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Malusi Gigaba – Zuma’s Pawn or Future King?

Dr Nel Marais served in intelligence structures from 1984 to 2000. He is the founder and managing director of Thabiti, a specialised risk consultancy company.

South Africa’s newest Minister of Finance, Malusi Gigaba, will have to steer the economy through many rapids, including President Jacob Zuma’s patronage networks, the ruling party’s latest policy direction (radical economic transformation) and serious international investor disillusionment. It is an almost impossible task. Zuma has, however, not appointed him to be a successful chief of the country’s finances – he was appointed to implement the wishes of a specific clique around Zuma, now and in future. In this regard, Gigaba will be well advised to remember that he is the fourth minister of finance since May 2014.

At the end of March 2017 President Jacob Zuma did what had been expected for some time: he fired Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. In his place he appointed Malusi Gigaba, a former ANC Youth League “young lion”, someone who represents a new generation of leaders in the ANC.

Gigaba has an interesting background. He cut his political teeth in pro-ANC student and youth organisations. Not having been in exile, his early entrance into national politics was facilitated by former President Thabo Mbeki, who recognised his leadership potential. In 2007, however, Gigaba turned against his former mentor and shifted his loyalty to Jacob Zuma.

There has never really been any question about Gigaba’s political trajectory – nicknamed the Black Star, he has been upwardly mobile ever since he changed allegiances. His inordinate political ambitions and the dismal performance of most State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) under his ministerial oversight saw a slight political detour to Home Affairs. Some observers believe this experience made him stronger and provided him with a better perspective of the complexities of governance. 

His appointment as Minister of Finance will be an immense challenge as Gordhan was removed in part because of his unwillingness to loosen the purse strings and give the financial go-ahead for exorbitant schemes. With the ANC’s elective conference only eight months away and the ruling party facing a precarious challenge during the national elections in 2019, Gigaba will be under constant pressure to follow the policy route that his president has articulated: implementing radical economic transformation.

Gigaba’s critics claim that he was installed to carry out the instructions of the Gupta family and others in President Zuma’s patronage circle. For them, there is no doubt that Gigaba, another KwaZulu-Natal politician, will set the wheels in motion to get the R1-trillion nuclear power build programme back on track. According to this perspective, he is a driven and ambitious politician, and his aspiration to be elected to the Top Six of the ANC might be fulfilled very soon, as long as he can keep Zuma and his inner circle satisfied.

A more benevolent view of Gigaba suggests that he is a capable, if somewhat over-ambitious, politician who has performed better than most of his Cabinet colleagues during the past decade. His supporters argue that although he favours an expansive role for the state in the economy, he is not blind to the shortcomings of SOEs and that his policy preferences are to be found within the parameters of the National Development Plan (NDP). They question whether his loyalty to Zuma is unconditional, adding that he is respected by many senior ANC leaders who are not part of the Zuma camp. They find comfort in his youth and the fact that he has not tried to defend any of the most blatant excesses of the Zuma administration.

We do not believe that Malusi Gigaba has the political gravity to lead the ANC through the process of renewal it so desperately needs. He might well move into a Top 6 position at the December conference, but his youthfulness and the deep divisions within the ANC will make it almost impossible for Gigaba to ensure both inclusive growth and an internationally competitive economy. He might yet surprise us, but we doubt whether Gigaba is the person who will break the stranglehold of Zuma Incorporated’s patronage networks. If he does undertake this colossal task, he will quickly face extremely dangerous adversaries.

The situation is, however, more complex than simply Gigaba’s performance as Minister of Finance. His political future has direct implications for both Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s strategies in the run-up to December 2017.

Gigaba and Dlamini-Zuma see the future of the ANC differently, but her advisers are reportedly keen to draw him into her camp, partly because she is intensely uncomfortable with the machinations of the Premier League. Dlamini-Zuma would, therefore, be content with Gigaba as her deputy president, although such a ticket might cause dissatisfaction in other provinces as the two top positions would then be filled by people from KZN. This plan makes provision for the accommodation of Minister Fikile Mbalula, possibly as Secretary-General. This contrasts sharply with the Premier League’s suggestions that Dlamini-Zuma should be deputised by Mpumalanga Premier, David Mabuza, with Free State Premier, Ace Magashule, as the new chairperson.

Gigaba should also be considered as a possible compromise candidate should it become clear that either a Dlamini-Zuma or Ramaphosa victory would lead to a formal split within the ANC. Until now our impression was that this role was “reserved” for the party’s Treasurer-General, Zweli Mkhize, but his fortunes are reportedly on the decline, partly because he is perceived as too close to Ramaphosa – an observation that might be based on disinformation originating from the Zuma camp.

One must assume that Zuma is aware of the sudden buzz about Gigaba’s political future. It is not clear whether Zuma would interpret this as a threat to his own preferences, i.e. to have Dlamini-Zuma elected, or whether he would consider Gigaba as “loyal enough” to be considered for the presidency if Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign did not go smoothly. What is not in doubt is that Gigaba is back with a bang. DM

Dr Nel Marais is the founder and managing director of Thabiti, a South African-based business consultancy firm, specialising in market and country risk analysis. Before establishing Thabiti he served for 17 years in South African intelligence structures.


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