Melanie Verwoerd

NPA vs Gordhan: Is this really all you’ve got, Shaun?

2016-10-12 07:05

Melanie Verwoerd

I guess it was always going to happen. As I said months ago, President Jacob Zuma was never going to let go of the humiliation he suffered with the whole Nenegate fiasco. He had his sights on Pravin and it was clear that, some way or the other, he was going to get rid of him and finally take control of the fiscus.

Of course Zuma is not completely stupid. Even he understands that another firing of the Minister of Finance would be unwise. Not that I think he is too bothered about the effect it would have on the rand or the economy, but he knows it might be just one step too far inside the ANC. So naturally, the way to go was to find something of a legal nature and let the legal process run its course. It was as clear as daylight that he could then argue: “Well, you all want me to abide by the law, but why must it be different in Pravin Gordhan’s case?” And so he can claim that it has nothing to do with him, whilst laughing hyena-like, at the successful hunting of his prey.

When I recently interviewed Trevor Manuel, I asked him if he could see any scenario where things would end well for Pravin Gordhan. He thought about it for a few minutes and then responded: “You know, it’s a very strange situation because the metric I would use is rational expectations...but we’re not having rationality dictate.”

His words came back to me, while watching Shaun Abrahams announce the charges against Pravin Gordhan yesterday. At first Abrahams went into great detail about the lawfulness of the establishment of the so-called rogue unit in SARS as well as the work it did. Rationally, all watching him assumed that he was building up to very serious charges related to the unit. But rationality does not dictate. No, after almost 30 minutes, he explained that this investigation had not been completed (why bring it up at all?) then jumped to the early retirement of Ivan Pillay and announced the charges against Pravin Gordhan, Ivan Pillay and Oupa Magashule. All related to R1 million, 147 thousand, one-hundred-and seventy-eight rands and, let’s not forget, eleven cents!

Very few things surprise me in political and public life, but I was gobsmacked. “Is that seriously all he has?” I texted an insider, “… all this fuss for R1.1 million (and let’s not forget the 11 cents!)?” It’s not that I think that fraud of any number is too small to be taken seriously. All corruption or fraud should be dealt with decisively. But given the severe consequences this decision is likely to have on our economy and the months of investigations and harassment of the minister of finance, you would have thought they would come up with something far more serious. And yes, given all the billions of Rands disappearing through corruption from state coffers, the amount does seem rather trivial.

Naturally Shaun Abrahams was going to be asked critical questions by the journalists present, but he didn’t take kindly to most of them and at times seemed shockingly ill-prepared.

For example, when asked if anyone had previously been prosecuted in South Africa on a similar issue, i.e. early retirement, he said he did not know. “There are so many fraud prosecutions in South Africa,” he responded. I am not a lawyer, but given how high the stakes are in this matter, I would have thought that some quick investigating into jurisprudence by an intern or junior clerk in his office might have been a wise idea.

As time went on he got more and more agitated with the fairly predictable questions from the press. Asked about the timing of the decision, he hit back: “If the decision was not to prosecute would you have wanted me to hold that back?” Would he resign if Gordhan was not convicted? “No, not under any circumstances” was his terse response. Was this a tricky situation for him?  “No, I did not make the decision,” he said dismissively.

But it was in the final minutes of the press conference that things really heated up. When asked about political interference, he hit back at the journalist: “What if this decision was made by a judge? What if this decision was made by the Public Protector? Would your reaction have been the same? The days of disrespecting the decisions of the NPA are over. The days of looking at the NPA in such a light are over. The days of non-accountability and not holding senior government officials accountable are over,” he fumed.

Of course, as powerful as he is, Shaun Abrahams cannot determine what people feel and I want to venture a guess that this decision by the NPA will not change the perceptions of the public about his office and the political agendas being played out through it. This was the point that the journalist, Karyn Maughn, tried to make. She politely asked: “In a situation where 783 charges against President Zuma have not been reinstated, and where the High Court has said that the 2009 decision to drop those charges was completely irrational, and given that the NPA has never disputed that it has a very strong case of corruption against President Zuma, but then decides to go after the Finance Minister for R1.1 million, do you (Abrahams) understand that in a country where early retirement is regularly granted, it will be very hard for the South African public to accept that it was not politically motivated?” And with that the press conference was over. Despite the fact that this was the one question we all wanted answered, it was clear that this was the one question Shaun Abrahams was not going to respond to.

So prove us wrong, Shaun. Show us that your office really acts without bias and that the days of corrupt government officials are truly over. Re-instate the charges against the President. Be as fearless as Thuli Madonsela and we won’t ask you the questions we never needed to ask her. Be a man of conviction. This decision has already cost the country and its people billions. No one has ever suggested that Pravin Gordhan is above the law. But if it turns out that he has not committed a crime, resign. Because even if you did not make the decision, as you kept on saying in the press conference, you surely have checked that this case is rock solid? As the head of the NPA the buck (billions of it) stops with you.

And talking of taking responsibility: how is it that every time there is a big crisis the President is out of the country? The streets are burning with the anger of the youth, the Rand is deteriorating by the minute, Tina Joemat-Peterson is about to spend R1 trillion on nuclear energy. Yet, our President is visiting Kenya to discuss, according to one press release, avocados. You would think he might have decided to stay here or come back early. But then again, as Trevor said: “rationality certainly does not dictate!”

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and SA Ambassador to Ireland.

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