Cosatu has already said there were different ways to interpret his statement, but that they would certainly oppose any move to soften labour regulation. We remember well the somersaults ANC secretary general (and SACP chairman – Ed) Gwede Mantashe felt compelled to perform when he suggested “there is nothing so undignified as being unemployed” and then had to proclaim a few days later that he wanted “jobs, decent work and sustainable livelihoods”. So we await with interest to hear what Gordhan does next. Does he decide to keep on banging this drum, or does he retreat back into the laager? He’s not scared of a fight, so he may well keep at it. Unless, of course, an order comes from on high somewhere. Which would be rather intriguing if it happened – but it probably isn’t really going to happen.
Now on to you-know-who. Maybe he meant nothing by it, or maybe he did. You decide. Gordhan was talking about corruption when he said, powerfully and strongly, “The time has come to expose and challenge, much more aggressively, the newly developed networks of connected parties that undermine state procurement policies and legislation.” Okay then, a normal broadside at those corrupting government, or was it about someone in particular? Bear in mind the day before, a certain Youth League leader had been back on the front pages of the major newspapers, and none of it was for good things done. Much of it was about general naughtiness in Limpopo, and yes, tenders.
Gordhan is the kind of guy who may have decided to drop that little bit into his speech just for fun. He is like that. And bear in mind the League not so long ago publicly called for his head, claiming he was not performing. So this may have been the chance for revenge. We await more such titbits.
We have to ask also, why would Gordhan be acting on both these fronts now? Is it because he feels he can, that he is safe enough to do it? It would be pretty tricky to replace him, not many people would want to be Zuma’s finance minister. Perhaps he’s done the political maths and decided Zuma is not going to carry out any reshuffle soon.
At the same time, there’s also a suggestion at the moment of cabinet ministers being a little less timid. Malusi Gigaba talking about nationalisation, Susan Shabangu, Aaron Motsoaledi really giving it to the rich over the NHI etc. Just maybe they sniff that nothing will happen to them, that they’ll be okay if they speak out a little. And there are very few people who could sniff the political wind better than Gordhan. DM
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