South Africa

South Africa

Reporter’s Notebook: The Crisis Deepens

PG-Exit Day One had been busy. Too busy to even really understand all that had transpired. There was still a lot to digest but the time for it is not yet upon us. There is still too much happening. Such is the urge by so many to eat right now, and the urge of others to stop them, that Day Two was going to be busy, even though it was a Saturday. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Saturday. A lie-in. Well, the kind of lie-in you have with young children around. At 6:30am, they’re up, shouting, chasing the kitten, and me looking blearily at my iPad, trying to see what had happened overnight. My final glance at a screen the night before had been the statement of the SACP’s politburo, and the announcement that the leadership of the SACP was now calling for President Jacob Zuma to resign. In ordinary times, that are far away now, this would have been the kind of news that we would literally spend weeks digesting. Not any more. Minutes it is.

By 9am I’d been able to get hold of a response to the reshuffle from the ANC Treasurer, Zweli Mkhize. It was clear someone had spent hours getting it right. As predicted, he is not happy, and he had joined Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe in making this public. The key part of his response was this:

“Unlike previous consultations which take place with senior officials of the ANC during such appointments and changes to the composition of the national executive, the briefing by the President left a distinct impression that the ANC is no longer the centre and thus depriving the leadership collective of its responsibility to advise politically on executive matters.”

There it was – “the ANC is no longer the centre …”

He doesn’t have to spell it out, we know where he thinks the centre is. Saxonwold, Joburg. There was also a nice juicy bit about how “we need to admit that there are also several serving ministers whose performance is rather unsatisfactory, hence they have attracted severe criticism as public representatives against whom appropriate action would be expected.”

Bathabile dear, he’s talking to you.

It is comments like this one that really lay bear the brutally factional nature of this latest reshuffle. It is now obvious that Zuma was acting only for himself, that he didn’t even feel the need to cloak it even just a bit by removing such notoriously incompetent ministers like Bathabile Dlamini, Mosebenzi Zwane or Faith Muthambi.

Mkhize, of course, wouldn’t be Mkhize at this stage in the game, without making sure his neck didn’t get stuck out that far. He also doesn’t want to “undermine the prerogative” of the President in picking his cabinet, and wants to wish those appointed well and all of those things. But still, he’s with Ramaphosa and Mantashe in pointing a finger at that famous compound.

In a sentence that may have been missed by many, Mkhize makes the point that as a result of all of this, “(a)need arises for the leadership of the ANC as the ruling party that contested, won the elections and deployed its members to government to seriously apply its mind and express a collective view to these developments.”

How is that not a suggestion that the ANC’s National Executive Committee must to meet to discuss the whole sordid affair? And is it an indication that the NEC meeting, currently only due in about two months time, could happen  sooner than that? When you consider that to have this all play out on the floor of the National Assembly would kill the ANC stone dead, right there, would it not make more sense to have this faithful battle in the NEC first?


But, this being the week that we’re in, with few minutes to think, it will all have to be digested later. Because it was time to jump into a car and head to Tshwane/Pretoria/Our Administrative Capital to see Malusi Gigaba’s first press conference as Finance Minister. I don’t do that route nearly as often as I used to. Am I getting old or are our highways faster and more dangerous than they used to be? And the car kept pinging. I’m told it was an e-tag. I didn’t know anyone actually had one of those things.

Anyway, a wasted hour of our lives later, we were at 1035 Francis Baard Street, Tshedimosetso House, the headquarters of GCIS. There was a lively discussion on the way about why it wasn’t at the National Treasury, but from a facilities point of view, this was perfect. It’s a facility set up for the likes of me, who need space, electricity and a desk. And usually demanding it with more than a dash of attitude.

At around 11:04am the first conversation started about whether the press conference would start on time, and wry remarks were thoughts about “would this happen if Pravin was still here”. But, considering the situation, the stress levels of those involved, and the sheer amount of work that is to be done, things didn’t start too late.

My first thought was to look at how Gigaba was dressed. Finance Ministers tend to dress a certain way, it’s very smart, very conservative. Reserve Bank Governors are the same. I’m always interested in the sexism shown to women in politics and those who go to court, in that journalists always described how they’re dressed. I sort of get it, and I sort of think it’s unfair at the same time. Gigaba has a reputation for dressiness. He is an Instagram kind of guy. Today it was a charcoal grey suit. Exactly the right colour I thought. The tie could have been darker, but that’s just me being fussy.

Gigaba is a good communicator, and his spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete takes communication, and effective communication, very seriously. Unlike some people in government, they’re both professionals at this. It showed.

Gigaba’s statement was a masterclass in setting out a stall of what he wants to do, and acknowledging the environment in which he is operating. He has many layers of problems. There is the demand for “radical economic change” and yet Reuters is in the room, and trust me, bankers with billions of dollars to play with, are watching. And of course, the background to his appointment could not really have been worse. And who would want to take over from  Gordhan anyway – you’re being set up to fail.

In literally his first paragraph Gigaba quoted the person who appointed him. For some, that would be a bad sign. But by his forth sentence he was saying, unbidden, that “I am fully aware that we are in a highly politicised, polarised and contentious moment in the history of our young democracy”. Couldn’t have put it better myself, frankly.

There was a little bit of interest in the room when he also mentioned his predecessors, and the “sterling leadership of this portfolio, by all of the previous ANC Ministers of Finance, Comrades Trevor Manuel, Nhlanhla Nene and Pravin Gordhan”. Yes, that’s right. There is a weekend ANC Minister of Finance missing from that list. It was a good move.

Gigaba stuck to the line that he had to weave between promising change, and yet not frighting investors. It can’t have been easy, and he did as well as any human being could.

There was some interesting lines though. Yours truly, being a kind and forgiving soul asked him a question that he must have been expecting, and maybe was hoping for. It went along these lines

“Minister, in a strange way, the entire story over the last few days around this reshuffle is about the integrity of the person who has been appointed to the position of Finance Minister to replace Pravin Gordhan. You may feel that is unfair, but I think this is really about trust. I have to ask you, apart from the income you receive from your roles in government and in parliament, do you have any other sources of income, if anyone gives you money or cash or anything in kind?”

Yes I know. I’ve spent way too much time with lawyers in my life. Gigaba was happy to answer, and suggested it was the easiest question. Because, “I have no business interests, I am not involved in any business. I do not earn an income from anybody, the only income you will find in my bank account is the income I earn out of working in government”. He went on to explain that he does receive an income from a house he rents out in the Centurion/Midrand area.

It was a strong response to a question he must have expected. But. And this is a but with no evidence and no proof. Gigaba does appear to live quite a lifestyle. And he appears to sometimes flaunt it. Fairly or unfairly, his response is probably not going to be enough to stop his critics. This is one of those situations where if everyone in Cabinet just underwent some kind of generally accepted lifestyle audit, and he passed it, this issue would just go away. But when we have all seen his current wife and a woman described as his “ex-mistress” warring it up on Instagram then you have to wonder. And who can afford a mistress in New York anyway?

Gigaba was waiting for some of the questions that would reveal any possible agenda, and quickly confirmed that the Finance Ministry’s court cases against the Gupta-owned companies would still go ahead.

And then there was a strange moment when he suggested that he was shocked to be appointed on Thursday night. This is interesting. Because you would have thought he might have had an indication that it would be him. And when you consider that he appeared to display a very strong grasp of of the issues in the portfolio, and could answer every question thrown at him in a very difficult environment, then either he did know, or he worked bloody hard in the 24 hours he had to prepare. Of course, with the Ministerial experience he has he may well have started off very informed, but still. If he was genuinely shocked, then it was impressive. And if he wasn’t…then, well…

There was a long and interesting aside in all of this by Gigaba’s director-general. Lungisa Fuzile is in a difficult position. Everyone know that what he does next will be crucial. If he goes, spitting fire at Gigaba, we’ll know this is all about state capture (although, we kind of know that already, or at the very least it’s “factional capture”). If he stays, and displays, in public, all the signs of being happy and content with his work and his relationship with his new boss, then maybe we can calm down a bit (I’m not putting any money on that though).

Fuzile was asked if he would stay on. He gave a long explanation before finally coming to his main point. All of his predecessors in the position have lasted only seven years. He says that’s because it’s pretty much an impossible job, with incredible pressure. And he has been there six years. Fuzile is surely preparing the ground to leave at some time in the next twelve months. But he doesn’t want people to think it’s just because of what’s happening now. This is important; he’s creating a context, ensuring that people know that if he does go in say six months time, and he says it’s not because of Gigaba, that he really means it. In other words, if he does go then, we shouldn’t panic unnecessarily.

Gigaba has been in politics for a very long time. I first met him when he was leader of the ANC Youth League, and criticising the Springboks. He has done much better than they have in the intervening decade and a half. So it wasn’t surprising that he had a good answer to another difficult political question: “If three of the ANC’s top six are unhappy with the reshuffle, do you believe you have a mandate from the ANC to be the Finance Minister?” Ah, he said, the three were criticising the processes, but he hadn’t heard them criticising the appointment of himself. An interesting point, and possibly correct. Although, it’s hard to really separate the removal of Gordhan and his appointment. They are, intrinsically politically connected. And to the furtherance of the same agenda. 

Gigaba spoke for ages. This was one of those press conferences where it was important for him to answer every single question, and full credit to him for doing so. Finally it ended, and there was a brief chance to run up and shake his hand and say hello. Always cheerful, always happy to chat, he stopped for a brief moment, before finally rushing off. After that, it was time to file, stop for a “howzit” with Tshwete and jump into the car for the trip to the office.

After a stop for a garage pie and full-fat coke, it was back into the newsroom to try to process two and a half hours of sound. Which takes long to do when Barbara Hogan and Gordhan himself are speaking at the now un-cancelled Ahmed Kathrada memorial service. It was another reminder, not that anyone could have forgotten in 24 hours, of how strong and impressive, and simply heroic, Hogan is. And of course Gordhan was always going to get the reception he got.

While this was happening there was a ping from some device near me and one of those statements from the Presidency that you have to read immediately nowadays. It said simply this:

The Presidency wishes to correct a wrong impression that has been created in the public domain that President Jacob Zuma cancelled the memorial service that he had declared for stalwart Mr Ahmed Kathrada. This is not true.

Of all the things that have been said in this country this week, this is the biggest load of bullshit so far. Of course it’s bloody true.

If the President orders an official funeral for someone, then who on earth would have the power to un-order it? Brian Kholoane? Really? Does he think we are stupid?

But what is so strange about this is that even if this has some semblance of truth, it is the Presidency’s fault this perception was created in the first place. Because when the statement was sent out announcing that the service was cancelled, no reason was given. And it is this that led to this perception in the first place. Just as no proper reason has been given for the sacking of Gordhan.

And really, credit us with some intelligence, Mr President. Tell us now, if it was not you, then who cancelled it. And also, explain why you, as the head of government, the head of state, the person ultimately in charge, should not take responsibility for it.

But is anyone surprised?

And on that slightly angry note, it was time to wearily go home, see and hug and bath the children, and try to digest, and to wonder, what do the Sunday newspapers hold … and where will we be twenty-four hours from now. DM

Photo: A supporter of late anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada holds a banner during a public memorial service in Johannesburg, South Africa, 01 April 2017. EPA/CORNELL TUKIRI.