Max du Preez

'South Africa has already started to burn'

2016-03-15 07:47

Max du Preez

On 18 July 64 AD Roman Emperor Nero held a concert in his village, Antium, south of Rome. He was a keen player of the harp and singer and his concerts and parties were famous.

While the harps were stroked and the flutes sounded on stage, a messenger arrived from Rome. Rome was burning, he told the emperor. Nero simply picked up his harp, got on the stage and continued with the party. The party is only over when the emperor says it’s over.

More than half of Rome was reduced to ashes. Nero later blamed the small group of Christians in Rome for the fire. But the Romans suspected that Nero himself had ordered the burning and they turned against him. In 68 AD he fled from Rome and committed suicide not long afterwards.

How is this old story from far away relevant to South Africa in March 2016?

Three ratings agencies are presently watching our economy and politics like vultures and are wondering whether it’s time to downgrade South Africa to junk status. Economists and analysts believe the chances are 50/50 right now.

Downgrade would spell disaster

A downgrade would mean it would be much more difficult and expensive to borrow money, and borrow we have to. It would mean global investment companies like pension funds and asset managers would not be able to hold South Africa’s debt because their rules declare it too risky. It would mean investors would shy away, it would mean an even weaker rand, higher inflation, higher interest rates, weaker growth and more unemployment.

In short, it would spell disaster, happening at the same time that social and political pressure for an end to poverty and exclusion are dangerously high.

It would not be alarmist to say that South Africa has already started to burn.

Our top fireman, Finance minister Pravin Gordhan, has barely slept the last weeks as he is trying to put out fires and to reassure investors and rating agencies that our economy is still credit worthy.
It is a crisis; we’re facing catastrophe, so all hands on deck, mobilise all efforts and resources to strengthen Gorhan’s hand, right?

Wrong. While Gordhan, accompanied by senior Treasury officials and top businessmen and industrialists, travelled across the globe to reassure the international community that we’re on track, while they’re preparing for a crucial meeting with rating agencies on Thursday, the head of the Hawks, Berning Ntlemeza, threatened Gordhan publicly (in yet another leaked letter to the media) that he would “face the consequences” if he didn’t immediately respond fully to questions on the Sars investigations unit. It was an extraordinary act of aggression and defiance. Never before has a Cabinet minister been confronted like this by a civil servant, certainly not in public.

This “investigation” has been dragging on for years now and Gordhan was never questioned, but Ntlemeza only woke up three months after Gordhan was re-appointed as Finance minister.

Messengers had arrived some time ago to inform President Jacob Zuma that the country is on fire, but he and his friends are having a party at Nkandla. This investigation has nothing to do with him and must continue, he says. Burn or not burn, bring more beer and stroke the umqangula (or is it the Indian sitar?), the party is only over when the emperor says it’s over.

It was Zuma himself that had ordered the axing of the Sars top structure after the very same investigations unit started looking at his wealthy friends’ tax matters and asked why Zuma hadn’t paid donations tax. The investigators actually sent two letters with questions on these matters to Zuma’s lawyer, Michael Hully, but they were fired shortly afterwards.

'Hawks part of the plot'

Zuma then appointed an old loyalist, Tom Moyane, as head of Sars with an order to stop the investigations into Zuma Inc and to guard the secret dossier on his friends’ and his own tax matters with the help of the State Security Agency.

The Hawks are part of the plot, because Ntlemeza was also appointed by Zuma after he had axed his predecessor who wanted to investigate the president and his friends. If Moyane falls, Ntlemeza could be next.

Zuma was of course not truthful when he said he couldn’t stop the Hawks “investigation”. The order to do the investigation came from him or his inner circle, as did the selective prosecutions of foes like former IPID chief Robert McBride, former prosecutor Glynnis Breytenbach and former Hawks chief Anwa Dramat – and the dropping of charges against an old loyalist, Nomgcobo Jiba of the prosecuting authority.

The ratings agencies and investors were happy and satisfied with Gordhan’s budget last month. They are now investigating whether he has enough political support to execute his budget plans and undertakings.

The signals coming from Zuma, Moyane, Ntlemeza and the state security ministry indicate that he doesn’t have that backing.

If those signals are not reversed by decisive action by the ANC Top Six and cabinet in the days ahead, we will not be able to extinguish the fires that had already started burning in our country.
How did the Nero story end again?

- Follow Max on Twitter.

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Read more on:    anc  |  jacob zuma  |  pravin gordhan

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