If a week is a long time in British politics, five days in South African politics is literally an aeon. On Wednesday evening, President Jacob Zuma appeared to be able to do anything. By Wednesday night, it appeared that he was more than just the MacDaddy of our politics, he was its lord and master. And those around him were the barons and dukes and earls who appeared to have a lock on our economy, our government, and its remaining wealth. Now, suddenly, the power relationships have changed. It seems the ANC has reasserted itself. Zuma, surely, will never be the same again. And Pravin Gordhan has returned, along with fiscal probity, fiscal discipline, and most thankfully, sanity. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
It has been a rough five days. Everyone, all of us, suddenly felt poorer after we woke up on Thursday. After the markets had had some time to digest the departure of Nhlanhla Nene, they properly panicked on Friday, as the JSE lost, literally, billions. There was silence from Luthuli House, from Cyril Ramaphosa, from Gwede Mantashe, Zweli Mkhize. On Sunday Zuma appeared to feel confident enough to take on his detractors in Mpumalanga.
The perfect antidote for all of that, the one tonic to make us all feel better, was the Monday’s sight of Gordhan, flanked by the Reserve Bank Governor, Lesetja Kganyago (his old director general), and the Deputy Finance Minister, Mcebisi Jonas. They were all dressed in sober suits, looking the very model of a modern Finance Cluster. It was the very depiction of sobriety, of probity. These were the kind of people you want to trust your money with. You feel safe, happy, pleased even, to give them your tax money.
The reason for that is not just how they look and dress. It is because of who they are, how they act, and because of how they communicate. Gordhan is one of the country’s best communicators. Never rushed, never hurried, and never put off his stride, he says what he wants to say, what needs to be said, and crucially, nothing more. Then there is his choice of words, direct, clear and mature. He doesn’t just say that we will “do the following”. He says that we will do it “diligently”. He is taking responsibility to do things, and to do them well.
Then there is our “expenditure ceiling”. It is not just important, or a priority. It is “sacrosanct”. Making it clear that nothing is more important than that. The entire performance was vintage Gordhan. So was having Kganyago with him, to make sure that the message was sent loud and clear. This is the team that is now in charge.
Such is the swing that has occurred over the last few days, that Gordhan now holds the value of the rand in his hands. This gives him political power. The kind of political power that he (and Nene, before he was fired) could not have dreamed of. Because he was appointed by Zuma in a crisis, he would have been able to set terms. And even if that was not said explicitly, those terms are set implicitly, in that nothing would be worse for Zuma right now, than Gordhan’s resignation. The Rand would hit rock bottom, money would flood out, and everyone would turn their ire on the ANC. Bluntly, put, in the same way that Ramaphosa not resigning over the weekend may have played a role in saving Zuma from himself, now Gordhan is saving Zuma’s presidency, for now. If he goes, the ANC would be forced to act. This may, just may, mean that the worst of the Zuma era could well be behind us.
Up until this point he has appeared to do almost anything what he wanted to do. When he came to power in 2009 there were still limits on what he had to do, certain Mbeki-ite ministers had to be accommodated in Cabinet, the Cope split-off had to be dealt with, and he still had to get his people in key positions. After the 2014 elections it seems the one limitation placed on his power by the ANC was that certain ministers in the Security Cluster could not be reappointed. After that he was without boundaries. ANC Members of Parliament were forced to defend his conduct over Nkandla, the police, and the National Prosecuting Authority fell to cronies and political control, South African Airways fell into a pit of Dudu Myeni-led mismanagement, and the country was about to fall into a hole of debt. And no one, no one, was able to call him to order.
Now that has all changed. The thing about calling someone to order once, as any parent will tell you, is that it is easier to call that person to order again. Now, surely boundaries have been set, even for someone of Zuma’s stature. Like anyone, he has certain priorities in life, issues on which he is prepared to sacrifice to ensure that those priorities are protected. If most people would sell their car to buy food, he is surely prepared to throw Myeni overboard to keep his job. And of course, he is also more vulnerable than other heads of state because of the corruption charges that were once brought against him. The days of Zuma doing what he likes appears to be over.
The centre of what could now become an open push-back against Zuma could be the Finance Minister himself. Gordhan has the constituency, the track record, and, for the moment, the power to lead this charge. He can now place limits on what people can and cannot do. He has already said that he will be calling Myeni soon for a little chat. And he says that State Owned Entities are not “toys from which you can extract money whenever you feel like it”. A shot across the bows if ever there was one. Gordhan also says that, in relation to the nuclear deal, we cannot spend money we do not have. Again, he is using the power he has at the moment to clip Zuma’s wings where it hurts the most.
But this won’t last forever. Zuma will likely find ways to reassert himself, and the sense of crisis that gives Gordhan this power will start to wane; which may be why he is professing to act so quickly now.
However, within the ANC itself, Zuma’s image has surely taken a huge knock. At the very best, what has happened over the last few days smacks of simple incompetence. At worst, it smacks of open sabotage and corruption of the highest order. One of the images that has helped to protect Zuma over the last few years has been the idea of him as a tsunami, as invulnerable, as able to survive anything. If nothing else, that myth has been shattered now. His decision was reversed by the people who said enough; it is as simple as that.
Is Zuma is going to be recalled or anything quite so dramatic? Probably not. But the fact he is weaker does mean that he can ill-afford the kind of scandal we have all suffered through for the last six years. That means no more love-children announced just before a State of the Nation Address. No more home extensions at the cost of the state. No more unauthorized landings at Waterkloof Air Force Base. No more unqualified people running SAA.
And it means that if the ANC emerges from the local government elections free of the need to select mayors for the Nelson Mandela Metro Municipality, Tshwane or Joburg, suddenly the question would be asked who is to blame for it. And, of course, whose fault was it that the supremely qualified local government minister had to swop jobs without notice with the weekend finance minister nobody wanted, just in time for local government elections. Questions, questions. Strap yourself in. It’s about to get really interesting. DM
Photo: South Africa’s Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan (L) chats with Lesetja Kganyago, Governor of the Reserve Bank of South Africa, during a media briefing after Gordhan was reappointed to the position on Sunday night by President Jacob Zuma, in Pretoria, South Africa December 14, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko,