Pravin Gordhan: A political profile

Paul Trewhela writes that the new finance minister may be more sympathetic to statism than Trevor Manuel was

There are sound reasons to think that Pravin Gordhan might be politically sympathetic to a more statist economic programme than Trevor Manuel. These relate to his background and political formation. To understand this, it is necessary to know the inter-connections between a number of long-standing activists in the underground resistance to the apartheid regime, of whom Gordhan was one.

The crucial figure is the late Vella Pillay (1923-2004), a central person in the international network of the South African Communist Party and an official in the Bank of China in London for almost five decades, who was born and grew up in Johannesburg. After half a century in exile, Pillay - a founder of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in London - was coordinator in the early 1990s of the Macroeconomic Research Group (Merg), a body of South African economists with a broadly marxist orientation, who compiled a report, Making Democracy Work (December 1993), which proposed a strong state presence in economic policy under a future ANC government.

This report largely guided the ANC's statist Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP), which Mbeki rejected and abandoned as ANC government policy in 1996 in a high-handed manner, after minimal consultation within the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu. Mbeki's repudiation of the RDP and his firm espousal of the market-oriented Growth, Employment and Redistribution Programme (GEAR) was a primary cause of him and his colleagues being increasingly perceived within the ANC as having betrayed the Freedom Charter (1955), which had proposed very extensive nationalisation by the state of the South African economy.

As Mark Gevisser writes in the revised, second edition of his biography of Thabo Mbeki, published this year, Manuel as head of the ANC's Department of Economic Policy in the early 1990s "quickly became Mbeki's protege". Under Mbeki's tutorship, Gevisser continues, Manuel "wrested ANC economic policy away from a group of illustrious left-wing London academics who advocated for a strong state and inevitable deficit spending...". (A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream, Palgrave Macmilan, 2009. p.249) According to Mbeki and his financial managers, GEAR - Manuel's emergency plan in the 1996 currency crisis - "staved off a crash that would have forced the country to take the begging bowl before the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank." (p.342)

Vella Pillay - who had managed China's foreign currency reserves as assistant general manager of the Bank of China in London, and who had been tipped as the first ANC head of the Reserve Bank in South Africa - was the principal individual causualty of this abrupt policy reversal.

Pillay had been perhaps the first member of the SACP to go into exile in London, as early as 1949, when his marriage to a white fellow member of the SACP became illegal under the racist provisions of the Immorality Act of the new National Party regime, followed by study for a degree in international economics at the London School of Economics.

The leading administrator of Soviet relations with the SACP and the ANC, Professor Vladimir Shubin, has written that the "first step in building regular relations between the USSR and the SACP and the Congress Alliance" occurred when Pillay, "the Party's representative in Western Europe", visited Moscow in July 1960 together with the SACP leader Dr Yusuf Dadoo, and had meetings at the headquarters of the Soviet Communist Party. (Vladimir Shubin with Marina Traikova," 'There is no threat from the Eastern bloc'", The Road to Democracy, Volume Three, SADET, p.990. (See here - PDF ).

Following further meetings in Moscow, Pillay arranged for Mac Maharaj - subsequently a member of the Central Commmittee of the SACP, senior Umkhonto weSizwe commander and later Minister of Transport in Mandela's first post-apartheid government - to received military training in the German Democratic Republic in 1961. Maharaj writes in his biography how he became "lifelong friends" with Pillay and his wife, Patsy, and how the Pillay household in London became a "home away from home" for him and other South African exile colleagues in London. (Padraig O'Malley, Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa, Viking, 2007. pp.82,80). Less than a year after his humiliating televised interrrogation before the Hefer Commission, he spoke at Pillay's funeral in London in August 2004.

Maharaj's departure from government and his humiliation at the hands of Mbeki's close associates took place in parallel to Mbeki's dismissal of Jacob Zuma as Deputy President (2005), the jailing for corruption of Zuma's financial adviser, Schabir Shaik (2006), and the aborted subsequent prosecutions of Zuma on corruption and rape charges, widely perceived within the ANC to have been instigated by Mbeki.

This is the meaning of Maharaj's statement, immediately ahead of last months' elections, that "Within five years of our democracy, a clique coalesced, developed ambitions and set themselves up as kingmakers in politics and business so that they could concentrate and perpetuate power in their hands behind the facade of constitutionalism and democracy." (Sunday Times, 12 April 2009).

The significant relation of Gordhan to this background is that he, Maharaj, Zuma, retired General Siphiwe Nyanda (former Chief of the South African National Defence Force, and now Minister of Communications in Zuma's government) as well as Schabir Shaik and two of his brothers were all part of the same underground military-political network, Operation Vula, active mainly in KwaZulu-Natal in the last years of the apartheid regime. While Zuma, based outside South Africa, had been at the head of one strand of Operation Vula, known as "Operation Bible", Maharaj and Nyanda were both arrested and tortured in South Africa in 1990, and were prosecuted jointly with Gordhan.

Gordhan is reported to have been a member of the Central Committee of the SACP, with links to Zuma from the mid-Seventies, and was secretary of Operation Vula. His connections with Zuma are reported to have begun after Zuma's release from Robben Island prison in 1973, before he escaped from the country two years later.  Gordhan is reported to have been an underground member of the SACP for 20 years.

Given the powerful campaign in the SACP, Cosatu and the ANC against Mbeki's economic programme before, during and after the recent election campaign, it is reasonable to perceive Gordhan, as Finance Minister, as being in sympathy with the anti-GEAR sentiments of its opponents. This would tend to place him in an adverse relation to Trevor Manuel's tenure in the same post. Gordhan's impressive reputation as head of the South African Revenue Service does not stand in contradiction to this.

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