South Africa

South Africa

Reporter’s Notebook: The Day South Africa woke-up

Reporter’s Notebook: The Day South Africa woke-up

When it finally happened, it wasn't only the sacking of Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas that was shocking. It was the scale of the bloodbath, aka reshuffle, the sheer number of Ministers who were gone. And then came the reaction, the huge, swirling mass of anger expressed through a massive flood of anger (heated words, screaming shouts, spiteful actions), that indicates President Jacob Zuma has badly divided the country he is paid to unite. For this reporter, it was a day unequaled in breaking news, moving developments, and finally, after many years, true, naked emotions. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

It was early. Even the children were still asleep. My phone, hardly left alone all night, was blinking, gyrating, shrieking. Half an hour later, a stumble into the newsroom. Immediately I found the Presidency’s email and printed it out. Didn’t want to get any names wrong today. Okay, Pravin Gordhan going I expected, Malusi Gigaba was… an interesting choice. But what on earth is going on at Transport and Energy. What did Dipuo Peters and Tina Joematt-Petterson do wrong to Zuma, such loyal lieutenants/executioners?

But there wasn’t time to even consider that, it was time to hit the phones. There is always a terrible mixture of optimism and foreboding when you phone a newsmaker at 5:30am. The optimism that they’re up anyway, and want to talk without seriously considering an option of biting your head off, the fear that you’re going to disrupt their entire household, maybe disturb young children; generally, make them hate you.

But what is the point of pursuing journalism without the excuse to wake up important people?

Sipho Pityana, phone off. Gwede Mantashe (uhm, gulp), just ringing. Solly Mapaila, no answer, Derek Hanekom, no joy. Thank God for Azar Jammine, all friendly and courteous even at that time:

“Good morning Stephen, yes, I saw it, gosh the markets aren’t going to like it, this is bad, of course I’ll comment”.

And out it came, my recorder getting it all: the markets will see this almost as a raid, there will be huge concern, the rand will lose more value, and we are now likely to have an interest rate hike rather than a cut. Then the political analyst Ralph Mathekga, always happy to chat. In one sentence he made the point that “President Jacob Zuma has been planning this”, that he had prepared the ground. It’s the kind of comment you know is true, and find slightly disturbing at the same time.

Then, on the radio speaker in the newsroom, the voice of SACP second deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila, who had said just the day before said that he could not rule out the resignation of his cabinet ministers if Gordhan could go. But he sounded wishy-washy, “yes we’re disappointed” but he couldn’t promise any action. C’mon man, you just got screwed in public by the man who leads your alliance, who you expressly told not do to do anything stupid, then he does it regardless, and that’s all you can do?

In the meantime, in the 702 producer’s booth downstairs, fists bumping in the air, Mantashe had been found and was willing to speak. This was probably the moment of the early morning, as he told The Baritone of Sandton, Xolani Gwala:

“We were given a list that was complete and my own view as the Secretary-General, I felt like this list has been developed somewhere else and it was given to us to legitimise it.


“My own view is that I’m very uncomfortable because areas where ministers do not perform have not been touched. Ministers have been moved and the majority of them were good performing ministers. I’m very much uncomfortable with it.”

We were expecting fireworks from him, but not real live cannon balls like this! This was the secretary general of the African National Congress telling the world that their president had gone rogue. And surely he was saying that this was a “Gupta reshuffle”, that the “list” had been prepared in Saxonwold. It was the first indication that a fight-back was coming.

By now the world was awake. And fuming. Business Leadership South Africa’s deputy chair Bonang Mohale was furious, Corruption Watch was more than annoyed, and finally, Pityana was answering his phone. Two protests were already planned, one at the National Treasury, another at Parliament.

But it was time to hit the phones again, and try to get hold of some of the new Ministers. A nice chat with Gigaba’s current/former/new spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete (spokespeople often move with their Minister, especially when they hold his rank of Deputy Director-General, but it’s not always certain), but it seemed unlikely Gigaba could speak right now. Fikile Mbalula, the new Minister of Police was happy to talk, very cheerful, and quite happy to go back to the Police Ministry where he was once a deputy minister. Of course, he wouldn’t be drawn on some of the big issues in the police, like whether Mthandazo Berning Ntlemeza should stay on as head of the Hawks, and he did the ritual thank you and good-bye to everyone in the sports arena. For many, the big question for Mbalula is whether he’ll change his Twitter practice (this is a man who lives a lifestyle that once led to him having to deny, on Twitter, that he was the owner of a particular part of male body). We won’t lose him entirely, but possibly some more restrained Twitter behaviour is on the cards (don’t bet your house… – Ed)

By now, the morning had been dominated by the voices of those angry at the removal of Gordhan, they had been passionate and often eloquent. It was time to redress the balance. But who would welcome this news? Oh, wait, of course, Kebby Maphatsoe. The leader of the MKMVA, the Deputy Minister of Defense, he would have something to say. He’s a man of no integrity. And was ripped to shreds by Ronnie Kasrils in that defamation case last year. I don’t think there has been a time when I have not phoned Maphatsoe during a morning that he has not answered, always game for an interview. And he always defends the same two people, Zuma, and the Guptas. This time around, he was fairly measured, he didn’t want to fight with Mantashe in public (but it is obvious he’s angry with him over that “list compiled elsewhere” comment) and he went on to say, “I don’t understand the problem everyone has with the Guptas”.

Finally, the ANC Youth League had released a statement that it was “excited, overjoyed, jubilant”  at the reshuffle while the ANC Women’s League was saying the same the same thing. Their emotional displays of political poetry were seemingly inspired by the very same poet, B. Pottinger, I felt.

At some point in this crazy morning the DA decided to get in on the act, saying they were off to court to stop the swearing-in of these new ministers.  They didn’t have a hope in hell of stopping it, as a judge later explained to them. Still, they managed to insert themselves into the news cycle.

And suddenly, out of nowhere (or Bloemfontein, if you prefer), it came. The Boom! Moment of the morning. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa; speaking into a cluster of microphones, saying that he felt the removal of Gordhan on this flimsy “intelligence report, was unacceptable”. He wasn’t going to resign, no. Later in the day, as more evidence that he wants everyone to know this, the deputy presidency actually emailed the sound of those comments to every newsroom in the country. It’s a backroom move that shows he really means it, folks.

It was the moment we had been waiting for, the time when the strategy of those opposed to Zuma became evident. People aren’t going to resign, at least not right now. Instead, they’re going to stay on and fight. And fight hard. Yes, it’s easy to say Ramaphosa should go, and send the strongest possible signal. But perhaps it does make more sense to stay. Zuma obviously does not have receptors for signals. How on Earth this Cabinet now will have a single meeting without riot police intervention, is hard to fathom.

Finally, the clock struck noon. Time for the Midday Report. And a conversation with the poet Mongane Wally Serote, representing the stalwarts of the ANC. He wants a consultative conference of some kind to reclaim the movement. Suddenly I found myself in the middle of a fight between him and the political analyst Professor Lesiba Teffo, who said Serote was delusional, and didn’t realise that the ANC, like all liberation movements in his view, needs a period out of power to renew itself.

Thankfully, before that could get ugly, Gordhan himself was on the big screens in front of me. Standing room only, talking first to Treasury staff, and then taking questions from journalists.

Another unprecedented moment. A Minister, in office for only a few more hours, using the facilities of its soon-to-be-former Ministry, to forcefully respond to his sacking. The fact that Gordhan is currently the clearest and most effective communicator in this country’s politics, is sometimes under-appreciated. The man had the room in the palm of his hand. In a situation where so many leaders don’t make sense, or are forced to defend the indefensible, Gordhan’s honesty, decency and sense can be very effective.

Of course, he said, he was going to stay on as a Member of Parliament. And then came perhaps the most significant moment of his comments (and there were many). How, went the question, would you vote in a confidence motion in the President? “I will be guided by my conscience”, he said. Gosh. Wow. Boom!! Gordhan, it seems, is happy to vote against Zuma in Parliament. And defy his party whip in the process. And if he is willing to do it, then who else is willing to do it? (And how would this particular party whip, Jackson Mthembu, vote in this case?)

Another hour, another swathe of new territory that we’ve now entered.

It was now nearly one ‘o clock, and a series of messages came through as I glanced at my phone during an ad-break. It was being claimed that the funeral service for Ahmed Kathrada, the official government remembrance service, was being cancelled. Surely not. Who would do that? And why?  Just time to check my email. I think that was the strangest way the Midday Report has ever ended. With confirmation that a memorial service, for the person who referred to Nelson Mandela as “Madala”, his elder brother, had been cancelled.

How small is this? Really? Is it now petty o’clock? Cancelling a memorial service. What kind of big man, big boss, big person in charge does this? What are you so afraid of, President Zuma?

But this is South Africa. A country, as Richard Poplak will tell you, with zero chill. And someone who had just lost her life partner, who is in mourning, who has given so much of herself to the Struggle, against Apartheid and for a better South Africa, was not taking it lying down.

The service will go on, said Barbara Hogan. “The country needs to be taken back. A country united is never divided. And this country is not for sale. Thank you”.

It was incredibly powerful stuff. The symbolism of this, a widow, in mourning, defying a President of the same party her sadly-departed husband dedicated his life to. Who spent 26 years in jail for his beliefs. And Hogan should be able to rest now, she has done more than her fair share for this country, spending eight years in jail, with time in solitary confinement, and was the first woman in this country to be convicted of high treason. At the time, “high treason” meant taking on the apartheid state.

For her, the fight has to go on.

You may ask yourself, who would be able to host such an event so quickly, to take over the hosting from the national government. As a reporter who attempts to by cynical, I couldn’t resist smiling upon learning it would take place in the Joburg City Hall. This is part of the real power of what happened in last year’s local elections. Places held by the opposition are going to be quite happy to help the President’s opponents, no matter which political home they come from. And Hogan is not acting alone, the SACP is helping her. The question on Saturday afternoon may well be this: who will go to the service, and what will they say. And obviously Gordhan will get a standing ovation if he goes.

As a reporter, I’ve been to the Presidential Guesthouse several times to watch the swearing-in ceremony of new Ministers. Sometimes it’s been quite a grand occasion. Looking at the pictures on Twitter on Friday night, I didn’t get that sense at all. It looked small somehow, as if the motive, the agenda of the whole thing cannot be masked by thick carpets and smart suits. I feel some sympathy for people I consider not captured. Hlengiwe Mkhize, a deputy minister for so long and finally a full Minister (of Home Affairs) deserves a big post. Ayanda Dlodlo, whenever I have spoken to her, has been happy and willing to engage, even when we’ve clearly disagreed. Their names were ignored all through the day. They deserved high office earlier in their careers. And they didn’t deserve to have their day tarnished with all this.

There are still many questions to answer. If Mantashe and Ramaphosa are publicly criticising the President, what do they do next? And how do they do it? Is Gordhan tipping us off slightly about a vote in Parliament? What is clear is that the sites of struggle are growing. It will be in the ANC’s top six, its national working committee, the national executive committee, the parliament. It is going to be in the streets, in city squares, in town halls and at memorial services.

South Africa is now finally awake. DM

Photo: Several hundred gathered outside Parliament in Cape Town on Friday to protest President Jacob Zuma’s late night cabinet reshuffle that saw Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his Deputy Mcebisi Jonas sacked. Many fear this indicates the future steamrolling of a proposed nuclear plan through a captured treasury. (Photo by Diana Neille/DM Chronicles)


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