In a show of overt support for current incumbent Pravin Gordhan, former finance minister Trevor Manuel was at the Kelvin Grove post-budget breakfast in Cape Town at which Gordhan was the headline speaker. That event was curious and indicative of the battles for access and privilege being fought behind the scenes.
Billed as an eNCA exclusive live broadcast with Gordhan, it quickly became a compromise event with the SABC broadcasting live first, followed by eNCA. Sundays papers reported that Gordhan had refused to attend a “New Age/SABC” breakfast. A last-minute threat from upstart SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng is claimed to have brought about the compromise of a dual broadcast without New Age sponsorship.
You had to wonder: who was trying to dilute Gordhan’s power?
Gordhan’s speech was a mixed bag in tough times. Its efficacy will be largely dependent on whether he is able to rein in his colleagues and, in particular, his boss. And that is where the rub lies.
In what was vintage Zuma, it was no coincidence that the day before the speech, Zuma labelled Des/David van Rooyen “the most qualified finance minister South Africa has ever had” and a “comrade”, thereby undermining his present finance minister by stealth.
The established narrative since December has been that ANC-aligned businesspeople and others forced Zuma’s hand to fire Van Rooyen and appoint Gordhan. It was, many said, a sign that Zuma’s power had weakened and that those within the ANC who wanted to prevent almost certain economic ruin had won out.
For now, one might have said at the time. Zuma, the political street fighter and strategist so beholden to rent-seeking cronies, would surely seek to fight back? This is a leader who has spent the better part of his time in office protecting his own interests.
But late on Friday things took a surprising turn when Gordhan himself issued a press release and spoke out against the letter he had been sent by the Hawks questioning him about the “rogue unit”. Gordhan hit out, saying we were witnessing a battle between a “small group” who would “disrupt institutions” and who were not interested in economic stability.
And Gordhan hit the nail right on the head. The ANC came out in his support with uncharacteristic speed and lack of ambiguity. But which part of the ANC, one might ask. For it too is a house divided.
As citizens we are left mostly in the dark as proxy battles for power and state capture have spilled into open view. Zuma, a master of the dark arts, dismissed rumours that his support of Gordhan was ambiguous as “rumour and gossip”.
We can be very sure however that our president sits at the heart of this battle not for the soul of the ANC, as some have called it, but rather for the heart of our country. Gordhan’s press release shows again that the tussle is between our future as a constitutional state in which institutions hold those in power to account, or a state captured by cronies who would loot the state for their own purposes.
Gwede Mantashe and others within the ANC are well aware of this and what the economic impact of a Treasury and finance ministry in disarray will mean. Already we are feeling the effects of this battle spilling into the public sphere as the rand took another tumble in a jittery environment for emerging markets.
In this milieu, it is no coincidence that Northwest Premier Supra Mahumapelo, one of the “Premier League” who support Zuma, came out in fanciful praise of the Guptas’ contribution to society recently. It is also no coincidence that the National Prosecuting Authority and the Hawks are in disarray. This surely suits Zuma? Hawks head Berning Ntlemeza was a controversial appointment after a Pretoria High Court judge found him lacking in “honour and integrity”. Hardly the man to head a corruption-busting unit. Yet he remains in his position and was rumoured to be close to former head of crime intelligence, the equally controversial Richard Mdluli.
Gordhan’s appointment directly affects those who wish to siphon money off the state, whether through lucrative deals associated with nuclear energy, within state-owned enterprises or elsewhere. To them, Gordhan represents a stumbling block to be removed at all costs.
It’s High Noon and Gordhan has now made the battle for our institutions one that is in the public domain. Gordhan will need to watch his back, as he is no doubt acutely aware.
One might ask why Moyane so brazenly absented himself from Parliament last week and why Ntlemeza is emboldened to step into the fray, just as South Africa is trying to stave off an economic crisis of Zuma’s doing?
Again, the answers inexorably lead us to the president himself and the political cover these protagonists believe they enjoy.
We are in dangerous and difficult times. And Gordhan’s words this week could be prophetic.
“If you see me sitting here in October, then I have political support, and if not, then I don’t have political support – that’s how life works,” he said.
If it is indeed High Noon for South Africa. We will have to wait and see who the Gary Cooper of the SA’s Wild West really is. DM