Pravin Gordhan: Why this far and suddenly no further?

Thomas Johnson asks where the finance minister was during the first 6 years of the Zuma presidency

Pravin Gordhan: Once more unto the breach

I have written before that finance minister Pravin Gordhan is portrayed by the media, business, political comrades, public, and of course, not forgetting him himself, as the defender of liberty, the constitution, the economy and the rand.

In his weekend column William Saunderson-Meyer compares him to Horatius who alone defended Rome’s bridgehead against invading enemy legions. 

Recently, regarding another polemic – UCT's Max Price cowardly withdrawing the invitation to Flemming Rose – I read these famous lines about “brave Horatius”:

"And how can a man die better

Than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers,

And the temples of his Gods."

(Lays of Ancient Rome, Macaulay)

The first line was used as the title of Benjamin Pogrund's biography of Robert Sobukwe, a "South African hero".  

As Saunderson-Meyer says, outgoing Public Protector Thuli Madonsela is a hero, who "like Horatius, never flinched" from a "steady stream of insults and abuse from senior ANC figures (and) threats against her life."

But is Gordhan like Horatius, or Madonsela?  

This week he told the Hawks: "Stop the bloody nonsense (and) let me do my job". 

The theory is the Hawks are pursuing, or rather, persecuting him on made up charges explicitly or tacitly at the behest of President Jacob Zuma and/or pro-Zuma cabal intent on capturing Treasury.  The first deadline for this group is early September when Hong Kong and South African authorities need SAA's delayed financial statements that show it is a going concern. 

Whatever the case, that the Hawks and those who are possibly giving them orders might be capturing the state by attacking Gordhan (and don't forget anti-corruption investigator Paul O'Sullivan) is not only mere "nonsense", but dangerous to the economy and rule of law.

There is no doubt Gordhan is brave insofar as that word may be applied to one who has the backing of his lawyers and a former judge, his department, his party (SACP), business, media and civil society.  But is he the hero and martyr the media are making him out to be, who alone is our last defence against the barbarian host?

Gordhan is a hard-nosed, committed and ideological communist, cadre and politician. 

The ANC/SACP/Cosatu alliance is ideologically hard-nosed regarding the National Democratic Revolution, aka national socialism, and their black nationalist agenda.  They are hard-nosed about protecting Zuma, including over the Nkandla Constitutional Court judgement.  In the subsequent impeachment vote Gordhan voted against the DA's motion. 

They are hard-nosed to not blame Zuma for the ANC’s election failures, SAA, etc, and they are hard-nosed about taking "collective responsibility” for the problems they have caused South Africa, that is, no blame is apportioned to anyone.

There is, particularly among (white) media and analysts, a tendency to sing Gordhan’s praises (and Nhlanhla Nene’s and Trevor Manuel’s before him).  Why?  Because he is doing the job he is paid to do, one you or I would professionally do if we were in his place. 

Gordhan does not cut a sympathetic figure – his plea for the public's help and “coming close to tears” is funny – because he is a tough politician and one of the culprits that brought us to this pass, for example, debt went from 30% GDP to over 50% under his and Zuma's watch.  He too stood by all these years while the alliance and their rent-seeking friends pillaged the country’s coffers, and the ANC misgoverned.

Columnist Jeremy Gordin has seen through him: “Gordhan seems a fine enough man – but he is a spin doctor extraordinaire.  And look at him now. He is playing the media and the public. Why is he running his hassles with the Hawks in public?” 

So has Gareth van Onselen who in his BDlive column wrote a blistering deconstruction of the hero worship surrounding him.  The occasion was that on May 18 Gordhan requested the National Assembly to note the DA’s attempt to “sabotage” the 2016 budget after the DA’s finance spokesman, David Maynier, proposed reasonable amendments.

Van Onselen said “sabotage” is a serious accusation, particularly in our incendiary political environment, and that “arrogant” Gordhan himself spoke of “forces” intent on “sabotaging” the economy.  He referred to reports like Timeslive’s that suggested there were “apparent attempts by those aligned to Zuma to have the finance minister arrested”.

But despite Zuma and/or pro-Zuma forces being behind Gordhan’s troubles with the Hawks, during April Gordhan, like the committed ANC cadre and politician he is, voted with other ANC members to not impeach Zuma.  Some, particularly his supporters, may feel he had no choice but follow the party with the impeachment vote. But we all have a choice.

If he had made the principled stand to abstain or be absent from the House, and make up some excuse – like Ben Turok did with the Protection of State Information Bill vote because of its “ethical shortcomings” – it would have been interpreted as a strong message against Zuma and Zuma's abrogation of the constitution – a line in the sand.  Zuma would not have been able to fire him, not so soon after Nene.

But Gordhan supports Zuma and Zuma has “confidence” in Gordhan, a virtuous circle. 

I can’t believe Gordhan is as innocent as he and his legions of supporters claim – I don’t mean the Hawk’s trumped-up allegations, but of being a participant to a mighty political battle playing out within and among the ANC and SACP and their supporters. 

State capture and corruption within government, which we are led to believe he is fighting tooth and nail, was a factor when he was finance minister from 2009 to 2014, after which he was shuffled off – “demoted” – to Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs. 

Apart from his occasional, ineffectual attempts to curtail state spending, for example, setting a lower budget than before for official vehicles – but not for Nkandla – that were blithely ignored, he went about his business accompanied by the usual adulation and approbation from the media and markets reserved for post-apartheid finance ministers. 

During his tenure government debt rose from 31% to 47%, growth averaged about 2% (post-apartheid average 3%) and unemployment rose from 24.5% to 25.5%.  These are a measure of his effectiveness and competence of the economic portfolio.  But the smarmy media pundits, markets and society never saw it like that, and took these poor indicators in their stride of the “excellent job” he was doing, it being a typical and expected South African scenario.

So unless state capture, corruption and the forces intent on sabotaging the economy (with the consequent ratings downgrade) alarmingly increased in the interregnum that he was away at Cooperative Governance to his reappointment as finance minister on 13 December 2015, I don’t understand Gordhan’s Damascene commitment to now fight it with all his might, taken within the context of rampant post-apartheid government corruption to which society grew inured. 

And neither do I appreciate his – as Gordin noted – using the South African public by eliciting their support and sympathy in what appears to be an internal fight for the soul of the ANC. 

I accept there will be dire consequences for the country should treasury and the oversight and control it has over public finances fall into the hands of the pro-Zuma faction. 

But my concern is that Pravin Gordhan is part of the cancer that has diseased the ANC and, by extension, public affairs in South Africa.  Unlike Madonsela who stood alone under a sustained ANC attack for years through threats and insults (where was Gordhan, the white knight then?), he is not innocent, or alone.  He is, and has always been, a player. 

Therefore, his protestations of victimhood and honourable intentions – “let me do my job” – will not convince me until, like Sipho Pityana’s confession this week of the ANC’s “self-inflicted setbacks” and loss of moral rectitude, he owns up to his part in the internal party conflicts that are destabilising the country.

So Pravin: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”.