Melanie Verwoerd

Is Zuma's bruised ego behind Pravin's troubles?

2016-05-18 07:55

Melanie Verwoerd

Pravin Gordhan for many years had a poster in his office in Parliament, which featured a line of meerkats all looking to the right. Underneath it said: “Trouble always comes from the right”.

We used to share a joke about it, but lately Pravin must feel that trouble is not coming only from the right, but from all sides, including from comrades and a party he has served faithfully for 45 years.

Shortly after his reappointment as finance minister, many analysts argued that Pravin was bullet-proof. It was felt that given the catastrophic four days prior to his swearing in that President Jacob Zuma would not risk firing the finance minister again - least of all someone as competent as Pravin. It would be too disastrous for the economy. I heard it often said: “Look, the president is not stupid, he has now seen what happens to the rand and the markets, he will just not risk it again.”

I disagreed, for one reason: Ego. By all accounts the president fired Nhlanhla Nene and appointed Des van Rooyen with little, if any, consultation. Then it backfired - in a very public way. The rand lost around 40% of its value in 48 hours and billions of rands were lost on the markets. This led to senior business people intervening, with some of the top six ANC office bearers, who went to see the president. I am sure it was an uncomfortable conversation, during which the president was urged either to  bring Nene back or reappoint Gordhan. Some accounts suggest the words, “Otherwise you are on your own”, were uttered.

Zuma's dismay

This clearly would have infuriated Zuma, and the humiliation of the public and media response would have bruised the presidential ego even further – and a bruised ego is a very dangerous thing, especially when power is involved.

The president has not hidden his dismay at what happened. He has repeatedly (especially when he has gone off script) commented on his surprise and annoyance at the reaction to Des van Rooyen’s appointment, maintaining that he was the most qualified (on account of his economics degree) finance minister we have ever had. Even a few nights ago at the Gauteng Provincial conference he commented again on the matter saying: “He (van Rooyen) was the best candidate to take over the control of the economy. Instead, I was castigated world-wide, including by senior members of the organisation. I then realised I had touched the wrong nerve.”

It was clear to me at the time of Pravin’s appointment in December last year, that if the so-called “rogue spy unit” reared its ugly head again, this was going to be president’s way of payback. And of course it did, within weeks.

It is a clever strategy, because it is very difficult to argue against. Get the Hawks to investigate, find something that they believe to be illegal and then, of course, the law has to take its course. I can imagine Zuma saying: “But you are all shouting at me about obeying the law and Constitution. What am I suppose to do now? Intervene, just because he is the minister of finance? No, I am doing what you have all wanted me to do - following the law and letting it run its course”.

What was not so clear to me was the reason for Zuma’s resistance to Pravin, who had been a close comrade and confidant for many years, especially during Operation Vula.

From what I can gather, there was no specific incident, no fall-out. People in the ANC tell me this is how Zuma operates. They say that, although the president demands intense loyalty, he doesn’t reciprocate. What matters to him is money and power. The most obvious example being his erstwhile best buddies, the Schaik brothers. But, they say, it is also true that Zuma likes his ministers not to get too experienced and remain pliable. Nathi Mthwethwa, Jeff Radebe and Pravin Gordhan are used as examples.

As I know Pravin, he would have run a very tight ship at the treasury, which would make many of the deals that would line the pockets of politicians or their family members difficult. So he gets replaced with Nene and demoted to Local Government. Nene then turns out to be extremely competent and principled, so in comes Des van Rooyen - ever so briefly.  R500bn or so later, the president is forced to bring Pravin back. A bitter pill for the man who is in control of the country to accept.

What happens now?

The presidency has denied the reports of Pravin’s imminent arrest with not only one, but two statements. Curiously, Daily Maverick reported on Monday that the Guptas - apparently back in Cape Town slumming it in Mark Thatcher’s old house - were aware of the possible arrests and mentioned it in a business meeting more than a week ago.

So what happens now? It is possible the whole story goes away and Pravin remains finance minister for the next few years. Another scenario is that the NPA prosecutes Pravin and some erstwhile colleagues at SARS. A third scenario is that Pravin is left in his position, but that others involved in the SARS unit are prosecuted. In that case those in power could claim that they did all they could to keep the economy stable, while Pravin’s integrity will be slowly eroded by the other of the prosecutions.

Revenge might be sweet to the bruised ego, but the price will be huge. Firstly for Pravin. Uncharacteristically he issued a very personal statement late on Tuesday in which he states the distress he and his family has already endured. Significantly he also points out that: “no one should be subjected to the manipulation of the law and agencies for ulterior motives”.

Then there is the continued impact on the economy. Even if someone far more competent than (even) Des van Rooyen succeeds Pravin, the whole world will know he or she was appointed as a yes (wo)man and the markets will respond severely. But it might also have huge implications for the ANC, since I suspect if there is anything that will cause the cracks in the party to deepen and finally break, this will be it.

*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.

Read more on:    anc  |  sars  |  des van rooyen  |  jacob zuma  |  pravin gordhan

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