Melanie Verwoerd

So this is the guy the president wants to fire?

2017-02-23 08:24
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. (Photo: Gallo)

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. (Photo: Gallo)

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ANALYSIS: #SONA2017 took on a different, worrying tone - Melanie Verwoerd

2017-02-10 10:44

From MPs being forcibly removed from the chamber, to fists and bricks flying; SONA 2017 gives South Africa serious reason to pause. So says analyst and former ANC MP Melanie Verwoerd. Watch.WATCH

It was the tale of two speeches. The one from the president and the other from his arch nemesis, the Minister of Finance. I was present for both the State of the Nation as well as the Budget Speech. A mere two weeks apart the two events could not have been more different.

As with SONA, the chamber and gallery was packed to capacity for the budget speech yesterday. The members of the EFF were in their usual red outfits – complete with hard hats. “We won’t see trouble today,” said a journalist next to me. “How do you know?” I asked. “The EFF female MPs are not wearing pants,” she responded. “If they are going to make trouble they don’t wear skirts.”

She was right. Not only did they not make trouble; what happened next was something quite extraordinary, given what we have become used to over the last few years.

The speaker entered and there was the usual short period of “silent prayer or meditation”. Then she announced the first order of the day and called on the Honourable Minister of Finance.

The EFF jumped up immediately, but not to make their usual points of order. They were applauding – loudly. And they were not alone. The DA, IFP and Cope were also on their feet. As was the ANC. In fact, every single person in the chamber as well as the gallery was giving the minister a standing ovation.

Then everyone sat down – except the EFF. They kept going and going until the speaker called them to order. I could see a few ministers shifting a bit uncomfortably. Pravin cleared his throat, but before he could start talking, an imbongi started to sing his praises from the gallery. Clearly caught unaware the speaker allowed it for a few minutes. Then she asked him to please finish. He had other plans, but Julius Malema signalled to him to stop and he sat down.

So started the speech, almost dead on time. No drama, no fuss, no violence. Only respect and applause, and so it continued. 

A lot will be written by economists in the next few days about the numbers and the policy. What interested me more was the tone and language the minister used. Gordhan was calm and charming. He joked with individual ministers and the opposition and encouraged them to applaud when they were a bit unenthusiastic in their responses. He repeated his buffalo reference from last year and smiled at the deputy president which raised a good few chuckles.

Throughout his speech MPs stayed awake. With a few exceptions no one played on their Ipads. They were either listening or reading a copy of the speech. On many points the EFF’s Floyd Shivambu and Julius Malema nodded enthusiastically. The ANC looked relaxed and the atmosphere was almost jovial.

When the minister announced an increase in the top tax rate, many opposition members heckled their ANC colleagues. But the ANC laughed back. Not even Lindiwe Zulu got into her usual fighting mood and joked back at Bantu Holomisa. Blade Nzimande laughed as Gordhan wondered why he wasn’t more enthusiastic about the allocation to education and the opposition cheered.

It was only right at the end when the minister thanked the president that the EFF made a point of order. But their objection (that the president can not be supportive) just raised some laughs and not the usual volleys of abuse.

In content it was clear that it was a compromise budget. But it reflected the man that Pravin Gordhan is. I worked with him over many years in the post-1994 period and came to know him as someone who is committed with every fibre of his being to equality for the people of this country.

And so his speech was (like SONA) focussed on radical economic transformation of this country. Yet, unlike SONA, he did not fall into the Bell Pottinger spin which the ANC has now adopted like a religion. Not once did he utter “white monopoly capital” – words which the president’s speech was littered with.

Of course he spoke about inequalities and their historical legacies, but having played such an integral role in the interim and final Constitution, Minister Gordhan clearly understands the danger of populist and over-simplified racial narratives. And he did not go there – despite the fact that it would have made life a lot easier for him politically.

At the end there was lengthy applause again – from all the parties and the gallery. This time a few ANC MPs – amongst others Bathabile Dlamini, Des van Rooyen, Faith Muthambi and David Mahlobo did not stand up. Few would most probably have noticed, but the EFF shouted loudly at them to stand up.

And so, despite enormous pressure, Pravin Gordhan survived another budget with grace and a sense of statesmanship.

Apart from the important contents of the budget, the event also restored some dignity to Parliament. It is hard not to come to the conclusion that the only difference between yesterday and the State of the Nation event was the person who stood behind the podium.

As I left the chamber yesterday, I overheard a foreign diplomat saying: “So this is the man the president wants to fire? How crazy!”

Indeed…

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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