Statement after statement, comment after comment. Friday was the kind of day in politics we have probably not seen since the ANC recalled President Thabo Mbeki in 2008. Trevor Manuel calling for Sars commissioner Tom Moyane to be fired, Pravin Gordhan saying Moyane’s refusal to stop restructuring Sars was “outrageous”, Gwede Mantashe backing Gordhan and hitting out at the Hawks, the Presidency calling claims of a conspiracy against Gordhan “baseless” and finally Gordhan’s lengthy statement explaining how the people investigating him “had no interest in the country’s future”, how the letter from the Hawks was an attempt to “intimidate” him and his team before the budget, and how he would use every legal avenue to protect himself and the ministry.
Suddenly, the fight for control of the Treasury, of the government’s money, was blown out into the open. And the sides, at least in the public mind, were drawn sharply. On one side Zuma, the Hawks, the machinery of the criminal justice system, Moyane and the police. On the other, Gordhan, Trevor Manuel, Gwede Mantashe (crucially) and now the churches. It’s likely that other parts of civil society, and even business, could well get involved on Gordhan’s side.
In the mind of the critical-media-reading middle class, Gordhan, already highly regarded, will be seen as a hero. There are several reasons for this. First, much of the middle class, whether they be Gauteng ANC supporters or DA voters, is fed up with Zuma. They’ve had enough, and anyone with political legitimacy who takes him on is going to win their support. Second, this is a fight about money, and as people who pay tax, and watch it being spent on Nkandla, there is huge frustration about where that tax money goes.
But if you look at what exactly Gordhan is fighting for, it’s for the simple right to do his job. Nothing more and nothing less. He wants to be able to control the money that government has. The Constitution gives the Treasury that duty. Other laws passed since the Constitution was adopted, around control of procurement, have increased that power. Gordhan is trying to make sure control of that money stays at the Treasury and is not handed over to anyone else. For him to say, as he did on Friday, that what happened with the appointment of Des van Rooyen to the post amounted to a coup d’état, is indicative of what this fight is really about.
Now, who else do we know who is considered a hero by these same informed middle-class people, both Gauteng ANC supporters and DA voters? Yip, Thuli Mandonsela. The Public Protector. And she has been fighting for exactly the same thing. To do her job. To make sure that her office has the powers stipulated by the law.
And in both cases, they have achieved this status simply through the reckless actions of the person who has come to be their opponent: President Zuma.
This happens often in politics; without Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill would never have achieved the status he did. Without apartheid, Nelson Mandela would not have been forced to play such a crucial role for South Africa and the world. Now Mandonsela and Gordhan are becoming the figures they are because of Zuma.
But it must also be said that this is about so much more than just the Treasury. It could also become about the fightback against the manipulation of the entire criminal justice system. It is also a fight for the soul of institutions such as the Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority and the police generally.
For so long, we’ve lamented how it seems one person controls all of the apparatus of the police and the NPA and that it has seemed impossible to stop. There was no one strong enough (apart from judges, but that’s a lengthy and expensive route) to force Zuma to allow these institutions to operate properly. Now that it seems the entire economy hangs in the balance, Gordhan may be the one force strong enough to make this happen.
Take the Presidency’s statement on Friday. There is a curious line in which it says, “The President will not comment on the matters in the media environment relating to Sars, which are being handled by law enforcement agencies, as this may wittingly or unwittingly impact on their work and independence.”
In other words, he’s not going to comment on the Hawks investigation into Gordhan, because of his immense respect for the independence of the police.
Oh please. Don’t insult us.
Consider the evidence. Zuma’s friend Richard Mdluli was facing criminal charges, they were withdrawn, and only reinstated after the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled on the case. Consider how charges were so suddenly withdrawn against Deputy NPA head Advocate Nomgcobo Jiba, just after Advocate Shaun Abrahams took over the NPA. And crucially, look at how Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko behaved around Nkandla.
We could go on.
And look at the individuals involved. Nhleko, known for his love of opera, his appreciation of the Nkandla Fire Department and his pool defining abilities. The head of the Hawks, Berning Ntlemeza, was found by a judge in a judgment to be a liar; that he “lied under oath… is dishonest… and without honour”. And it was after that judgment that he was actually appointed to the post of Hawks head.
And this is the man leading the investigation into… Pravin Gordhan? Of all the capable people doing a great job fighting crime that he could chose from, how could President Zuma appoint such an obviously flawed character, a publicly disgraced man?
Then we have the NPA. This is crucial, as the Hawks at some point will have to hand over their investigation to this institution to decide whether to prosecute. But there can be no doubt Zuma has this under this thumb as well. Look at the actions of Abrahams since he took over, instituting charges against former KwaZulu-Natal Hawks head Johan Booysen after those charges have been withdrawn by the Durban High Court. Look at the prosecutions of Glynnis Breytenbach and at Zuma’s refusal to take action against Jiba, despite her colleague and fellow deputy, Willie Hofmeyr, saying under oath that she’s playing a political game. And don’t forget that a judge called her “disingenuous” and “less than candid and forthcoming”. How is it possible that Jiba, after all these issues that would end many a career, is stronger than ever? In any other accountable democracy, Jiba would have been out of her job a long time ago. Not in Zuma-run South Africa.
Does Zuma think he can forever, and with impunity, run roughshod over the nation’s security services, and the nation itself? After so many massive mistakes, outrageous moves, cynical ploys, overt sabotages and covert deals, it appears his luck may be running out.
We may be wrong, but in the fight for public opinion Zuma is going to lose. He made these appointments. He appointed Nhleko, allowed Nhleko to appoint Ntlemeza. He appointed Abrahams and Jiba, who he’s been protecting for years and whose husband’s criminal record he expunged.
It is distressing to understand that it appears Zuma doesn’t grasp the seriousness of his actions. His moves appear to be motivated by his personal interests, and without proper understanding of the damage to South Africa they cause. If the police, Hawks and NPA are led by flawed characters, they might help Zuma with his personal legal woes, but will compromise the entire justice and security system. The ministers of mining and finance will be able to help him and his allies in their business deals, but will wreak havoc with the economy.
This is how deep Zuma has sunk. Many, perhaps most South Africans, feel he has sucked this country, its state, its laws, its economy, its morality, its present, its future, into a death spiral. Fortunately, there are men and women who are still not going to accept it, even if just by not letting Zuma pull them into this death spiral too. And that is why a bruised and battered country sees them as heroes. DM