Melanie Verwoerd

Why are we still surprised by Zuma's actions?

2017-03-29 08:12
President Jacob Zuma during SONA 2017.

President Jacob Zuma during SONA 2017.

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Every time I think the president is incapable of surprising me anymore, he proves me wrong. I have long accepted that there is more often than not very little logic or rationality to be found behind most of the decisions Jacob Zuma makes. But his actions this week really take the cake.

The investor roadshow by Pravin Gordhan, officials, trade unions and business is a scheduled and regular event. It is crucial in terms of raising money not only for private business (or white monopoly capital as the ANC now likes to call anyone with money), but also for government bonds and State Owned Enterprises. In the early 2000’s, during my time as ambassador in Ireland, my staff and I worked tirelessly to get more investment and trade for South Africa. It was hard work.

South Africa, even when we were still looked upon very favourably, was a hard sell. We had to deal with widespread Afro-pessimism and concern that we would end up like many other failed African countries – particularly Zimbabwe.

Our geographical distance from most big trading partners also made things less attractive as did the volatility of our currency. And those were during the good ol’ days. We were still in the after glow of the Madiba years and the foreign business community liked Thabo Mbeki.

Today’s political climate makes it a nearly impossible task to convince the international community that we are a safe haven for foreign investment. And let’s not forget the rating agencies who are due to make another decision in a few months’ time.

You would expect any president to be truly concerned about the economic growth and stability of their country. Not our dear President Zuma. No. If he is not delaying the FICA bill on spurious grounds, he is making wild statements on land reform and of course on the Gupta spin doctors’ inspired phrase: “white monopoly capital”.

Thankfully there has been a phenomenal group of committed South Africans in Treasury working against the odds to keep the economy on track. I engage with them from time to time and they are truly world class. Many of them have worked with a series of finance ministers since the transition, the latest being Pravin Gordhan.

But instead of acknowledging their work and providing them with support the president and his “compatriots” have been making their lives hell. The treasury officials frequently talk about the feeling that they are swimming against a tsunami and many are starting to look exhausted and despondent.

So one can only imagine the despair they must have felt when the president, without any proper explanation, cancels such a crucial roadshow after it had already started. There is a lot of speculation as to why the president recalled the finance minister and his officials and stopped the rest of their week-long activities. I believe there are only two plausible scenarios.

The first is that the president wanted to show that he is in control and wanted to humiliate Pravin. Why, you ask, would he do that? Well, because he can. Simple.

President Zuma is still smarting from the events surrounding Pravin’s appointment and his principled push back on many issues is also not something that is scoring him any brownie points with No 1. Zuma is increasingly under pressure from his own supporters in the ANC to show that he is still in control and to get these “renegade ministers” under control.

The most likely scenario, which does not necessarily exclude the first one, is that the president will do a Cabinet shuffle in the next few days and either wants to get rid of Pravin or his deputy or both. In either scenario he would not want him out of the country sitting with international investors and international media when it happens.

Now of course firing Gordhan and/or Jonas is the president’s prerogative. It would be unwise (to be diplomatic), but it is still his prerogative. But why do it in this manner? It’s not as if this roadshow was secretly planned and came as a surprise. And why not wait a few days, until they are back in the country?

All this negative publicity, the fall in the currency and reputational damage to the country and ANC could have been reduced significantly in the short term. 

What ever the case might be, the president has again shown that he has very little, if any regard for the repercussions of his actions on the markets and thus on our country’s prosperity and the ability of the state to provide a better life for the poorest of the poor.

Sadly, amidst all this drama unfolding, dearest Ahmed Kathrada died. Kathy was one of the kindest, most humble and principled people I have ever been honoured to engage with. He was also fearless. Although he was always nuanced and measured he spoke out till his last days about what he believed to be right and criticised those, including the president, when they did wrong. He will be sorely missed.

Like with Arnold Stofile’s funeral it is reported today that the message has been conveyed to the president that it would be preferred if he either does not attend Kathy’s funeral service, or if he does, that he takes a back seat.

It has been confirmed that Cyril Ramaphosa will lead the delegation and that the president will not make an address. I am sure Kathy would have hated for this to become a political football, but hopefully it will make the president think long and hard about the fact that he, as the head of state, is not really welcome at an official funeral for one of the most significant struggle icons of the organisation and political party he leads.

- 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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