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Pravin Gordhan’s half-century of public service draws to a close

Pravin Gordhan’s half-century of public service draws to a close
Pravin Gordhan. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

After some 53 years in activism, politics and public life, one-time pharmacist, Codesa delegate, tax boss and minister, Pravin Gordhan is calling it quits after the 29 May elections. It’s not a surprise — word in late 2022 was that President Cyril Ramaphosa had persuaded him to stay until the elections.

Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan is known for the phrase “connecting the dots” regarding State Capture when he linked key leadership appointments in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to state contracts, with billions of rands diverted from the public good into private pockets. At the time, Gordhan sat on the ANC back benches and served in the parliamentary State Capture probe after being fired as finance minister in the March 2017 midnight Cabinet reshuffle.

Gordhan’s departure comes at a time of flailing SOEs, including SAA, Eskom and Transnet, with criticism levelled at him for not building institutional capacity and his leadership style slated as micro-management.

Less in the public eye was Gordhan’s influence in Jacob Zuma’s 2018 exit from the presidency. It’s understood to be linked in no small way to changing attitudes in the South African Communist Party to which Gordhan belonged for most of his political life, which began in 1971 at the Natal Indian Congress.

The Department of Public Enterprises said on Friday that Gordhan’s announcement of his retirement come the 29 May poll was “emblematic of the minister’s desire to be candid so that all critical constituencies that related to his current portfolio are sufficiently informed about his plans”.

It was time to focus on family and health, Gordhan told Business Day.

“I will always remain an activist. It has been a great privilege to serve in various capacities and, hopefully, I can contribute by teaching what I know to new and younger generations,” he said.

Gordhan’s retirement just after he turns 75 in April comes as Transnet and Eskom remain the biggest risks to South Africa’s economy. Both have racked up massive debt despite bailouts of scores of billions of rands and are responsible for the country’s logistics and electricity crises, respectively.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Pravin Gordhan’s rough ride from anti-corruption hero to being an integral part of SA’s problem

Rolling blackouts hit record levels in 2023, leaving South Africans without power for up to 12 hours a day, while the logistics crisis at ports and railways has negatively affected companies in sectors from mining to agriculture.

The Eskom Roadmap announced in October 2019 to unbundle the power utility into transmission, generation and distribution entities to be more responsive to electricity demands and systems is running years behind schedule.

Ditto, Transnet. Initial efforts at third-party access by private companies were botched and the logistics SOE remains debt-ridden, dependent on bailouts and unable to provide the rail and port services needed in a modern economy.

Gordian knot

Meanwhile, the sale of 51% of SAA to the private consortium Takatso is not across the finishing line — after three years. It’s indicative of some of the governing ANC’s policy stickiness —  the ANC insisted South Africa could not do without a national flag carrier, although it was clear the economy couldn’t afford further multibillion-rand bailouts. Now the deal of R51 for 51% of the SAA shares is being renegotiated amid the expectation that a better arrangement can be clinched for the government.

That Gordhan ended up with the Gordian knot of the public enterprises portfolio six years ago is one of those historical ironies. If his one-time public enterprises Cabinet and SACP colleague Jeff Radebe had executed the privatisation of the seven SOEs in the public enterprises portfolio, as happened with Telkom, between 1999 and 2004, Gordhan would not be in his current unenviable position.

In 2018, Ramaphosa, who succeeded Zuma after his Valentine’s Day resignation, picked Gordhan as the public enterprises minister. As an ANC backbencher, he had spoken out about State Capture, which increasingly hit headlines amid the emergence of the #GuptaLeaks, a trove of thousands of emails showing links between the Gupta brothers and Zuma’s ministers and administration.

Gordhan was widely regarded as a politician with integrity; while as finance minister he introduced “haircuts” or spending discipline and ensured purse strings were closed to State Capture efforts. A former finance minister from 2009 to 2014, he was reappointed to that portfolio in December 2015 after the four-day “weekend special” stint of Des van Rooyen rocked financial markets, triggering ANC insiders to persuade Zuma to overturn his decision. 

Gordhan lasted until March 2017 when, while on an investment promotion tour abroad with his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, he was sacked in a midnight Cabinet reshuffle on the back of a fake intelligence report.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Pravin Gordhan: From freedom fighter to finance minister to ‘accidental hero’

Crucially, this reshuffle was opposed by the SACP, first in January 2017 when the first rumours emerged, and then when it happened. It was one of the first public signals of the SACP’s chill towards Zuma, whom it had enthusiastically supported at the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane national conference and then in the 2009 election. Subsequently, the SACP played a key role in Zuma’s departure in a series of intense ANC NEC meetings that also led to the 2018 State of the Nation Address being delayed for a week.

Tax boss

As public enterprises minister, Gordhan must have believed he could undo the damage of the Zuma State Capture years, similar to the reimagining of the South African Revenue Service under his stewardship.

In November 1999, Gordhan took over as tax boss after a year as deputy. In his decade at the helm, the number of taxpayers doubled as policy changes improved efficiency and trust in the tax collector, which also became reflective of democratic South Africa’s demography. Killed off was the institutional culture where the proverbial bottle of whisky and a lunch made tax troubles disappear.

All this played to Gordhan’s strengths honed in the anti-apartheid struggle — mobilising for protests and campaigns and as a shrewd operator and behind-the-scenes organiser.

In 1971, the trained pharmacist joined the Natal Indian Congress and was active in student and civic mobilisation. During the 1970s he also became involved in underground activities of the ANC and SACP, where he was a member until at least 1998. He served on the party’s central committee, as he did for a decade from 2012 on the ANC’s highest decision-making structure, the National Executive Committee.

He attended the founding of the United Democratic Front in 1983.

Aside from three stints of detention, according to South African History Online, Gordhan was one of the nine senior Operation Vula ANC members arrested in July 1990, including Mac Maharaj and Siphiwe Nyanda. As the exiled movement’s secret campaign to infiltrate its liberation fighters into apartheid South Africa, Operation Vula holds an important place in ANC lore.

Participating in Codesa, or the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, Gordhan co-chaired the transitional executive council that prepared the country for its first democratic elections. As an MP from 1994 to 1998, he was part of the Constitution-making and implementation process.

Smear campaigns

Saddled with the National Treasury and SOEs that are the biggest risk to South Africa’s economy, Gordhan became a target for dog whistle and smear campaigns.

On the eve of his 2016 Budget speech, the Hawks, then headed by Lieutenant-General Mthandazo Ntlemeza, who had been appointed despite a judge describing him as “dishonest” and “untrustworthy”, dropped 27 questions about the so-called SARS rogue unit. Officially the High-Risk Investigations Unit, it had been approved by the then finance minister Trevor Manuel.

Gordhan answered all the questions but was charged with fraud alongside one-time top SARS officials Ivan Pillay and Oupa Magashula over Pillay’s reappointment as a consultant after he took retirement. 

The charges caused the rand to tumble. They were regarded as machinations against Gordhan because he stood firm against State Capture efforts to dip into the national coffers.

At the time, close Zuma ally Tom Moyane was in charge at the tax collector, balancing the books by fiddling with value-added tax (VAT) refunds that led to the 2018 VAT hike by one percentage point to 15%. 

All the charges against Gordhan and his co-accused were dropped in October 2016.

In mid-2019, the then Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane found in favour of an EFF complaint about the “rogue unit”. Three years of litigation ensued as Mkhwebane appealed against court decisions that found her report unsubstantiated and flawed. In late 2022, the Constitutional Court nixed any further action by her on the matter — and in a sign of the judges’ irritation, ordered her to pay Gordhan and the others’ costs.

By then the EFF’s “Jamnadas” campaign, after Gordhan’s middle name, had turned into physical intimidation on the floor of the House in July 2019.

“We survived apartheid. We will survive this fascist populism,” Gordhan said then. 

And survive he has. 

His not uncontested, although sustained and multifaceted contribution to democratic South Africa, however, raises the question of whether G0rdhan’s moment to bow out from public life shouldn’t have been in late 2022, regardless of presidential persuasiveness. 

But knowing when to bow out is a skill few politicians have. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    The bottom line is – socialism in SA has failed no matter how well intentioned the proposer….time to give real Democracy a chance and get some decent well educated and capable people back into Government.
    One thing the ANC has done in the last 30 years is redistributed wealth ( and taxpayers money) by hook and by crook!

  • Alley Cat says:

    This man was an inspiration to me, with the accent on “was”. In the early days of the Gupta leaks and state capture, he was one of the lonely voices that spoke out. But then what happened? He has been very quiet and achieved little or nothing in the last few years. At best we could assume that he was silenced, at worst that he joined the cadre movement. But yes, maybe he is just tired and should have bowed out in 2022. What a shame that his legacy is not what it should have been!

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      You are not alone he helped us join the dots to unravel mass corruption by Zuma and his cronies, we are paying 15% vat thanks to them, if it was not for people like Gordan we would be paying more.
      I still don’t have a clue why he is hated so much except he was not one to dish tenders for 10% commission.

  • D Rod says:

    Good riddance, not a moment too soon…

    • JDW 2023 says:

      Agreed. He may have had a good ‘image’ during certain years but it appears that it was simply that, just an image, and it’s hardly saying much when one considers who he has been working with all these years in the ruling party. An overview of his tenure in government shows some really poor decision-making.

  • Interested Observer says:

    Sadly history will unlikely remember him kindly. Better to have retired before 2022. Where is the inspiring leadership we so badly need?

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    A decent man, unfortunately wedded to a failed 19th century Eurocentric, luddite ideology. If our SOEs had been run decently – not even exceptionally – South Africa would have been a much better place for all today.

  • Penny Philip says:

    Contrary to popular belief, I feel Gordhan has been one of our few honest & steadfast ministers. In getting CR into power (& Zuma out) a lot of deals had to be made with ‘devils’ (remembering that CR won at the ANC Conference with a very small margin), hence we ended up with DD Mabuza as Deputy President & Bheki Cele (a staunch supporter of Zuma) in charge of the police. Unfortunately that is the way of politics. Given the frame work of corruption Gordhan had to work within ( eg govt ministers off-books involvement in Eskom corruption & in ownership of coal haulage companies , as just one example) I’m surprised he didn’t head for the hills long ago. Without him Zuma would still be in power & for that I will always be grateful to him.

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      I think you massively overestimate the benefit from having the current crop of crooks in power versus the last bunch. It’s not like the plunder has slowed.

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      I partly agree with you about getting Zuma out – but since then, the corruption and destruction appears to have accelerated, not declined, and Gordhan’s stubborn refusal to bring private investment into our collapsing SOEs has caused hundreds of thousands of jobs to be lost – all for what, a failed ideology? Nothing noble in that!

    • Michael Thomlinson says:

      I also had respect for him at one stage but not anymore. Under his watch and due to his communist ideology he has cost this country a massive amount of money and jobs. He is just another example of cadre deployment – a pharmacist meddling in the running of multi million rand corporations for which he is completely unqualified. An obstinate obsession with socialism and an arrogant disregard for private sector businesses, that are paying for his and the other bunch of useless ministers salaries, has caused untold damage to our economy and the people of this country.

  • mike van wyk says:

    Cannot say we’d be sad seeing the back of this Minister. He achieved absolutely nothing during his tenure as Finance Minister and even less in his current role.
    Being a politician requires you work for the good of the public – not for the good of your party. All the SOE’s should have been sold or shut down, as these do not service the best interests of the public; these have no purpose other more than to self-enrich the ANC cadre class.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Service? He stood by the corrupt and enabled the looting of SOEs. Champagne and caviar communists, with crumbs for the masses.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    If I think of the miserable communist failures (nothing but a failed, poverty-inducing creed where only the elite prosper) in our hideous government, the names of Nzimande, Patel, Nxesi, Mantashe etc. come to mind like a bad smell that never goes away. Gordhan marginally stands out as he opposed Zuma at a time when many were too scared or co-opted in the voracious kleptocracy that SA is today. The sooner these odious and useless characters disappear along with the anc, the better it will be for our country. It cannot come too soon!

  • Gavin Knox says:

    So what is he going to do now? Go personally run his beloved SAA to transport his previous bosses around.

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    An honest communist is only marginally less worse than the typical variety.

  • Geoff Holmes says:

    A very good SARS Commissioner but a centralist communist as Finance Minister or political head of SOE’s is never a good idea in a modern economy. Disagreeing with Zuma shouldn’t qualify anyone for sainthood…

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