South Africa

South Africa

Gordhan in the crosshairs: Dirty tricks campaign targets finance minister

Gordhan in the crosshairs: Dirty tricks campaign targets finance minister

After a dramatic day on Friday, with a flurry of media statements relating to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and the battle around the South African Revenue Service (SARS), the situation seemed to have quietened down over the weekend. But behind the scenes, discussions are raging in the ANC and the alliance. The matter is now taking an ugly turn with disinformation and “dirt” about Gordhan being planted in the media and opposition parties. The new developments raise even more questions – primarily: why is there so much heat on Gordhan? By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Consider for a moment what it would have been like had Des van Rooyen and not Pravin Gordhan delivered last week’s Budget speech in Parliament. Had President Jacob Zuma not shifted Van Rooyen to another portfolio and appointed Gordhan as finance minister, who knows how much worse the economic climate would have been now or whether the situation would have stabilised at all. What we can be sure of is that Budget 2016 would have been a totally different speech. Many of the people who hold up the pillars of the National Treasury would have quit and it is possible that Van Rooyen and his “advisors” – both declared and undeclared – would have had a different focus in the Budget.

But apart from the contents of the speech, how would it have gone down in Parliament? In all likelihood, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) would have brought the roof down. It is doubtful that Van Rooyen would have been able to finish the speech – provided he was even allowed to start it. How would the markets have reacted to the Budget not being tabled? Would our credit rating have reached junk status by now? Would the tensions bubbling under in the ANC and the alliance blown out into the open?

South Africa has been spared having to deal with this scenario due to Zuma’s decision to move Van Rooyen out of the finance portfolio four days after he was appointed. Soon after Gordhan’s appointment, the Rand begun recovering and the panic on the markets subsided. But it will still take a lot of work to stabilise the economy and South Africa cannot afford any more political shocks at the Treasury.

So why then is Gordhan fighting for his political life at this time? Why did he issue a statement warning that he might need to take legal action to protect himself and the Treasury from “whatever elements seeking to discredit me, the institution and its integrity”?

The decision by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe to come out in support of Gordhan was intended to offset a brewing campaign, what he called a “destabilisation plan”, against the finance minister, including in his own party. Mantashe acted quickly to announce that the ANC has “full confidence” in Gordhan and said “complex and difficult work” had been done by the president and minister that has “restored the confidence of our people in the economy and brought about stability”. He said it was “unfortunate that there are now initiatives that are intended to undermine this work, reverse the gains our economy has made and have a destabilising effect in the long term”.

Mantashe raised concern particularly about the questions sent by the Hawks to Gordhan four days ahead of the Budget speech. “The timing of these questions indicates clearly that there was intention to distract the minister during this important time. It is even more disconcerting that these questions were leaked to the media. In our view this is a well-calculated destabilisation plan with all the elements of disinformation, falsehoods and exaggerated facts,” Mantashe said.

He said the ANC had “reliable information on the individual leaking information to the media and will be engaging the person”.

It is rare for ANC media statements to be issued by Mantashe and not the party’s communications staff. It is even rarer for Mantashe to personally intervene in government affairs. It is possible that Mantashe did not trust anyone in government to confront and stop the person he believes is leaking information.

The timing of the statement is also notable. While Mantashe needed to act speedily to rally the ANC behind Gordhan, it is also possible that he issued the statement on Friday before he could be vetoed. The ANC’s top six officials meet on Mondays and perhaps he knew that not all them would have wanted the ANC to declare such unequivocal support for Gordhan.

A statement issued by the presidency later on Friday certainly had a different take on the matter from what Mantashe said. “The President has noted the rumours and gossip which insinuate some conspiracy against Minister Gordhan. These baseless rumours and gossip will not deter or divert government from moving forward with promoting fiscal consolidation and pushing for inclusive growth and job creation.” The presidency said Zuma did not wish to comment on matters relating to SARS being handled by law enforcement agencies as this may “wittingly or unwittingly impact on their work and independence”.

While the president is dismissing “rumours and gossip”, there is much of this in circulation currently in the media, the ANC and the alliance relating to Gordhan and his battle with SARS commissioner Tom Moyane. While the media propaganda campaign has been underway for some time, Gordhan is now under fire from a faction in the ANC.

It is understood that some ANC leaders, including some of Gordhan’s Cabinet colleagues, believe the finance minister has become “too arrogant”, “too powerful” and needed to be “cut down to size”. Gordhan is also being accused of acting as if he is above the law by not cooperating in the Hawks’ investigation into the alleged “rogue spy unit” operating at SARS.

Daily Maverick has learnt that a concerted campaign to discredit Gordhan has driven some ANC leaders to contact opposition leaders to help engineer his downfall. A senior opposition party leader told Daily Maverick that he was lobbied to submit “difficult” questions to the president about Gordhan so that Zuma would be forced to “disown” the finance minister at the first Questions to the President session in Parliament.

People in the ANC and the alliance say they are being canvassed to oppose Gordhan because the operation of the “rogue spy unit” would only be justifiable if information sourced by the unit had been handed to the president. That the president would need information the tax authority is gathering is outrageous and surely oversteps the bounds of constitutionality.

It is also absurd logic, of course, but South African politics are rarely based on rationality.

Information is also being spread that Zuma had not wanted to appoint Gordhan as finance minister in 2009 but had been coerced into doing so as he was favoured by the alliance partners and acceptable to the markets. This has emerged in the context of Zuma’s comments last week that Van Rooyen was the most qualified person for post of finance minister and his “comrade”. It is being alleged that Zuma has confided to some people that he had never had a close working relationship with Gordhan even when the ANC was in exile.

Gordhan became an activist as a student in the late 1960s and later joined both the South African Communist Party and ANC. In the ANC underground, he worked with leaders such as Zuma’s former spokesperson Mac Maharaj and former SARS deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay, most notably in Operation Vula. During his work in the United Democratic Front, he was accused of being part of what was known as “The Cabal”, an influential faction dominated by Indians operating in several provinces. After the ANC was unbanned, Gordhan played a key role in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) and between 1991 and 1994, he co-chaired the Transitional Executive Council that prepared the country for the first democratic elections.

While Zuma might not have had a “close” relationship with Gordhan, they were certainly “comrades” whose paths crossed frequently. It should also be borne in mind that one of the people Zuma worked closest with in exile was former president Thabo Mbeki. In government, however, their “close” relationship could not be sustained. And ironically, Zuma’s “closest” friends now, the Gupta family, were nowhere near the liberation movement, or South Africa, during the struggle years.

The hit on Gordhan makes little sense, other than that he is rattling too many cages with his cost curtailment programme, adherence to proper procedure and refusal to bend the rules under political pressure. He is also refusing to work with Moyane, who seems to have powerful backers in the shadows.

Had Mantashe not come out in strong support of Gordhan, the campaign against him would have gained momentum. Now his enemies are forced into the shadows and have to regroup. In the days, weeks and months to come, Zuma will be closely watched, particularly by the business sector that is growing increasingly nervous by reports of a raging battle and lack of political support for Gordhan. There could be greater instability and negative consequences for the economy if friction between the Presidency and the Treasury becomes evident.

The best-case scenario is that, once again, Number One’s name is being abused without his consent. The worst-case scenario is too terrifying to contemplate. DM

Photo: South Africa’s Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, gestures during a media briefing after he was reappointed to the position on Sunday night by President Jacob Zuma in Pretoria, South Africa December 14, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.


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