Silence sometimes speaks louder than words. In our cacophonous democracy, few people choose not to speak when they can speak. Those who stay silent are often the ones powerful enough to do so — think Jacob Zuma when it comes to almost any controversial issue. And think Pravin Gordhan, on Monday, who chose to keep quiet on the subject of whether the Gupta family offered the finance ministry to Mcebisi Jonas last year. But even though Gordhan’s not using words, his message is deafening. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
Some politicians get their knickers in a knot when you ask them something they believe is off topic. Communications Minister Faith Muthambi once had a SABC journalist fired for asking about digital terrestrial television rather than the food parcels she was handing out.
Pravin Gordhan is more mature than that. He knows that if there is a burning issue in the room, deal with it first. So when he called his press conference on Monday afternoon about his “investors roadshow” of the previous week, he knew exactly what was coming. And he flagged it up early, kicking off his presentation by saying it was going to be only the about the road show and nothing else. He was met with the laughter he was expecting. He knows satellite dishes don’t appear for economic updates, even the ones about avoiding the ratings downgrades.
After his set spiel, it was question time, and, wonderfully, yours truly was given first pick.
“Minister,” I asked, “The Gupta Family — to your knowledge, did a member of that family, or any of their business representatives, or Jessie Duarte, offer Deputy Minister Mcebisi Jonas the job of Finance Minister?”
Gordhan answered quickly, saying he would respond to the “second part of your question” with a reference to a statement issued by the Treasury, denying its officials had leaked the claim about Jonas to the Sunday Times.
Being obstinate, I pushed again. “And the first part of my question?”
“My silence tells it all,” he said.
There seemed to be a faint smile on his face as he said it. He knew very well the response it would evoke. And you could feel it around the entire room. Here was the responsible minister, refusing to deny a story that could literally, if certain dynamics came together, lead to the recall of the sitting president.
But more was to come. He was pushed again, by Power FM’s Hajra Omarjee, who asked if we should his silence as confirmation. He came back: “I have no personal knowledge of this… there is nothing I can tell you… when there’s anything further to add, we’ll let you know.”
So, that is the cryptic clue. Let the speculation begin.
It’s probably important to note here that whether the Guptas’ offer to Jonas is true or not, it is to Gordhan’s benefit to respond like this. If it is not true, the longer the speculation continues, the more power to him, and the less to Zuma and his merry men. Such is the urban middle-class perception of Zuma and the Guptas right now that many people will believe it straight off.
And if it is true, it’s still to Gordhan’s benefit to continue playing with us for as long as possible. It gives Zuma’s opponents more time to plot and plan, and Gordhan could be the one with an A-bomb to play with.
But Gordhan hasn’t got it all his own way in this fight. He’s facing the problem of the Hawks. They are pestering him to answer those 27 questions about the so-called “rogue” SARS unit that is the cause of all of this trouble.
Technically, the Hawks have the upper hand: they have the law, and they are, after all, the police. Gordhan’s play has been to keep all of these issues in the media. It’s been effective so far. Certainly, the Hawks extended what looked like an ultimatum to Gordhan to answer those questions by Monday afternoon, or else. Now, should they try to enforce that “or else” there will be hell to pay — the uproar would be immense.
But it’s not a tactic that can work forever. The media has a short attention span. It’s only a matter of time before something else comes along, and this is a complex issue, which means it can be relegated to the business media quite quickly. Gordhan would not want that to happen.
In the meantime, he’s again upped the ante against the Hawks, giving Hawks’ boss Berning Ntlemeza a dilemma. Ntlemeza could try to have Gordhan arrested, but that would have severe and immediate consequences: Gwede Mantashe would probably pay Gordhan’s bail money, and the rand would tank, undoing all of the good work done since Nhlanhla Nene’s sacking. And the middle-class revolt against that would be massive. Ntlemeza could threaten Gordhan again, but that is the same as doing nothing. Which means, in the end, that he will have to face the humiliation of waiting until Gordhan is good and ready to answer these questions.
But that, frankly, is the humiliation you deserve if you are doing the work of a political hit squad.
Where does the economy fit into these political machinations? There was something in the room at the JSE on Monday between the people from business, labour and government that this reporter hasn’t really seen before. It was a sense of mission, of being part of a team, of — whisper — trust. In the past it’s been hard to ignore a sense of joint frustration between the different sectors. Business has perhaps felt that government wasn’t really an honest broker, because of the ANC’s natural bias towards Cosatu. There was none of that sense on Monday. It seemed people genuinely were working together.
And Gordhan is keen to harness this common purpose. He wants everyone to work together, to keep this process going. Sometimes there’s nothing like being a group of South Africans abroad to re-affirm one’s South Africanness, and that clearly worked for the partipants in Gordhan’s roadshow.
But there is a lot to do. It will take more than just good vibes to keep our ratings above “junk”. It will take real leadership, working together, and a united effort. Some parts of business, labour and government are keen. But the most important person in all of this? The person who still matters right now?
He remains silent. DM
Photo: Pravin Gordon at the press conference on Monday 14 March by Greg Nicolson.
Ireland's population has still not recovered from the Great Famine.