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Op-Ed: Truth (Lies) and Long-term Consequences of the p...

South Africa

South Africa, Politics

Op-Ed: Truth (Lies) and Long-term Consequences of the probe into Gordhan

It is becoming more and more clear that the decision, ostensibly by the National Prosecuting Authority, to issue a summons for Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan is going to have a whole host of consequences. It is useful to divide those consequences into short-term and long-term. Some have already been felt – the rand has lost significant value, civil society is rising up against the Zuma administration, almost all South Africans are poorer than they were on Monday. But some of the longer-term consequences are still harder to fathom. Even if they are likely to be more important, because they relate to the integrity or lack thereof of our institutions, and to the future of the ANC. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

The situation around Pravin Gordhan, President Jacob Zuma, the NPA and the Hawks has never been simple. As a result, the fog of the war that is under way has managed, in the minds of some, to obscure what is really happening. There is a tendency among people to try to let this help them off the hook of having to actually make a decision about who they believe. They say it may be true that Zuma is trying to capture the Treasury, but it may also be true that Gordhan has a case to answer, and thus the case must continue. Of course, once a summons has been issued the case must continue, and no argument can really be made that says Gordhan should ignore the summons or not obey the law. He himself is certainly not making such an argument.

But the danger is that that line of thinking will feed into the next debate which is surely on its way – should Gordhan resign from his position. The arguments made by some will be strong, that there are standing ANC resolutions that someone charged in a criminal court should resign from the offices they hold, that he has a duty to set an example, etc. But, as former Constitutional Court judge Zak Yacoob explained on the Midday Report on Wednesday, this is no ordinary case. We have now reached a situation in our country where the fact that a process has been followed does not mean it is also a legitimate one. There are now just to many compromised people in the positions that allow them to hide behind their institutions.

To put it another way, if you had to face a disciplinary hearing in your workplace, and you discovered that it was going to be chaired by your greatest rival, someone who had previously mistreated you, someone who you know to be a liar, you would object. Gordhan is in exactly that position. The head of the Hawks, the unit that “investigated” him, has been found by a judge to be a liar. The person who made the decision to charge him, Advocate Shaun Abrahams, has previously said that two people (Nomgcobo Jiba and Lawrence Mrwebi) who have been removed from the roll of advocates (they are appealing) because of decisions they have made should be thanked “for upholding the integrity of the institution as well as theirs”. Thankfully in this case, a judge will make any decision about guilt or innocence. But it is important to remember, in this fog, exactly who we are dealing with.

That requires us to make decisions about who we believe and who we do not. We can no longer just “trust the system”, we have to interrogate who is running that system.

The next question of course is whether Zuma will “act”, by which we mean, fire, Gordhan, using this charge as a pretext. It is a difficult question to answer. Of course, the fact that he has been summonsed strengthens any such argument. But, as always, this is not really about the strength of argument, it’s about politics. There is probably nothing that outside society, investors, civil society organisations, oppositions parties can do to stop Zuma from doing this. Power here resides in his hands alone, and he is there after being elected by the ANC.

There is one simple equation that is difficult to solve, though. In December Zuma removed Nhlanhla Nene and appointed Des van Rooyen. Then, he did not have the political strength to make the appointment stick, and the ANC forced him to appoint Gordhan.

Does Zuma then have more power now? Surely not, since then we have been through the Gupta state capture claims, the Nkandla ruling and decisions around the reinstatement of the corruption charges against him, capped by the disastrous loss of support in Local Government elections, that left three more metros (and R150 billion in budgets) out of the ANC’s hands. That should mean that Zuma cannot move Gordhan and hope to simply get away with it without he himself being hurt. However, and here lies an interesting argument, this time it is not so much about his absolute power, but about his power relative to that of the ANC within the South African context. And it seems the party itself is actually in a much weaker position than it was back in December. To listen to its public statements, to see the silence of Gwede Mantashe (who is in China), to see how its request for people to just shut up about it has been ignored, is to realise ANC’s shocking impotence here.

That could suggest that Zuma does have a window to remove Gordhan, and to make it stick.

This then leads us to a much more interesting question – what does the Gordhan issue do to the ANC? It must deepen the divisions within the party. It is surely the case that makes it harder to unify the party, and that then leads us to ask if it almost makes a future split inevitable. Professor Lesiba Teffo, a political analyst at Unisa, told the Midday Report on Wednesday that the “split has already happened, we are just waiting to formalise it”. Those are strong words. Before the NPA’s announcement, it may have been impossible to utter them. Now it seems entirely possible that that could be the case in reality.

It’s been said before, here and elsewhere, that the ANC’s leadership election next year could determine the entire future of the country, whether the party retains power in 2019 or not. Now the question becomes a more fundamental one – is the current ANC actually capable of electing a leader at all, without splitting? This time down through the middle, a much more dangerous split than in 2007, or 2012.

Unfortunately, that is not the only long-term consequence we have to contemplate. The poison of all of this has infected every single institution which is dealing with the case, except for the judiciary itself.

As we have seen with the Public Protector’s office, the man leading the institution is incredibly important to the public perception of that institution. And when an institution is weak, like that office was under Advocate Lawrence Mushwana (who took a bonus of over R7-million at the end of his term and was immediately appointed chair of the Human Rights Commission), people tend to ignore it. Ignoring the NPA is a serious problem. It is the foundation on which the criminal justice system stands. This is causing damage to perceptions of the NPA, and thus its legitimacy is massive.

And it is entirely the fault of the people running these institutions. In December last year someone took the decision to sell, at a huge loss, our entire strategic oil reserve. This is surely a criminal act. But it has been hidden by a hollow argument that the stock was being “rotated”, which no experts supported. Someone made money. Lots of it. Where is the investigation into that, Mr Ntlemeza? And if there is no investigation into that, how can we trust the investigation into Gordhan? With regard to the NPA, it’s worth repeating how the perceptions of many would be changed if the person who made the decision to issue the summons had the stature or probity of a Vusi Pikoli or say a Dikgang Moseneke. If that were the case, it would have been Gordhan under pressure, and not the NPA.

There are many dynamics at play relating to this decision to charge Gordhan. It is almost impossible to know what happens next. And the risks to everyone have grown. Gordhan is now more at risk than he was, but so is Zuma. The NPA and the Hawks are now at risk too – they could find that a judge or a magistrate is so scathing of their behaviour that their leaders become the subject of applications to find them “not fit and proper” to remain in their positions (Ntlemeza of course already faces such an application).

But the people who are most at risk are those who would suffer the consequences of a slowing economy, and a weaker currency. Which is everyone. Don’t be fooled. It’s not the rich who can no longer afford an electric gadget on Amazon who suffer. The bread price goes up as a direct result of all of this, because we buy maize based on international prices. And we are now in a situation where the man “deployed” to be president appears to be beyond the control of those who “deployed” him. And the consequences are going to be dire indeed. DM

Photo: South Africa’s Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan speaks to President Jacob Zuma (R) during closing remarks during the 5th BRICS Summit in Durban, March 27, 2013. REUTERS/Rogan Ward


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