South Africa

Master of his own demise: How Zuma turned Gordhan into the political victim he once was

By Ranjeni Munusamy 26 August 2016

President Jacob Zuma is becoming the biggest enemy of the nation he leads. He is seen as a danger to the country’s stability and interests. In the words of ANC veteran Sipho Pityana, he is “no longer honourable” and “untrustworthy”. Zuma has laughed off accountability for his scandals and abuses. He might even evade responsibility for the ANC’s terrible performance in the local government elections. But the hounding of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan may be a step too far. Gordhan has become what Jacob Zuma was a decade ago – a victim of state security agencies, being pursued for political ends. We all know how that story ended. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

President Jacob Zuma really ought to know better. After all, he devised the playbook on political victimhood that took him from the dock to the Presidency.

On Thursday, Zuma tried to wash his hands of culpability for the Hawks’ renewed harassment of the finance minister. You will need to search hard for people who believe him. The reason is because it is him, Jacob Zuma, who believed 13 years ago that the President of South Africa had a vendetta against him and therefore the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) had pursued corruption charges against him. It was him, Jacob Zuma, who believed that the President of South Africa had the power to instigate the investigation for political purposes and could stop his persecution. His defence in both his corruption and rape cases was that there was a political conspiracy against him.

When Zuma was facing charges, the President of South Africa was Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki consistently denied that he had anything to do with the cases against Zuma. He maintained that if Zuma had a case to answer, the law should take its course. Zuma, of course, did not believe him. His lawyer Michael Hulley’s affidavit in the spy tapes case states that Zuma was offered a political deal by Mbeki. The terms of the deal, according to Hulley, was that if Zuma resigned, he would not be prosecuted and would receive R20 million.   

The media statement issued by the Presidency on Thursday, stating that Zuma did not have the powers stop the investigation of Pravin Gordhan and former South African Revenue Service (SARS) officials Ivan Pillay and Johann van Loggerenberg, could have been issued anytime between December 2002 and September 2008. That was when another president was trying to fend off accusations that he was the mastermind behind a case that rocked the country.

Thursday’s statement came as a result of mounting public pressure against the president after the Hawks ordered Gordhan, Pillay and Van Loggerenberg to present themselves at their offices for warning statements. Gordhan did not accede to the Hawks’ and instead attended the funeral service of former Sports Minister Makhenkesi Stofile in the Eastern Cape. Pillay and Van Loggerenberg, as well as former SARS commissioner Oupa Magashula, were interviewed by the Hawks in connection with the establishment of a special investigating unit at the revenue service.

A group of civil society organisations and prominent South Africans, including retired Constitutional Court Judge Johann Kriegler and human rights and Rivonia Trial advocate George Bizos gathered outside the Hawks’ offices in support of the former SARS officials and Gordhan. While strong statements were made by those gathered against the Hawks’ misguided investigation and the political agenda driving them, hundreds of kilometres away at the University of Fort Hare in Alice, Zuma and the ANC were being eviscerated in the presence of the ANC top brass.

The turning tide against Zuma and the ANC was evident at struggle stalwart Makhenkesi Stofile’s funeral, where speakers lamented the decay of the ANC, which they said had been of great concern for the deceased former minister and diplomat. Former foreign affairs director-general Sipho Pityana roasted Zuma, saying he had “humiliated our organisation and undermined everything that we represent”.

Watch: Sipho Pityana’s speech at Makhenkesi Stofile’s funeral

In the presence of four of the ANC’s top six leaders, Cyril Ramaphosa, Gwede Mantashe, Baleka Mbete and Zweli Mkhize, former president Kgalema Motlanthe, as well as a host of Cabinet ministers, Pityana told how Stofile had yearned for the organisation to return to its former glory. “The reality is that some of the leaders have been co-opted to be on the eating trough,” he said. “So we must ask the question: Do we have leaders of the revolution, or do we have full-time thieves and looters?”

Pityana said he would have pleaded with Zuma to resign had he been present. “When the Constitutional Court makes a finding that you broke your oath of office, what it means is that you are honourable no longer; what it means is that you are untrustworthy.” He said the ANC national executive committee (NEC) decision to take collective responsibility for the poor performance at the polls was “not good enough”.

“A person who takes responsibility falls on their sword,” Pityana said.

His fiery speech drew applause and a standing ovation from the large crowd and prompted Ramaphosa to say:

“We are listening, we are reflecting, and we are considering, and I guess I can say we perhaps needed to go beyond saying we take collective responsibility and actually say we take individual and personal responsibility as the leaders of the ANC. Speaking for myself, as the deputy president of the ANC, I am prepared to say I do take personal and individual responsibility.”

While Pityana’s speech has been the most stinging rebuke of the ANC and its leader recently, his was by no means an isolated voice. There is increasing realisation in the ANC and its alliance partners, particularly after the local government elections, that Zuma is leading the organisation down a path of destruction. While the NEC is reluctant to act against him, there is growing support for the idea of a special national conference to open the ANC’s problems to its broad membership for discussion.

The investigation against Gordhan is churning up anger both in the ANC and in society. ANC members and former Umkhonto we Sizwe commanders who know and worked with Pillay and Gordhan from the days of the liberation struggle are increasingly enraged by their constant harassment by the Hawks. And just like when Zuma was under pressure from the prosecuting authority, support is building for Gordhan.

The summoning of Gordhan and the former SARS officials to appear before the Hawks appeared to be a stealth move this week when nobody was expecting it. It was probably not expected that news would break beforehand and that the currency would go tumbling provoking fresh outrage from society. The decision by Gordhan not to present himself to the Hawks was also probably unanticipated.

The intention was to lock Gordhan into the process based on unfounded and flimsy charges, which they could then drag out for however long they want. This immediately gives Gordhan the status of being a suspect in a criminal investigation, however illogical. His decision not to participate in the Hawks’ course of action forces them to clarify the case against him if they wish to proceed with a prosecution.

Had things gone according to the Hawks’ plan, Zuma could have decided to announce his anticipated Cabinet reshuffle and removed Gordhan from his position as it would be undesirable to have a suspect or accused person heading up the finance ministry. As things turned out, Gordhan dug in his heels, made an unequivocal statement that he wants to be allowed to do his job, and Zuma has been forced to “express his full support and confidence” in the minister.

While there are similarities between Zuma’s previous experiences and what is happening to Gordhan now, there are also major differences. Gordhan and his former SARS colleagues did not accept money from anyone, whereas Zuma lived off his benefactors, one of whom was convicted of corruption and fraud over their relationship. Zuma has a litany of scandals hanging over him, could have his corruption case reinstated and continues to draw controversy, including through his questionable relationship with the Gupta family. Gordhan has not compromised himself in any way.

When Zuma was fired as deputy president, it had a major impact on the ANC but not really on the country. Zuma’s fiddling with the finance ministry in December had devastating consequences for the economy and the harassment of Gordhan is causing havoc with the currency. If Gordhan were to be fired, the negative impact on the economy, the cost of living and people’s pension funds would be immeasurable. There is likely to be severe economic and social instability.   

Despite being a master strategist in the past, Zuma is heavily miscalculating the situation at present. His political currency and support is plummeting; Gordhan’s is not. When Zuma’s comrades rallied to support him, they did so because of his political stature at the time and because they believed he was unfairly targeted. Gordhan is widely respected and admired, and whatever happens to him now impacts on millions of South Africans in various ways.

There really is no choice between the two.

Whatever agenda might be driving the hit on Gordhan is not taking into account the backlash that will come. And when that happens, those who have aligned themselves to Zuma will flee to save themselves politically. As was evidenced by what Ramaphosa said at Stofile’s funeral, everyone is being forced to listen and reflect. And their resultant actions cannot be anticipated.

Zuma will be away from the country for some time over the next few weeks for multilateral meetings and foreign visits. He had better use the time to think long and hard about the events of the past few weeks and the anger building against him. He should not make the same mistake as his predecessor and underestimate the wrath of the people.

Zuma should know by now that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. DM

Photo: Then South African and ruling African National Congress (ANC) President Thabo Mbeki (L) and ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma (R) arrive for the opening address of the 52nd ANC National Conference at the University of Limpopo in Polokwane, South Africa, 16 December 2007.  EPA/JON HRUSA


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