Danger: mind-broadening ahead
17 August 2017 11:32 (South Africa)
South Africa

Analysis: Zuma’s Great Gamble

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • South Africa
Photo: President Jacob Zuma officially opening Medupi Power Station’s commercialised Unit 6. Liphalale, Limpopo. 30/08/2015, Elmond Jiyane, GCIS

On Friday afternoon Parliament’s new spokesperson, Moloto Mothapo, issued a statement confirming that Brian Molefe was going to be sworn in as an MP. Considering his perceived role at Eskom, especially in helping the Gupta family purchase a mine, and the sheer number of times he visited Saxonwold, speculation immediately sprung up about why he would be going to Parliament. No matter how you look at it, it’s not to simply bolster the back-benches. Considering his history, his ability, and the roles he’s played previously, is it surely for some form of high office. The question about which ministry, and whether he becomes Finance Minister or deputy Finance Minister, or goes somewhere else is tied up with the other great dynamic that is shaping our times: a massive political gamble that President Jacob Zuma appears to be preparing for. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Anyone who has followed our recent political history, even with just the odd cursory glance, will know what Saxonwold has come to symbolise. It means the Gupta family, and people who go there, politically speaking, go there only to either receive instructions, or offers of money. Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas outlined in court papers (for a second time) last week how Ajay Gupta offered him R600-million if he would take the job of Finance Minister on October 23, 2015. Vytjie Mentor has made similar claims. Both were accepted by then Public Protector Advocate Thuli Madonsela, upon examination of their cellphone records. In the case of Molefe, he went to Saxonwold 19 times between August 5, 2015 and November 7 that year. Zuma probably went to Luthuli House fewer times in that period.

So, when Molefe becomes an MP, it is right and correct to presume that this is not an ordinary promotion, but a part of the much bigger chess game that is under way between Zuma and parts of the ANC (and the country of South Africa).

To predict the future is always perilous. We all remember how much money was lost when Zuma last made a grab for the Treasury – R500-billion was wiped off our stock markets. That is money that is the savings of both black and white South Africans. So the stakes here are high, and any prediction will be closely watched by the people who make those kind of financial decisions.

Unfortunately, as for guessing the next moves, the only political analysis that matters here is that of Zuma himself. He will have his own judgement of the various factors, and it will be much more informed than almost anyone else (but for one or two people who may be as informed; Gwede Mantashe, Cyril Ramaphosa, Zweli Mkhize, and of course Pravin Gordhan himself).

That said, there are a few other predictions we can make with some confidence.

The first is this: If Zuma were to fire Gordhan and replace him with Molefe, there would be an intense reaction, both inside and outside the ANC. It would not just be bond markets that would tumble, and ratings agencies that could act with haste. It would also be in the NEC and possibly even some parts of Zuma’s government itself. When Des van Rooyen was appointed to the National Treasury, Mantashe made the point in public that a reshuffle is supposed to happen after consultation with the ANC’s top six. It was clear from the way the ANC reacted publicly after the appointment that this had not happened in the normal way. Since that time, at least three members of that top six have appeared to publicly indicate their support for Gordhan; “” Mantashe told the NPA not to be involved in “political battles” after his criminal charges were dropped, Ramaphosa issued a statement promising his “political and personal support” and, from what we know, it appears Mkhize played a key role in getting Gordhan appointed in the first place.

This means that for Zuma to press ahead and remove Gordhan straight off would be to also break the top six of the ANC. In public no less. We would all know that they have not agreed, and that the top six of the ANC is now mortally divided. It would be nigh impossible for the party’s top leadership to function in the future.

Second, we do know that in November 2016 the National Executive Committee came close to holding a vote on whether Zuma should be recalled from the Presidency. In the end, that vote was never held. Possibly because one side blinked, or possibly because neither side knew if they could actually win. But that surely means that the NEC meeting that would follow a Gordhan sacking would be even more intense. Those who are wavering would be made to pick a side. Considering that the reaction to the sacking would be huge, and that the country could even be downgraded by the time that meeting occurred, it would be difficult for Zuma to be certain that he would not lose such a vote. And while Zuma may feel that he can stop such a meeting from happening, in the ANC, NEC meetings are called by the secretary general – the timing of the meeting would be controlled by Mantashe.

And then, of course, there is the impact that this would have on the ANC’s leadership contest. It could well lead to a huge rebellion against Zuma among ANC branches, and places that are currently relatively stable in their support of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma could well split, or waver. At the very least, it would surely introduce massive instability into the whole system, and make that leadership contest very difficult to predict.

And were Ramaphosa to then win such a contest, imagine the political situation he would be in as ANC leader, going into a national election in 2019. The country’s economy would have slowed, the rand would have tanked, and many, perhaps most, voters would know it was because of the actions of Zuma. He could well feel the only way for the ANC to survive those elections is to turn on Zuma in the most public of ways. As the ANC in 2009 had to campaign almost on an “anti-Mbeki” ticket on issues like AIDS and crime, so the party in 2019 would have to turn on Zuma and anyone linked to him. The quickest way to do that would be to ensure he was in jail by the time ballots were cast.

And of course, even if Zuma were to win all of those gambles, that would really raise the stakes for the 2019 election, and increase the chances of another party winning. At a time when former ANC Treasurer Mathews Phosa already thinks it will “take a miracle” for the party to stay above 50%.

No matter which way you look at it, for Zuma to move directly against Gordhan would really make life harder for him, and the entire political model harder to predict. It is a risk that someone who could face a jail sentence should be really careful about taking.

But the founder of the Robben Island Chess Club also has moves that he can make. It would be possible for him to move against Gordhan in not so direct a way. It might just make more sense for Zuma to weaken Gordhan, while at the same time trying to gather more control of the Treasury than he has now. An obvious way to do this would be to remove a close ally of Gordhan from the department, while putting his own person there. In other words, firing Jonas as deputy minister, and replacing him with Molefe.

There are several advantages to this, for Zuma. First, it is unlikely to lead to the same kind of reaction as removing Gordhan. Second, Gordhan and Jonas have been moving as a political unit; it would weaken Gordhan seriously to remove Jonas now. And third, he, and the Guptas, would be able to gather power over some levers of Treasury, like the Public Investement Corporation, whose chairman is traditionally SA’s deputy Finance Minister, while being able to keep a close watch over Gordhan himself.

But there are risks here too. It would reveal that Zuma does not believe he is strong enough to remove Gordhan. Considering where Zuma is at the moment, that might be dangerous. Many leaders throughout history have faced rebellions after showing weakness, either through ill-health, introducing reform measures, or simply failing in some task. The same could happen here: if Zuma shows he actually cannot completely control who is in his own cabinet, some people could see that as the moment to take him out.

And for Molefe, there would be other problems. He resigned, after crying in public, just after the public protector’s State of Capture report was released. Why, then, would he feel he can actually serve in government, if he can’t serve as Eskom CEO? This is a question without an answer (although anyone who has ever interviewed him will tell you he claims to have an answer for everything). He certainly could not face a press conference or any non-SABC/ANN7/New Age gathering without having to face a barrage from hostile media. That would not be fun for Molefe.

It would appear that Gordhan and Jonas may be preparing for this kind of move as well. On Sunday, Jonas published a long article in the City Press newspaper in which he put forward his view of how to take the economy forward. It was a properly considered statement of where we are and where we need to go, and how to get there. It was the perfect riposte to the Mzwanele Manyis of the world who simply tweet about “White Monopoly Capital” while taking Gupta money (go on Manyi, deny it, on Twitter of course). On Thursday morning, just after the Budget presentation in Parliament, he is due to speak at a Daily Maverick event. It would appear that this is part of a plan to increase his public profile, to get him out and speaking at events, and generally making sure that he is noticed.

Zuma has played for high stakes many times in his life. The stakes here are perhaps higher than they’ve ever been for all of us. It’s not just the future of the players, it’s the future of anyone who is a part of our economy. It is hard to predict what will happen next. And when that is the case, those with money to spend go where life is more predictable. But it also feels that things are coming to a head, that someone is about to make a fateful move. And that the other players have their own moves planned as well. Gordhan delivers his Budget on Wednesday. He and Jonas are probably (only probably) safe until then. DM

Photo: President Jacob Zuma officially opening Medupi Power Station’s commercialised Unit 6. Liphalale, Limpopo. 30/08/2015, Elmond Jiyane, GCIS

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • South Africa

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