It was somewhat curious that Speaker Baleka Mbete acceded to a request from the Democratic Alliance (DA) to pose an urgent question to Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane on his false claim that Cabinet had approved his recommendation for a judicial enquiry into South Africa’s banks. Perhaps there was a good explanation for what happened or, just maybe, the ANC was ready to hold him accountable. It turned out to be neither. But one person who did come out swinging in Parliament on Wednesday was Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, who proudly declared his state of “uncapture” and threw some punches at his captured comrades. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Mosebenzi Zwane had five days to contemplate his massive blunder that caused the Presidency, Cabinet and the ANC to balk and distance themselves from him as if he was seafood that had been left out of the fridge for a week. The Mineral Resources Minister had issued a statement on Friday, lying to the nation that Cabinet had approved the recommendations of his inter-ministerial committee investigating the closure of the Guptas’ bank accounts. The committee recommended that President Jacob Zuma appoint a judicial enquiry with a wide scope that included considering the powers of the South African Reserve Bank and the establishment of a state bank.
What ensued was not a simple drop and roll spin job by government. The Presidency was emphatic that Zwane’s statement was rubbish and issued in his “personal capacity”.
“He does not speak on behalf of Cabinet and the contents of his statement do not reflect the position or views of Cabinet, the Presidency or government.”
The ANC also climbed in, calling Zwane’s statement “outrageous, appalling and shocking”:
“This type of ill-discipline has brought the name of government into disrepute. We call on President Zuma to discipline Minister Zwane because this kind of reckless and careless statement that sends wrong signals about our Cabinet,” ANC national spokesperson Zizi Kodwa told News24.
So five days later, you would expect Zwane to have found a way to wade out of the mess, or it least be contrite. Speaker Baleka Mbete made the extraordinary move, after consultation with the Leader of Government Business Cyril Ramaphosa, to allow DA MP David Maynier to ask Zwane whether he would resign because of his conduct. Because it was so out of the ordinary, such that the urgent question was dealt with first at Wednesday’s sitting, there was hope that perhaps the ANC had learnt its lesson about protecting outrageous behaviour by members of the executive and would allow Zwane to be held accountable.
Zwane was never going to fall on his sword, so perhaps the question should have been phrased differently. Maynier should have demanded an explanation for Zwane deliberately misleading the nation and his issuing of a statement falsifying a resolution of Cabinet.
In his reply, Zwane said only Cabinet could deal with the issue and that it was the president’s job to decide on ministerial positions. “The Honourable Maynier cannot ask me whether I’ll resign or not,” he said. Then he went off on a tangent, justifying his recommendation for a judicial enquiry which, he said, Maynier “seems to be problemising”.
While so deep in the dwang, Zwane continued to do the Gupta family’s bidding, saying banks should not make “unilateral decisions to close accounts”.
“This matter cannot be left hanging,” Zwane said. “Since then (the closure of the Guptas’ accounts)‚ many other people have come forward to say their accounts have been closed and subjected to this kind of abuse.”
As Minister of Mineral Resources, it is strange that people would be writing to him with complaints about the banks. This was obviously an attempt to make the Guptas’ grievance appear to be a widespread problem, thereby warranting scrutiny of the banks.
This only opened him up to further condemnation, with Maynier calling him “an embarrassment” and a “hired gun for the Guptas”.
Members of the opposition asked Zwane repeatedly in supplementary questions why he had lied.
The Inkatha Freedom Party’s Narend Singh asked Zwane about his role in the Gupta dairy farm project in the Free State and facilitating the landing of a plane carrying Gupta wedding guests at Waterkloof Air Force Base.
Still, Zwane was able to get away with non-answers, with Mbete protecting him. ANC MP Bheki Hadebe also came to Zwane’s rescue, saying he need not answer because of the principle of “separation of powers”. So while Parliament is required to hold the executive accountable, the ANC twisted the meaning of the rule to shield their man.
Mbete had to bear the DA’s wrath on behalf of Zwane, with DA chief whip John Steenhuisen calling her a “disgrace” and “more of an embarrassment than the minister”.
The Guptas loomed large over the parliamentary sitting, with Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown also being questioned by the Economic Freedom Fighters’ Floyd Shivambu about her relationship and meetings with the family. Brown said she had met the oldest Gupta brother 15 years ago when she was an MEC in the Western Cape and said she had never done business with the family or visited them at their Saxonwold home. Brown also denied that people were appointed to the boards of state-owned companies because of their political connections.
One person who did seem to enjoy the question session in Parliament was Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, who had just returned from the G20 Summit in China. He appeared particularly pleased to respond to a question about Zwane’s proposed judicial enquiry into the banks, seeing that this was his portfolio.
“Banking regulation is part of the brief that the finance ministry has,” Gordhan said. “We are compliant with international practices. Our regulations are as best as can be.”
Further negating the rationale for a judicial enquiry, Gordhan said:
“We also have the Banking Ombudsman who has certain powers which perhaps need to be reviewed if there are customers who have issues with the banks.”
Members of the opposition applauded Gordhan’s response, while there was an awkward silence in the ANC benches. Gordhan went on to say that he did not refuse to participate in the inter-ministerial committee on the Guptas’ accounts but that logistics did not make it possible for him to attend.
In Zwane’s statement on Friday, he had made a point of mentioning that the minister of finance had not attended any of the committee meetings. There is clearly no love lost between the two, as well as a variance of agendas, with Gordhan saying that instead of being concerned with the wealthy, focus should be on people who are marginalised in the economy and who struggle to get financing to start a business.
In response to a question from Shivambu about whether the National Treasury had been “captured”, Gordhan said:
“As a representative and as the head of the National Treasury, I stand here as a free, uncaptured individual – by anybody! Our job as the National Treasury is to serve South Africa as a whole.”
On the issue of state capture, Gordhan said:
“The facts are fairly clear about where the influences lie and what the purpose of these influences is. It is, at the end of the day, advantaging certain groups of people to the disadvantage of 55-million citizens.”
The question session expired before Gordhan was able to respond to a question about whether the Hawks’ investigation into the South African Revenue Service “rogue unit” was politically motivated and an attack on the Treasury. But in response to another question, Gordhan said:
“This political nonsense around myself and National Treasury is not in the national interest.”
On the new South African Airways (SAA) board, Gordhan said composition was as a result of discussion and compromises and “some good individuals” had been appointed. He said Dudu Myeni would continue to serve on the board as chairwoman for a year to ensure a “proper handover”, and that a new chair would then take over. Gordhan said:
“I am going to insist SAA board must behave in accordance with corporate governance rules and that it is no longer business as usual. If there is any bullying I am subjected to, I will come back and report to you.”
The last line might not be as tongue-in-cheek as it appeared to be. Gordhan has realised that public accountability and support are his biggest strengths and the best way to fight off his detractors. He also seems to be emboldened, taking a firm stance rather than dodging contentious issues. Perhaps there was some straight talking while he was in China with President Zuma. Or maybe he has just decided to stand his ground irrespective of the consequences.
“It is up to us to get the politics of this country right in order to show to the world that we understand the link between the political environment and the economic environment,” Gordhan said when asked about building confidence in the economy.
Getting the politics right is a big ask with so many fractures and agendas as play. For as long as the “capture” of state institutions and government leaders continues, South Africa remains in jeopardy.
It remains to be seen whether Zuma will act against his “captured” minister for misrepresenting Cabinet on behalf of his friends or will instead fire the minister trying to counter the wave of state capture on behalf of South Africa’s citizens citizens. DM
Photo: Mosebenzi Zwane (GCIS), Pravin Gordhan (Greg Nicolson)
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