These are difficult days for our country and as the axing of Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas has shown, in President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet everyone is ultimately dispensable.
Somewhere there is a photograph of Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer sitting on a step during a break in the constitutional negotiations, seemingly relaxed sans neck ties. The picture belies the mammoth task with which they were engaged. This was essentially a task to make something out of nothing. For the Constitution represents South Africa’s dual attempts to overcome its past and deal with its present. Theirs was an unusual friendship forged around our transition to democracy and the drafting of a new Constitution. In between their love of fly-fishing, they got the job done.
The Constitution bears testimony to the optimism of those early years of our democracy. Rampahosa, ANC secretary-general in 1991 always considered a potential president, had to give way to Thabo Mbeki in a rather unseemly broederstwis in 1997. Thereafter Ramaphosa, who had cut his teeth as a unionist and leader within the Mass Democratic Movement, resigned from politics and went into the private sector. Now, all these years later Ramaphosa may again be the “nearly man” of South African politics. It does not seem at all certain that he will wrest the leadership mantle from President Jacob Zuma. The events of the past few days laid bare that struggle and what is at stake.
It’s been a watershed week in South African politics.
The deed has been done. The axe has fallen. President Jacob Zuma now presides over a Cabinet of mostly lightweights and also-rans including those who are ethically compromised like their boss. As his deputy, Ramaphosa sits at the heart of government. Thus far he has remained largely silent as Zuma has become more and more unaccountable. Today he broke that silence by saying that there was no consultation with the “Top Six” on the Cabinet reshuffle. According to Ramaphosa, he “raised (his) concern and objection on the removal of the Minister of Finance, largely because he was being removed based on an intelligence report that I believe had unsubstantiated allegations”. This squares with Gwede Mantashe’s comments when he admitted, “the list of ministers seemed to have been collated elsewhere”. What a scathing indictment on the state of the ANC. Mantashe appeared almost resigned, exhausted and without answers.
Zuma has once again done the unthinkable. He will not be “reined in” and has gone completely rogue. As the tension of last week piled up he finally did what he has wanted to do since 2015 and that is to fire Gordhan and Jonas and bend the National Treasury to his will. The act of cowardice happened at the witching hour on Thursday with attendant chaos and confusion – and one might say complete disregard for the citizens of the country.
At all times this reshuffle was being treated like an internal ANC scuffle. It is not. Yes, the President is able to exercise his Constitutional right to hire and fire ministers but when he does so he exercises public power. That must be done rationally and accountably. That was not the case here. It’s important to be clear that since no proper reasons have been given for the reshuffle – apart from some mealy-mouthed talk of “radical economic transformation” – there was only one reason that Zuma acted so recklessly.
Gordhan and the relatively powerful Team Treasury have been doing a sterling job in overseeing South Africa’s macro-economic stability and ensuring that the ratings agency downgrades are kept at bay. They stood as a bulwark between South Africa and complete state capture. Gordhan and Jonas have also intelligently and thoughtfully made the case for proper transformation of the economy based on sound economic principles and proper financial management. In addition they have refused to sign off on tenders that they believe are detrimental to our country.
The North Gauteng High Court case against Zuma’s friends, the Guptas and in which Gordhan intervened would have raised Zuma’s ire. Likewise Jonas’ revelations regarding the Guptas’ offer of cash to him would have made Jonas equally inconvenient to Zuma. Gordhan and Jonas pretty much confirmed our thinking in their press conference on Friday. Gordhan referred to the “fake” intelligence report in which it was alleged that he was plotting against Zuma and the state while on the investor roadshow. He was forthright in calling it “absolute nonsense”.
Removing Gordhan and replacing him with the rather more pliable Gigaba allows Zuma and his merry band free rein over SOEs and related contracts worth billions. Gigaba underwhelmed when he was Minister of Public Enterprises and has now been handsomely rewarded with the most important position in Cabinet. There is nothing that suggests he is qualified for the task apart from his alleged friendship with the Guptas and his insult of Ahmed Kathrada in defence of Zuma last year. He played his cards right on that one, despicable as it was to call Kathrada a “so-called stalwart”.
We now have a lightweight running the Finance Ministry. One need not wonder how the ratings agencies will respond to that.
But this is who Zuma is and so we should not be surprised. His time in office has given us plenty of insight into his character. He has undermined democratic institutions and abused state resources for private gain. The ANC have stood passively by while the party itself has been dragged further into the abyss and the country along with it.
In a calculated move Zuma has not fired “the communists” and a few others; Davies, Nzimande and Cronin have been retained so have Patel and Motsoaledi. Zuma is perhaps daring them to resign. If Ramaphosa stays they may feel compelled to as well in service of a larger cause? But who knows how that may play itself out in the weeks and months ahead.
Can Ramaphosa shore up the constituencies needed to win the nomination in December? He has little time and will need the unionist’s organising capabilities and his lawyerly cunning if he is to succeed.
These are difficult days for our country and as the axing of Gordhan and Jonas has shown, in Zuma’s cabinet everyone is ultimately dispensable.
As Gordhan and Jonas walked to the podium to deliver their final news briefing on Friday afternoon, National Treasury staff broke out into that old, haunting Struggle song, Senzeni na (What have we done?).
They would probably not have guessed they would be singing it in a democratic South Africa.
How far we had come and now, how low we have sunk. DM
Judith February is a governance specialist, columnist and lawyer. She is currently based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the WITS School of Governance. She was previously executive director of the HSRCs Democracy and Governance unit and also head of the Idasas South African Governance programme for 12 years.