Under-fire Cyril needs to grasp his Gordhan knot
Ignoring the turmoil surrounding his public enterprises minister could prove dangerous for Ramaphosa
Even with the SA political script veering wildly over the past few years, Tito Mboweni delivering Wednesday’s Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) is a plot twist nobody could have anticipated.
The Finance Ministry looked to be stable under Nhlanhla Nene and who could have guessed that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first cabinet change would be someone he handpicked just eight months ago as part of his A-team?
Had Nene not testified at the state capture commission of inquiry, he probably would have delivered the 2018 MTBPS that he and the team at the National Treasury had been preparing for months.
There would likely have been some agitation from the EFF during the speech, since they had raised concerns in May already about Nene’s relationship with dodgy businesspeople, although they did not spell out then that these were the Guptas.
By agreeing to testify at the Zondo Commission, Nene had aligned with those piecing together the puzzle of the capture project and revealed his part in resisting attempts to bankrupt the state during the Jacob Zuma presidency.
This mobilised powerful enemies against him.
Who other than the Guptas knew about the series of meetings Nene had at Saxonwold? And who more than the Guptas had a vested interest in discrediting Nene once he was lined up to appear before Judge Raymond Zondo?
In welcoming Nene’s removal, EFF leader Julius Malema said at a media briefing last week that this was one of his party’s “major successes”.
“We know that Mboweni’s appointment means that the Pravin Gordhan faction has lost control of Treasury,” said Malema.
The EFF apparently saw Nene was a cardboard cut-out of a minister and believed Gordhan was still calling the shots in the finance ministry while running arguably the most difficult portfolio in government currently.
Malema has repeatedly alleged that Gordhan is a de facto “prime minister” leading a powerful faction of mainly Indian people who have usurped control of the state.
He has also condemned Gordhan’s clean-up in state-owned companies, claiming that the minister has been purging people without due process.
The EFF is not alone in being critical of Gordhan.
There are mutterings among some people in the ANC and the tripartite alliance that Gordhan is going “too far” with the SOE spring clean, exceeding the purge of Gupta acolytes and interfering with the interests of other politically connected networks.
It is strange that Ramaphosa has not responded to the rather serious claim that Gordhan is running his government and is on his own frolic in the clean-up of SOEs.
Other than saying that the perpetrators of state capture should face sanction, Ramaphosa has not taken ownership of the stabilisation and recovery process in SOEs – the ground zero of the Gupta looting project.
This entrenches the perception that there is a disconnect between what Gordhan is doing and the presidential mandate.
Considering how Zuma surrendered the state to the Guptas, Ramaphosa should not allow the accusation that he is not in charge to go unchallenged.
There could be various explanations for Ramaphosa’s disregarding of the allegation that it is Gordhan, not him, running the state.
Perhaps he believes that the EFF’s assertion is so implausible that it does not warrant a response.
Perhaps if Ramaphosa responds to one accusation of factional activity in the ANC, it will have to become his full time preoccupation and thus upset the delicate balance in the party.
Or could it be that allowing Gordhan to face the heat from the EFF and sections of the ANC spares the president from it?
Nene made the point during his testimony at the inquiry that the Finance Ministry is wholly dependent on the support of the president and cabinet to do their work.
Considering what Gordhan wants to pull off, trying to get Eskom, Transnet and Denel functioning optimally by unravelling corruption networks and appointing proficient, scandal-free boards and executive teams, support from the president is essential to achieve these ambitious targets.
It will soon become contradictory for Ramaphosa to project himself as an anti-corruption crusader and at the same time keep at arm’s length from the process of dismantling the state capture network.
What happened to Nene and the fact that he had to drag Mboweni out of his post-government tenure to do country duty should serve as a lesson to Ramaphosa.
It was a breakdown of communication between the president and the former finance minister, and a lack of strategy to navigate the firestorm that led to Nene’s unravelling.
Ramaphosa must also know by now that he does not have an endless supply of credible candidates willing to jump into the volcanic pit in government.
Even more than Nene, Gordhan has attracted a powerful array of enemies.
Malema has declared him “the most dangerous person”, and he remains a prime target of the Gupta network.
There appears to be a coalescing of forces to dislodge Gordhan, even if it means digging up 30-year-old conspiracy theories to demonise him.
If Gordhan is, in fact, acting on his own agenda, Ramaphosa should call him to order. But if Gordhan is doing his job based on a presidential directive, Ramaphosa should step up and take ownership of the process.
Ramaphosa could persist in ignoring the turmoil around his public enterprises minister, but the danger is that his cabinet will continue to be used for target practice by his detractors.
Gordhan will not be the last member of his team in the line of fire.