Nene: Why did Zuma do it?

Jeremy Gordin says the President, believe it or not, is usually excessively cautious

(Some scenes in the following piece, restricted to readers older than 18, might upset sensitive souls; please exercise care.)

Let us, dear friends, if you can control your apoplexy and provided you hedged on foreign currency purchases 18 months ago rather than yesterday, let us begin by trying to look on the, er, more positive side.

Could it be that maybe President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma jerked awake in the middle of the night, and like Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, had a vision as he awoke and stumbled, confused, to the presidential loo?

What if a vision of Nelson Mandela appeared to him and said:

"Gedley, boychik, what are you doing? I know it's hard sometimes to kick against the pricks (Acts 26:14). But you have forgotten the ANC dream, the socialist vision, mai bru. We were supposed to take care of the people, to restore their dignity, giving them edjamacation and medical care and housing.

"In other words, there ought to be a plethora of state spending taking place - Chinese-style, mai bru. We should be building nuclear reactors and locomotives, setting up factories in which we put together our own Seffrican airliners, and so on. But what is in fact happening? The bloody over-serious finance minister of yours, the oke who falls off chairs - and still remains pleasant, what a weirdo! - he's running around behaving like a bloody poor man's Angela "Mutti" Merkel. He's been austere, Gedley. He's been prudent. What kind of nonsense is this? We Seffricans don't do this austerity shit. We are audacious and bold.

"But Nhlanhla Nene's been whining about 'wasteful government expenditure'. Who does this oke think he is? The finance minister? He's openly criticised wage increases for public servants, questioned the management of public utilities, opposed a bailout for SAA (run by your friend, the gojis Dudkele Myeni), been sniffy about giving kids free tertiary edjamacation, sneered at your plan to build new nuclear plants - and hey, dude, I wouldn't mess with Vlad 'the impaler' Putin, I really wouldn't - and has also turned down a proposal to buy you a new jet. Horse manure, Jake, horse manure. What's the point of being president if you've got this dweeb snapping at your heels? Would Vlad put up with his? Barack? Bibi? Nah. Give us all a decent Christmas - and deploy him to Brakpan or something.

"Ja, Gedley, I know that those vershtunkende credit rating agencies have downgraded us, that the economy is crawling slower than the M1 traffic at 5pm, and that the official unemployment rate is above 25% (you and I know it's more like 45%), but whatthefug, Gedley, can't you get this oke to put a sock in it already - and let's go back to real ANC values and plans?"

So the Prez had his press conference on Wednesday night - and the rest is history. You buy my version, friends? Yes? No? Maybe?

How about the following version (which I'm going to keep within the bounds of decency, this being a family website)?

President Zuma is in his "spare room" in the presidential guesthouse in Pretoria - where his pesky wives aren't allowed - when the chairperson of SAA, the aforementioned gojis Dudkele Myeni, bursts in, her mandatory wig somewhat awry.

"Gedley," she says, "you know what you want, I know what you want. Well, you now have about as much chance of getting what you want as there is of you coughing up some boodle for Nkandla. You better whip your NeNe pretty damn quickly - or this is going to be the last time you see me here, transforming (geddit, Gedley?) from my little air hostess uniform into my birthday suit."

You like this second version better? Yes? No? Maybe?

Look, it's difficult to choose. The first version is, suitably jazzed up, the one to which the ANC folk and all the apologists are going to stick. They're going to say that although Nene was a fine upstanding fellow, he sold out on the Dream - and Zuma had to exercise some tough love.

The second version is the one I personally like, obviously. That JG Zuma would, as it were, throw it all away for nookie appeals to the romantic in me.

The third - and most common - version was ably summarised by former President Mandela above. It runs pretty much like this. Zuma thinks he's the president and, this being the case, that no one should really argue too hard with him. The notion of having, say, a finance minister who actually watches the rands and cents and spending, as he's mandated to do, strikes Zuma as being a trifle bizarre.

Now then, with this as background, we do know that Nene openly criticised the wage increases for public servants, questioned the management of public utilities, somewhat intemperately opposed a bailout for SAA (the board of which is chaired by Ms. Myeni who also chairs the Zuma Foundation and is apparently a "good friend" of the president's), been a trifle sniffy about university kids and their fees, been not been very positive about Zuma's plan to build nuclear plants, and has also turned down a proposal to buy the president a new jet. Nene is deeply concerned about where the money is going to come from for all of the above.

For Zuma such a concern is clearly defeatist and negative - all you do is call Shaik or the Guptas or tax the rich folk or whatever. Only small minds worry about detail. All this being the case, Zuma has grown increasingly annoyed with Nene - and the treasury's undignified, public castigation of Ms Miyeni was the proverbial last straw.

Let's also not forget that all this has embarrassed Zuma with the Russians and probably the Chinese - and lord knows what folk such as the Guptas have been whispering into his shell-like ears.

Ok, but here are some difficulties.

Version 1 - the Mandela vision - works only if you we assume that the President "cares about" South Africa and South Africans. Sorry, don't buy it. The point about Number One is that he cares about himself, and his family to some extent, first and foremost. That's it. Good night, Irene, good night.

Ah, you'll reply, but he does care about the party; he's said so, and you said so in the biography. Ja, but to cut off Nene at the knees just when the ratings agencies have just whacked us, the economy is screaming, and the rand is becoming less valuable than the Syrian currency (whatever that is) is not taking the ANC into consideration. It's to treat the party with contempt. It's also clear from the reaction of the party and its SG that no one is happily backing Zuma on this one.

Bear in mind, too, that Zuma would rather put off today what he can continue putting off tomorrow and the next day. He is, believe it or not, excessively cautious. He prefers to talk a subject to death, with friends and comrades in his living room, rather than actually doing something. He's not what anyone would call "pro-active".

Besides which, if Zuma had the ghost of a legitimate reason for doing what he's done, he would have told us.

How about version 2? Well, I have conceded that I love a bit of romance. But not even Zuma - who, it is common cause, loves his nookie - is likely to, as it were, give away the farm and everything else for what John Berryman once called "wuv". Nookie he's never been short of - and there was (and is) too much riding on the decision to boot the finance minister.

What seems clear is that something happened that really annoyed Number One and catapulted him into precipitous action. There might exist some other project, one none of us knows about yet, that required the cooperation of Nene and he said "No" one too many times.

What is also clear to me is this. If the firing of Nene wasn't done for the country or the party - and it doesn't look as though it was - then it was done for reasons of Zuma's own personal avarice. And this, it seems to me, was (and is) deeply reckless, perhaps criminally reckless. No getting away from it.