South Africa

South Africa

Abrahams’ backfire: Gordhan charge leads to anti-Zuma front

Oh Shaun, what have you done? The National Director of Public Prosecutions has got himself into such a pickle. He had hoped to ingratiate himself with President Jacob Zuma and his inner circle by putting Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan in the dock. Not only is the fraud case against Gordhan likely to collapse but the announcement of the charges has mobilised a massive support campaign. Opposition parties, civil society, veterans, business, public servants and a number of people within the ANC and the alliance are rallying behind Gordhan. Abrahams has two weeks to undo the mess as a “Zunami”-type campaign develops a life of its own. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Poor Shaun Abrahams. He genuinely believed he would be seen as a credible and uncontroversial National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP). He also believed when he announced Pravin Gordhan would be charged that he would win people over by projecting himself as a fearless corruption-buster.

“The days of disrespecting the NPA (National Prosecuting Authority) are over. The days of not holding senior government officials accountable are over,” Abrahams said at a media briefing last week.

Not quite.

While the NPA has been a contested and scandal-prone organisation, its collaboration with the Hawks to pursue Gordhan has located it firmly within the Zuma-Gupta or “Zupta” nexus. For as long as Abrahams and his crew avoid charging President Jacob Zuma for corruption and continue their hot pursuit of Gordhan, there is no possible way the NPA could be seen as unbiased and credible.   

But Abrahams has created another problem he did not foresee. His announcement that Gordhan and former South African Revenue Services (SARS) officials Ivan Pillay and Oupa Magashula would be charged did not only turn him into Public Enemy Number Two (move over, Hlaudi) – Number One remains uncontested, of course – it unwittingly shaped a campaign that has been struggling to get off the ground.

Since Zuma fired Nhlanhla Nene in December, there have been several incarnations of a “Zuma Must Fall” campaign. The first version was marches in Johannesburg and Cape Town that did not receive much support. After the Constitutional Court found that Zuma had violated the Constitution in the way he handled the Public Protector’s report on Nkandla, various civil society organisations and some struggle veterans tried to get another initiative off the ground to pressure the ANC to recall Zuma.

After the ANC lost ground in the local government elections, there was some disgruntlement in party structures. This was particularly over Zuma’s contribution to the ANC’s significant loss of support. Yet the ANC national executive committee (NEC) claimed “collective responsibility” for the party’s performance and went about putting out fires to kill signs of dissent. But when businessman Sipho Pityana launched a devastating attack on Zuma at the funeral of ANC stalwart Makhenkesi Stofile in late August, he ignited a new discussion. Pityana and other former senior ANC members Trevor Manuel and Barbara Hogan are working on a new campaign called “Save SA” to pressure Zuma into stepping down.

All these initiatives did not really catch fire. The one big problem is that they did not have resonance inside ANC structures, which must ultimately take the decision to remove Zuma from office.

Zuma’s relationship with the Gupta family has caused anger and unease for several years. When the family exploited their proximity to the president to land the jet carrying wedding guests at Waterkloof Air Force Base in April 2013, many stories started to emerge about how the Guptas interfere in state affairs and bully people to favour their businesses. But nobody could do anything to stop it as Zuma fobbed off questions about his relationship with them. Only when Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas made a public statement exposing how the Guptas offered to promote him to finance minister did the momentum around the “state capture” issue pick up.

Zuma’s supporters in the NEC shut down an ANC probe into state capture, and for a while it looked as if the truth might never be known about what the Guptas’ got up to. Thanks to an investigation by the Office of the Public Protector, the issue has again under scrutiny, although Zuma and his friends are trying hard to suppress former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s preliminary report.   

Pravin Gordhan is the person who now pulls all these issues and initiatives together. From the time the Hawks sent Gordhan a list of 27 questions, a few days before he delivered the Budget Speech in February, anger has been building at the attempt to hijack the National Treasury. After what happened to Nene in December, there have been fears that Gordhan too would be removed and replaced by a stooge of the Guptas.

The matter died down after the police said in May that they were not investigating Gordhan. But straight after the August elections, the Hawks, working secretly with NPA officials, have been trying to put together a case against Gordhan and former SARS officials relating to the operation of a special intelligence unit at the Revenue Service.

Abrahams made it clear last week that they were still sprinkling fairy dust on that investigation to try to make it grow wings. In the meantime, the NPA decided to prosecute Gordhan over Pillay’s retirement package.

Abrahams and the NPA made two consecutive blunders last week. First the announcement that Gordhan, Magashula and Pillay had to appear in court on November 2 and then the serving of two summonses on Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema knitted together a support campaign that could turn into a nightmare for the NPA and Zuma.

As was seen with former president Thabo Mbeki, opposition to him only took shape when Zuma emerged as a figurehead for Mbeki’s enemies to assemble around. Abrahams has created a similar situation with civil society, veterans, opposition parties including the EFF, the business sector and people within the ANC and the South African Communist Party pledging their support for Gordhan.

Even the diffident Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa crawled out from under his shell and released a statement backing Gordhan.

Gordhan’s own fight-back has increased the pressure on his detractors and earned him further support. On Friday, Gordhan applied to the Pretoria High Court for a declaratory order so he does not have to intervene on the Guptas’ behalf to get their bank accounts in South Africa reopened. The application blew the lid on the Guptas’ “suspicious” transactions to the value of R6.8 billion and allows the banks and the Financial Intelligence Centre to provide details about the Gupta companies to the court. 

The Guptas were disorientated by Gordhan’s sudden move and are taking strain. Oakbay chief executive officer Nazeem Howa resigned with immediate effect on Monday for “health reasons”. The Guptas and their companies are now sans a fire-fighter as the Public Protector’s report and Gordhan’s court application have the potential to blast open their whole murky empire.

As things stand, all roads lead to the City of Tshwane on November 1 and 2. Zuma and Cooperative Governance Minister Des van Rooyen’s applications to interdict the Public Protector’s preliminary report will be heard in court on Tuesday, November 1. The next day will be Gordhan, Magashula and Pillay’s court appearance. The first day’s events are likely to fuel momentum for Gordhan’s support campaign, which is also gaining support from public servants in the capital.

There is no doubt that in the marches planned in support of Gordhan, anger will be directed at the Hawks, the NPA, Abrahams and ultimately Zuma. Malema, who will be one of the march leaders, will be especially fiery as he is infuriated by his own summonses.

Abrahams has now seen the storm clouds gathering and is desperately trying to backtrack on the case against Gordhan. He invited representations from the three accused so that he could reconsider the charges.

Gordhan said last week that he would not be making representations to Abrahams to drop the charges as he did not believe he would get a “fair hearing”. While Pillay and Magashula’s lawyers did make representations, Gordhan made it clear he was not interested.

Abrahams asked again in a letter to Gordhan’s lawfirm. A curt letter from Gordhan’s lawyer Tebogo Malatji to Abrahams said his client did not intend to make representations “for the considerations previously articulated”. In other words, Gordhan did not trust Abrahams and was not prepared to go on bended knees to have the case against him withdrawn.

Malatji also referred to a submission from Freedom Under Law and the Helen Suzman Foundation to Abrahams setting out in detail that there was no basis to charge the minister and why he should drop the case.

“We invite you to withdraw the charges against our client in light of the grounds set out therein,” was Malatji’s helpful advice to Abrahams. 

The subtext was: “You have an avenue to wriggle out of the mess you created. Use it.”

Gordhan is clearly not prepared to throw Abrahams a lifeline.

In his enthusiasm to curry favour from his boss, Abrahams sprung to charge Gordhan without thinking of the consequences. The support campaign for Gordhan could easily morph into a mass movement against the president – similar to the “Zunami” that carried him to power.

Gordhan will present a difficult Medium Term Budget Policy Statement in Parliament next week with fraud charges hanging over him. He will be dreading it, considering the juggling act he will have to perform to find funds for higher education. But Gordhan is now seen as a crusader against corruption in a hostile government and the figurehead of the fight-back against Zuma and the Guptas.

If Abrahams is smart and can read the political atmosphere, he should backpedal quickly. Or he could be the guy who foolishly greased the wheels for a mass campaign against his own boss. DM

Photo: National Director of Public Prosecutions Shaun Abrahams gestures during a media briefing in Pretoria, South Africa, May 23, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko; Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan (Greg Nicolson)