Finance Minister Nhanhla Nene has now admitted to a series of meetings with the Gupta family that he had previously denied having. This is despite what was clearly his political and personal bravery in standing up to then President Jacob Zuma over the nuclear power deal with Russia.
President Cyril Ramaphosa is now facing the prospect of having to let go a man he personally appointed, and of having to pick a replacement. Already, the name of Gauteng Finance MEC Barbara Creecy is being bandied about in some quarters as the next finance minister.
What possibly could be the most damaging issue for Ramaphosa is what could be the real agendas of those who so loudly trumpeted the “dark secrets” that Nene is said to possess, and how could they have known about all of this in advance.
The last week has shown once again how quickly South African politics can shift, and how the ground is so unsteady beneath the feet of so many people. Ten days ago Nene’s reputation was untouchable in the eyes of the many; he had been the victim in the worst and most damaging act of Zuma’s reign, and his re-appointment as Finance Minister by Ramaphosa was generally seen as the perfect antidote to what happened during the Zupta years. Then, at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, he admitted to a series of meetings with the Guptas. (He had previously denied these meetings, on camera.)
Then, on Friday morning, the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism ran a story suggesting that Nene’s son, Siyabonga Nene, may have benefitted from the decisions made by the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) while Nene had been its chair as Deputy Finance Minister. Hours later, Nene himself released a public statement apologising to South Africans for not being honest about his involvement with the Guptas in the past.
All of these events created a perfect storm, leaving Nene in a difficult position. First, the real problem is that, as the Sunday Times reported on Sunday, it appears Ramaphosa himself did not know about any of the Gupta meetings when he appointed him. It also appears that he might not have known about the apology in advance. All of this suggests that the two are not as politically close as might have been assumed.
Ramaphosa is unlikely to have enjoyed being caught off-guard, too.
The next big problem for Nene is this: If all of this has now come out in just one week, what else could be lurking in that closet? For a start, while amaBhungane themselves say that their story about Siyabonba Nene is not a smoking gun against Nhlanhla Nene, it certainly asks the question about whether there may be one lurking around somewhere. And that if Siyabonga Nene has been conducting business deals in this way (which are not illegal), could he have been involved in something that was illegal that his father was aware of?
To put it another way, might his son have done something else that we don’t know about?
Ramaphosa now surely can’t take the risk of that. He may now feel he has to act, in order to continue to be able to make claims about his “new dawn”.
Next is the obvious question of who would take over. Considering the fiscal position that the country is in (we seem to have no money), the Finance Minister has to be someone who will inspire confidence, both in South Africans, and those pesky foreign investors who determine, to a large extent, the value of the rand and the credit-worthiness of South Africa.
One of the people who could do that would obviously be the Governor of the Reserve Bank, Lesetja Kganyago. He is one of those people who are well-known to the investing community, and business would be perfectly happy with him. He could also be seen, not necessarily accurately, as a “sort of” apolitical appointment. He also has the experience of being the director-general in the Treasury, which would allow him to hit the ground running.
However, for various reasons, and from various sources, it does appear that in fact it will not, at least at this stage, be Kganyago. Instead, the name that keeps popping up, in messages and in fact on Twitter, is that of Gauteng Finance MEC Barbara Creecy. She would be an interesting choice. She has been actively involved in Gauteng politics for many years (first sitting in the Gauteng legislature in 1994) and becoming an MEC at the Sport and Recreation portfolio in 2004. She then moved to Education and then to Finance. Before 1994 she was heavily involved in the United Democratic Front, and with the ANC itself from the 1970s. In other words, she was one of the young white people at the time who worked against apartheid.
This back story may become important. In 2009, when Zuma appointed his first Cabinet, there were rumblings about the racial identities of the people appointed to the Finance Cluster. Pravin Gordhan was at Finance, Rob Davies at Trade and Industry and Ebrahim Patel at Economic Development. At the time, Gill Marcus was the Governor at the Reserve Bank. This led to claims that there were no “black Africans” in charge of the economic cluster. Now, there would be a situation where a black man was leaving office and being replaced by a white woman. Those who oppose Ramaphosa (both inside and outside the ANC) will surely use this against him, especially when there are those on Twitter (who may or may not be Twitter bots) who claim he is an agent of “White Monopoly Capital”. But, he may be able to use her own past as a defence, and demonstrate that she has always been part of the movement. This has happened before – Creecy was once accused of “hating black people” by a SADTU regional leader Moss Senye during a teachers’ strike. He was sat on, heavily, by his own union for making an issue of her identity.
However, politically, what might be more important is the image that Creecy represents. She is seen as incorruptible. No claim has ever been made against her. Rather, her image has been one of quiet competence, someone with no hint of scandal or of trying to hog the headlines. This may now be important to Ramaphosa, considering that the person who was supposed to be clean, Nene, is now shown to have smallanyana skeletons of his own.
Creecy may also be seen, in a strange way, as a sort of apolitical appointment in terms of ANC politics. In other words, she is not seen as deeply involved with any faction, except that she obviously was with the Gauteng ANC in its criticism of Zuma, and its campaign for Ramaphosa. This means that she could be the perfect appointment for Ramaphosa, as it would be hard to direct criticism to him at making this appointment. And her identity as a woman may also help distract from the other criticism, in that he could make much of appointing the “first female Minister of Finance” in our history.
However, the next question is the timing: the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement is due to be presented soon, and it is simply impossible to tell who will be delivering it. Nene may feel that he should go now, Ramaphosa may actually want him to stay, or it could be the complete opposite. It may well depend on what Nene knows about himself that we don’t know. Also, Creecy may find herself having to rely on Treasury staff until she finds her feet. And of course, most of the measures in the speech would already have been finalised by this stage.
There are several other important questions that arise from this entire situation. The first is how did Julius Malema and the EFF know about all of this? Where are they getting their information from, and what is their agenda? It would surely be logical to presume that those who leaked this to the EFF want to weaken Ramaphosa, and essentially cause disruption. This could mean that whoever it is has the same agenda as Zuma. And they are clearly very well-informed.
This could turn out to be the most important aspect, and danger, hidden in the current Nene saga. S0 much more information could come out about other people important to Ramaphosa. If this starts being a pattern, the president will then continue to be weakened at crucial moments. This would obviously makes events and decisions simply less predictable and it would be bad for governance.
It would also surely be bad for the ANC. Ramaphosa is supposed to be cleaning things up, not finding out about dirty laundry involving people from his own immediate camp. With elections looming, should exposés like this one continue, there may be a danger that some voters will simply be turned off by the ANC, as they were in 2014.
It had been thought that South Africa might be entering a period of certainty, where decisions and dynamics would become more predictable. It is now becoming more clear that in fact it is not going to be the case, and that the times of upheaval may last much longer than previously thought. That’s the last thing a country as badly wounded as South Africa needs right now. DM
"We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie." ~ David Mamet