Something strange happened at the pre-Budget media lock-up briefing on Wednesday morning. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, his deputy Mcebisi Jonas, director-general of the National Treasury Lungisa Fuzile and Governor of the SA Reserve Bank Lesetja Kganyago sat answering a barrage of questions from journalists at Parliament and in Pretoria, via video link.
During this briefing, journalists broke into applause. Twice.
This rarely happens in press conferences. The applause was not an endorsement of the Budget speech or approval of the answers being given. It was the fact that these four men, and the team of people behind them, withstood enormous pressure and stepped forward to serve our nation.
In December, our country was on the precipice when President Jacob Zuma fired former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene. The Treasury was left disorientated by the appointment of Des van Rooyen. Then the situation was corrected under pressure and Gordhan and his troops rallied to put together a budget to offset the damage, a recession and possible further downgrades in the country’s credit ratings.
South Africa may not be at war in the clinical sense, but we are engaged in an almighty battle to save our country from financial ruin. So when you provide service to your country with dedication and integrity, in the face of enormous adversity, even hard-boiled journalists will acknowledge it – sometimes with applause.
“Thank you for welcoming the new old guy in such numbers. Thank you for your support,” Gordhan told the large media contingent.
There was a notable absence from the panel addressing the media: South African Revenue Service (SARS) commissioner Tom Moyane. While there is noticeable chemistry between Gordhan and the team of people he has reunited with, it is rather obvious that there is animosity with Moyane over allegations of a rogue spy unit had been operating at SARS.
When asked about Moyane’s absence, Gordhan batted the question away twice. When pressed on the matter, Gordhan said it was “no secret” that there were issues to be resolved at SARS, which would be done “in due course”. He said he had “absolute confidence in the 14,000 people who work at SARS” and knew that their commitment and work had not been compromised. The implication, of course, was that he did not have “absolute confidence” in the head of SARS, and could not vouch for Moyane’s commitment and work.
It would be untenable for Moyane to continue to serve in the position for as long as Gordhan is minister. The writing is on the wall for the SARS commissioner.
Another prominent figure who appears to be on the danger list is the chairperson of the South African Airways (SAA) board, Dudu Myeni. Myeni’s reign at SAA has exacerbated the perpetual financial nosedive of the national carrier – now technically insolvent, even with government bailouts and guarantees amounting to R14.4 billion.
Gordhan said at the media briefing that in the next few weeks, deliberations would be concluded on the appointment of a new SAA board. Proposals for a new board would be taken to Cabinet. All state-owned companies were no longer “sacrosanct”, Gordhan said in reference to the process of rationalisation and evaluation of the state-owned entities.
The days of Myeni calling the shots is clearly over. Myeni’s clash with Nene apparently contributed to his firing. Now, ironically, Gordhan is doing what Nene might have been too polite to do – show her the door.
The other reason for Nene’s firing was his caution over the big nuclear build programme, now on the backburner as it is unaffordable. There was one reference to the nuclear programme in the Budget speech, only that Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson was doing “preparatory work for investment in nuclear power”.
Irony, when it is so poignant, can almost dress itself up as vengeance.
Nene loomed large over the proceedings on Wednesday, even though he was not present in Parliament. A previous incumbent, Trevor Manuel was in the public gallery. There is somewhat of a special camaraderie between Manuel, Gordhan and Nene. Only they know the political pressure and the juggling act that goes into presenting a budget with the ANC and its allies breathing down their necks, the opposition waiting to pounce and South African society entirely dependent on what they say. And let’s not forget that just a few days ago, the president stated that, in his opinion, the most qualified person for that position was his “comrade” and brief minister of finance Des van Rooyen.
Who among them has not been his comrade?
It appeared strange that the printed text of Gordhan’s budget speech did not mention Nene in the acknowledgements. Curiously, there appeared to be two large blank sections towards the end of the speech, which could have been a typesetting error or text that had been vetoed. When Daily Maverick questioned this at the media briefing, Gordhan said wryly: “I cut it out! Is that what you want me to say?”
But when he delivered the speech, at that very point, Gordhan thanked Nene for his contribution. There was prolonged applause from the ANC and opposition benches and Gordhan paused to allow it.
One person in the House did not applaud. President Jacob Zuma kept his head down, his eyes fixed on the text of the speech he was holding.
It was an extraordinary moment in time.
As Gordhan came to the end of the speech, he said: “We are resilient. We are committed. We are resourceful.”
His final words in the 2016 Budget was a quote from Nelson Mandela, which he read with palpable emotion in his voice: “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”
Many people use quotes from the political giants in their speeches. It is rare that the words carry so much deeper meaning and are able to transmit painful truths that could never be uttered.
As to be expected, the 2016 Budget received brickbats and bouquets. But in another unexpected and ironic twist, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema was effusive in his praise for Gordhan. “Let us put our political beliefs aside to show the rating agencies that there are still men and women putting South Africa first,” Malema said. In contrast to the commotion they caused at the State of the Nation Address and walkout from the House, the EFF joined the standing ovation for Gordhan. The Democratic Alliance, however, did not.
During the post-Budget interviews outside Parliament, there was another unexpected moment when Malema was being interviewed by SABC television. Someone extended his hand to shake Malema’s, and he eagerly responded.
The hand belonged to Pravin Gordhan.
Perhaps political cooperation for the sake of South Africa is possible.
The 2016 Budget may or may not help South Africa navigate through the worst economic period in recent history. It may or may not be enough to ward off ratings downgrades and a recession. And whether the Budget will be carried through in implementation remains to be seen. Another big question is whether Gordhan will have political support over the next few years to ride through the crisis.
“If you see me sitting here in October, then I have political support and if not, then I don’t have political support. That’s how life works,” Gordhan said at the media briefing.
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