While new Finance Minister David van Rooyen was sworn in on Thursday, the President's decision to replace Nhlanhla Nene was met with shock and disappointment. Some responses give President Jacob Zuma the benefit of the doubt, others see it as a symptom of a bigger problem that needs to be resisted. By GREG NICOLSON.
Standing near Johannesburg’s Ghandi Square, Sifiso Sithole, 38-years-old and self-employed, was discussing President Jacob Zuma’s surprise decision to replace the finance minister.
“I’m truly unhappy because this is a sign our president is playing chess, making moves that’s going to benefit him alone,” he said, citing the treasury’s recent decision to block a costly South African Airways (SAA) finance deal and resistance to proposed nuclear infrastructure.
“What I’m saying, personally, is #ZumaMustFall,” said Sithole. He called on South Africans to unite to demand the return of the more experienced Nene.
Responding to Zuma’s Wednesday announcement that Nene would be moved to “another strategic position” and Van Rooyen would take the job with confusion, many people are shocked and disappointed. Others have been wondering who it is who is now running the strategic portfolio.
Sithole’s friend, Mpilo Zondi, a 33-year-old student, said he was surprised by the announcement and wondered whether it was influenced by the President’s rumoured relationship with SAA chairperson, Dudu Myeni. Last week, the Treasury rejected Myeni’s proposal to finance planes from Airbus through a local third-party lease rather than Airbus itself, a proposal the Treasury said would incur billions in unaffordable costs for the airline and breach Public Finance Management Act. Because Myeni chairs the Jacob G Zuma Foundation, has survived multiple ministers responsible for SAA, and is reported to be close to the president, she is often said to be untouchable.
“He’s really out of touch with the people on the ground. He only thinks of himself,” Zondi said of the President. Van Rooyen, he continued, would likely be a “yes man”.
On Thursday, Van Rooyen, who before the announcement was a largely unknown ANC Member of Parliament, faced the media for the first time as Minister. During his swearing-in ceremony, he was quoted by EWN as saying, “Mine is a colossal task that comes at a time of a difficult global climate. Only after I have met the Treasury team will I conduct engagements with the media.”
“All economic indicators, as you are well aware, are pointing to the south. Now I must undertake, in front of you and the nation, that I will… ensure every possible policy is directed at creating favourable investment conditions leading to the development of South Africa for all South Africans, not for the few,” News24 quoted Van Rooyen. He said he will meet his new Treasury colleagues on Friday. He also spoke of making the treasury more accessible and said financial issues should be simplified.
Further information continues to emerge about the new Finance Minister. As an MP he served on Parliament’s finance committee. He was previously mayor of Merafong where his Khutsong house was set on fire in 2005 during a service delivery protest over the proposed incorporation of the municipality into North West. During those protests, journalist Rapule Tabane wrote in the Mail & Guardian, “The local leadership of the ANC, led by the spineless Des van Rooyen, failed to convey to their party seniors the depth of community dissatisfaction.” The minister’s full name is David Douglas Des van Rooyen and in past reports is usually referred to as “Des”.
Former Gauteng Premier and ex-Cope leader Mbhazima Shilowa intervened in those protests. On Wednesday he said Van Rooyen was a “disaster” in Merafong, and was removed before the 2011 elections. A Democratic Alliance lawmaker, David Ross, said he had known Van Rooyen since 2009, and expected him to now be out of his depth, reported Bloomberg. While the ANC has wished the new Minister well, there is still no indication of where Nene could be headed.
Former Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi on Thursday said Van Rooyen’s appointment is part of a larger attempt to hollow-out organisations that express people’s power, and those holding the state to account. He said changes at Cosatu, the ANC Women’s League, Chapter 9 institutions, state-owned enterprises, the police and now the treasury were an attempt to steal democracy from the people. Meanwhile, ANC leaders tell the public there’s a national democratic revolution under way, he scoffed.
Vavi, who was speaking with unions critical of Cosatu hoping to revive the labour movement through a worker’s summit next year, spoke passionately on the need for citizens to counter state abuses. Looking at the anti-apartheid movement, he asked the public, “Where is your courage? What happened to you?”
Cosatu wished Van Rooyen well and made policy suggestions in its statement on Thursday, but said it was “shocked and disconcerted” by the decision to replace the Nene as finance minister. The tripartite alliance partner, which clearly wasn’t consulted, said while economy is suffering and shedding jobs, the stability Nene brought and his experience were needed.
The economic impact of Zuma’s decision continues to be felt as the rand slipped around 5% on most major currencies by Thursday afternoon, reaching R15.33 to the dollar. The JSE had fallen by around 0.8 percent by Thursday afternoon. Economists have decried the removal of Nene, and warned of worse times to come. The South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry on Thursday called on Zuma to share his motivation for replacing Nene, who they said was finding his feet after 18 months in the job. Back on the Johannesburg streets, claims clerk Tebogo Sibanda, 29, was shocked when told the Finance Minister has been replaced. “My problem is [Zuma] changes people all the time and we do not know how to follow,” Sibanda said, noting the various police commissioners over the years.
Samson, who only wanted to be known by his first name, supported the president’s move. Noting the general economic struggles and the decline in the rand, he said, “It was the right decision.” Samson said while everyone’s instinct is to criticise Zuma, the country’s economic struggles necessitated a change at the treasury, and Van Rooyen should be given a chance.
“If a person has done right, give credit where it is due,” he said on Zuma.
Most people Daily Maverick spoke to, however, were critical. “For me, Nhlanhla Nene was cool. I’m just wondering to myself, why did Mr President Zuma do that?” asked George Nkuna, 31. He questioned Van Rooyen’s experience and wondered whether he, too, could be parachuted into a ministerial post. “I’ll tell you what, I’m not happy with Mr President, what he’s done.” Nkuna said he has been an ANC voter in the past, and has also voted DA, but next time would vote EFF because of the latest shift. DM
Photo: David Douglas Des van Rooyen (L) the new South African Minister of Finance, is congratulated by President Jacob Zuma (R) after being sworn in at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, 10 December 2015. President Zuma on the night of 09 December fired the then finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, without warning. Zuma is facing a backlash from markets and opposition parties over the sacking of Nene, a move that sent the rand to record lows against the US dollar. EPA/ELMOND JIYANE