South Africa

South Africa, World, Politics

Reporter’s Davos notebook: A tête-à-tête with Pravin, Cyril and Maria

It is not very often that a South African journalist gets any face time with Cyril Ramaphosa. Our deputy president, the man who many want to take over from our current leader, is someone who, perhaps understandably, keeps away from prying questions. But, as the leader of Team SA in Davos, he had no choice but to do a round of interviews, even with the pesky independent media. Meanwhile, Pravin Gordhan was doing his thing, talking up the country and explaining why he’s got nothing to fear from the Guptas. And, in the afternoon after a climb up an incredibly steep hill, a chat with Maria Ramos, who probably understands the relationship between business and government better than anybody. It was Day Three at Davos. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Scruffy journalists don’t get invited to many good parties any more. Which politician in their right mind would want such person around when there is wine on the table. But, Brand SA being the excellent hosts that they are, we were all welcome to talk to politicians and business people, and yes, have a glass of un-cold white wine. It was a cheerful bunch, with lots of gossip and political discussion on offer.

Into this crowd walked Pravin Gordhan. Somehow, he never looks cold. Instead, he strides in confidently, fully aware of himself and his position in this crowd. He was quick to nod yes to an interview request. Into a separate room we dashed, to where my colleague had set up a camera and a tripod. There was a slightly awkward moment when we realised the SABC were about to film an interview with Jeff Radebe on literally the same spot. It was the backdrop, a huge Brand SA logo, that was the attraction.

Once that was sorted out, in we jumped. Gordhan, of course, is always properly confident about our economy. He started by pointing out how difficult life was in the rest of the world, and how there was going to be instability in parts of the developed world. He didn’t use the words “Donald” or “Trump”, but he didn’t need to. There was a lovely line that “if you compare the political noise elsewhere in the world, compared to anything that we might be doing for the rest of the year, we would pale into insignificance”.

As a radio interviewer you don’t want to give away a question, or give a politician an out, but sometimes, in my experience, you get more from them if you start a question by saying “I won’t push you on this but…”. Your guest/interviewee/victim immediately starts to relax, and will say something interesting. In this case, I used the tactic to ask if there was anything Gordhan feared that could come out of his court application against the Gupta family. He wants a court to rule that he cannot force the big banks to continue to do business with them. Or, if you prefer, he found a way to get out into the open that fact that they’ve been involved in R6.8-billion worth of suspicious transactions.

Gordhan, of course, is not scared. Or certainly not of the Guptas. “Not at all… there’s a simple question involved – can we intervene in the relationship between banks and their clients?” And then the point that of course, this is what the courts are for, to settle disputes.

And then, on to the public protector’s interim/provisional/leaked report on the Absa bailout. Gordhan makes a nice point: “Let’s be transparent. But leaks are not good. So the public protector owes us an explanation as to why a provisional report where there may well be factual as well as other errors was leaked to the media.” Put plainly, he’s worried about how certain impressions could take root, based on “facts” that are not facts. I mentioned that earlier in the day Joe Biden (who depending on when you read this may or may not be Vice-President of the US anymore) had made the point that “facts matter”. Gordhan, of course, agrees, “But they should matter more to the media, and it’s people like yourselves who are going to find great difficulty in distinguishing between fake and not fake.”

Paid Twitter, he sees you.

At this moment, Ramaphosa arrived, and Gorhan as a matter of protocol had to dash off. What followed was one of those wonderfully warm South African moments. A reporter for another broadcaster asked him for an interview, fully knowing he had to say no. Then she said, “Can I at least get a hug then?” Everyone laughed as he dashed over, hugged her and dashed off. It was warmly, proudly, and humanly South African. And very, very un-Swiss.

At this stage, it was time to do what every reporter does while away from home in the evening. And head off to the local for a quick and frightfully expensive beer with good and enlivening company.

And then Thursday morning was upon us, warm and sunny. The maximum was -2C. Positively balmy. I actually saw a puddle of water on a road that had not yet frozen. It’s the first I’ve seen here.

Sometimes being a journalist involves a lot of luck. I arrived at the headquarters of Team SA just in time to see Ramaphosa’s car pull up. And for the first time in recorded history I asked for an interview with him, and was actually granted it. Business Day Deputy Editor Carol Paton has had an interview request in for Ramaphosa for about a decade. She must have been less than happy to find that her boss, Tim Cohen, was granted one too.

But, Ramaphosa’s people are sometimes unmanageable. They, or rather one in particular, tried to put all sorts of boundaries around the interview, “no domestic politics man, we’re on foreign soil… we didn’t come here to talk ANC, you can talk to him about ANC back home”. Oh grow up. Don’t patronise the man, he can look after himself. And someone like myself would never have focused on internal ANC politics in an interview like this if we ever got the chance to do it at home. And, just while we’re here, don’t lie to us either. We all know you’re not going to give us an interview back home. So stop it.

There are certain roles people play in these situations. The role of gate-keeper is to gate-keep. The role of a reporter is to say “oh we’ll focus on Davos” and then do one question on Davos and jump into the ANC issues. And while playing our roles, we’ll both lie to each other. But at least we all know that we’re lying, so it’s all in good, friendly fun.

Ramaphosa is a gift to interview. He may not have been here for 15 years, but he is now, as he put it on Tuesday, “sleeping in the president’s bed”. This is surely his happy place. Business people love him, the international stage is kind to him. And for South African business people here, surely all they’re thinking when they see him is “Oh please, Lord…. let it be him…” He’s very happy to answer questions about the economy, but the lines are a little well-worn, “Business, government and labour are working well together, we’re making progress….”

We’ve heard it all before.

There is a little bit of a straightening of the back and a racheting up of the smile when it comes to the ANC though. And his people, or that one in particular, was trying to get me to finish the interview by this stage. I asked if, considering how everyone in the ANC was breaking the rules around not naming names for December’s leadership contest, it was time to change the way the party elected leaders. “Well, the rules have been put down by the National Executive Committee… and clearly changes or whatever will have to be looked at by the conference. But for now we have to stick to what we’ve decided.”

Which seems to suggest that he has no choice but to stick by the rules as they are. This surely does not stand him in good stead. On the systems and the numbers we currently have, this would appear to put him on the back foot.

And then the question, “I have to get your no comment on the record, you are running right?” And the response, “I have said to you (laughter) that I have to stick to the rules as laid out by the National Working Committee, so no comment.” And more laughter after that.

Bluntly, it’s hard to expect much more from Ramaphosa at this stage. He’s hardly going to come out and say it. But it’s the nuance of the no comment that can be important. Here, he’s sticking by the rules. That may in itself be important. Or not, depending on how you view these things.

There’s nothing like a stiff walk after a good lunch. Google maps told us it was a quick stroll to a certain hotel where Maria Ramos would meet us for an interview. What Google forgot to explain was the sharpness of the incline. That hill was about as steep as a human being can walk without special equipment. With a pack of equipment on the back, it was impossible to arrive at the summit of the hotel door without huffing and puffing and nearly blowing oneself down.

Banks often employ the best people around their CEOs. This was no exception – all organisation and have some coffee and what do you need to set up and will this background work? And then Ramos was there, gracious and businesslike, and happy to take tough questions head-on.

Considering her position as Absa CEO and her past as director-general in the Treasury, she was the perfect person to ask if the current optimism from ministers and business people was actually well-founded. She doesn’t gush, she doesn’t do the political speak that involves generalisations and emotional language. Instead, she gives tight honest answers. They’re all the better for it, about how she has seen government and business and labour all working together, about how much closer all the parties are after the last year and the turbulence etc. Again, the ghost of the sacking of Nhlanhla Nene hung over the room.

And then on to the public protector’s provisional report, and its finding that Absa owes government about R2.25-billion (or about 50 Swiss francs). No, she’s not happy that it was leaked, yes, Absa believes there are “both factual and legal inaccuracies in this report and that we will have an opportunity to deal with those when we meet with the public protector”. Perhaps a tougher question is whether she accepts Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s explanation that the report was leaked after it was sent to several parties “in error”, that there was no malice:

She has to respond to whether or not there was malicious intent. I think for now we will take the public protector at her word… we haven’t engaged with her on that.”

And then, the tough question that I’d been leading up to:

Do you trust the public protector?”

There was no hesitation:

Yes I do. I think we have to trust the public protector as an institution; it’s an institution that we respect. So we have no reason not to trust the public protector.”

Under the circumstance, it has to be the right answer. It would be foolish to say so early on in the process that she does not trust Mkhwebane. Her answer, which some will see as a strong gesture towards Mkhwebane, means that this process should now at least be conducted civilly.

And should things go south later, she has the option that President Jacob Zuma so famously failed to exercise in the Nkandla case. They can go to court. And should that happen, Absa will have political cover in that the Reserve Bank will go with them.

The curtain is slowly beginning to close on the World Economic Forum’s 2017 meeting. There is a dynamic that sees South African politicians being far more accessible here than they ever are at home. Maybe it’s the cold, maybe it’s the feeling of all being South African together in a foreign land. Whatever it is, your correspondent is going to miss it. DM

Photo: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa hosts the reception dinner with business leaders at World Economic Forum in Davos. (Photo: GCIS)


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