The clever and cunning Pravin Gordhan

Jeremy Gordin writes on the man sitting on the other side of the ANC chessboard to Jacob Zuma

Joining the Dots: An unauthorised biography of Pravin Gordhan by Jonathan Ancer and Chris Whitfield. Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2021.

Before even starting to read this book – because just leafing through it revealed where it was headed – I had in my mind one of those proverbial $64 000 questions, which I shall, insha’Allah, get to at the end of this review.

Besides that, however, I had in the beginning yet another two-part question. Why, I wondered, did the authors and publisher choose to accentuate that this biography of Gordhan (apparently known to his friends and colleagues as “PG”) was “unauthorised”, especially if (as it turns out once you’ve read the book) PG obviously cooperated with the authors?

The answer to this – I assume – is that one thing about PG that this book makes abundantly clear is that he is a smart cookie or, if that sounds cheeky, then let’s say “one clever boychik”; and, presumably for this reason, if PG needs in the future to “distance” himself from anything in this book, he can always say “I never authorised it, take the matter up with the authors”.

It’s a sort of classic PG move, isn’t it? Think strategically, take evasive action even before you need to do so – which, again, this book makes abundantly clear is a PG hallmark. Talking of which, are there things in the book that PG might want ... not to disown exactly but to distance himself from in the future?

I think there are. One can be lulled by the easy and lucid narrative –which I discuss below – into missing that PG either agrees with or even says things that he has not publicly stated before. For examples – that erstwhile President Jacob Zuma was plainly corrupt, or “descriptions” of the roles played by Malusi Gigaba and Lynne Brown in state capture. It is precisely these sorts of things that make this book significant – and that might also cause PG, for whatever reason, to want to lay certain things at the door of the authors rather than himself. In short, this book is worth reading carefully; don’t underestimate it.

Secondly, I wondered (and no offence intended [i]) what is “the point” of such a book at this time (September 2021)? Presumably, the book is not anti-Gordhanian (and it isn’t), so why a biography now? ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

As far as I can tell, the Zondo commission, now due to deliver its report at the end of the year, is more than likely going to “exonerate” PG from any malfeasance, and the Minister of Public Enterprises is presently getting on with his life, etc. and staying off the radar as much as he can.

Part of the answer to this question is, I suppose, purely technical; books don’t just appear; someone(s) got to research and write them; and it’s clear this book kicked off in July 2020. It’s also clear – the authors don’t pretend otherwise – that this book is a push back, a veritable (but subtle enough) broadside, aimed at showing just how clean, strategically-minded, and clever Mr Clean is [ii].

But above all the point of this book is that it’s a sort of commentary on the very issues about which we humble citizens want to know more.

What happened between Zuma and PG, or rather between Zuma and the dept. of finance overall, resulting in the firing of Nene, then PG himself, and then, in the end (if you think about it), in the defenestration of Zuma himself?

What’s been behind the attacks on PG emanating from Iqbal Survé’s Independent newspapers, the EFF, and the RET (radical economic transformation) grouping in general – Dali Mpofu SC’s contemptible behaviour vis-à-vis PG at the Zondo commission being but one example?

All this, and more, is fully covered in this book – and it’s a book that’s a real pleasure to read (and I don’t often say something like that).

The words “limpid” and “lucid” come to mind – the prose is clear, uncluttered; and the book is, to use a phrase that’s gone out of fashion, written “in good heart”. Even if you have questions or doubts – either about PG or the intent of the authors – you’ll still enjoy reading this book and will, I think, learn a lot.

It’s fascinating to read about PG’s youth, his underground activities (including his adventures with Mac Maharaj, Mo Shaik, and others), the formation of the UDF (United Democratic Front) and MDM (mass democratic movement), his torture by the security police, his climb up the greasy ANC totem pole, and the SARS fandango. The material about Operation Vula is really good adventure stuff.

All of the above is obviously told from PG’s side of the field and constructed from interviews with a number of PG-supporting people. But prima facie I didn’t find anything questionable or deeply biased.

Besides, the authors make no bones about their view that, having interviewed many and looked at the documents, PG is a man of “steely resolve,” “that exceedingly rare beast, a clean politician,” and/or rather not so much a politician but “a community worker, an activist” – “somebody who’s devoted his entire life to the service of this country,” “which is why he joined the freedom struggle” and “became a major obstacle in the state-capture project”.

However, when we get to ch. 15, “Mr Charming”, which is essentially JZ versus PG – the chapter seeks to analyse the question of why PG’s erstwhile comrade became his “fierce political foe” and vice-versa [iii] – the conclusion, insofar as there is one, is simply that Jacob Zuma descended into moral bankruptcy and that Gordhan has “an extraordinary mind, an extraordinary ability to see the game, and to respond” (p. 193).

Well, ja, I suppose Zuma did prima facie descend into moral bankruptcy – it’s impossible to argue that he didn’t – and yet it seems to me that an explanation of why Zuma defecated on his own doorstep and went to war in the process with PG, could be a little more nuanced and also consider the environment in which, and the people among whom, Zuma found himself – i.e., the ANC leaders (not that anyone cares anymore).

Similarly, ch. 16, “The Burden of Competence,” the fourth chapter from the end, which deals with PG and SOEs (state-owned enterprises), reads to me as a rather unsuccessful rationale (on the part of PG), trying to explain a number of obvious (and still continuing) disasters. In this chapter, PG “drily points out” that “I’m a member of the cabinet. I’m a member of the ANC NEC ... I can’t decide on my own whether ...” blah-blah-blah (p. 197).

Talking of which, here is my $64 000 question.

If PG is such a clear and strategic thinker, so apparently clean, so committed to the well-being of the country and its communities, if he is a person of such steely resolve, if his interests and concerns have nothing to do with personal enrichment or washed-out ideology, if he with clear-sighted eyes saw that a malignant disease had infected (with few exceptions) the leaders and members of the ANC, resulting in a disaster in so many areas of the commonweal – and, given the work of Ancer and Whitfield, I have no reason to doubt any of these suppositions – what is PG still doing in the ANC?

I appreciate that simply quitting could seem boring, unattractive, and tantamount to giving up. So, what is there to stop a person of Gordhan’s gravitas and resolve from crossing to the Democratic Alliance and saying to John Steenhuisen that he is ready to join the DA, to offer his skills to the party and above all to the people and communities of this land, and to put his shoulder to the wheel in terms of the forthcoming municipal elections and the ones following?

Just wondering.


[i] Talking of not intending any offence, here’s a small disclaimer or maybe it’s a caveat emptor: I know both Ancer, author of Spy (2017) and Betrayal (2019), and Whitfield and, more significantly than that, Ancer’s parents were good friends of my parents (and are my friends), so if I err on the side of kindness, well why not?

[ii] I was amused to read on p 18, in a chapter titled “The Making of an Activist” – i.e., about Gordhan’s early days – that PG read inter alia the works of Herbert Marcuse. In my view, anyone who could read Marcuse and understand what the hell he was saying (which I presume PG could) – is a cleverer man than I am, Gunga Din.

[iii] Coincidentally they share a birthday, 12 April, though Zuma was born seven years before PG, and both, as we know, hail from KZN. Incidentally, although JZ’s middle name, Gedleyihlekisa, is translated by Wikipedia and the authors of this book as “one who laughs while grinding his enemies,” it is, as best I know, a shortened version of an isiZulu phrase Zuma’s father constructed – Ngeke ngithule umuntu engigedla engihlekisa – which means “I can’t keep quiet when someone pretends to love me with a deceitful smile”. Give the devil his due.