Ferial Haffajee: Campaign against Gordhan works as Eskom reform stalls

The scariest headline I have read this week (and there have been a few) is the Bloomberg one noting that Eskom’s debt is now effectively bundled as sovereign debt. The implications are huge. 

We have likely overshot the 60% debt to GDP ratio with this week’s R59bn additional bailout to Eskom granted through a Special Appropriation bill tabled by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni.  Eskom’s reform has stalled. 

It does not have a CEO and last week the head of Treasury Andre Pillay threw in the towel too. It is significant that there has not been load shedding through the heart of Winter, but this could also be because the economy is in the dumps with continual downward growth revisions.  

There are many reasons Eskom can’t pull out of crisis and the campaign against Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan is at least one of them. The campaign is being waged by the Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane who has, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, resuscitated three old campaigns related to Gordhan’s tenure at SARS, the revenue service. 

In today’s announcement that she is investigating the appointment of SARS Commissioner Edward Kieswetter, Mkhwebane makes clear that her powerful office is being used to batter economic reform. 

The three investigations are that he allowed a “rogue unit” to conduct illicit surveillance at SARS (numerous reports show this was not so); signed off an illegal early pension arrangement for former deputy SARS Commissioner Ivan Pillay (a legal opinion showed it to be legal); and now that staff of his are allegedly still being paid by the tax agency even though they work at other departments. 

Each of these has distracted Gordhan from his day job which is to rescue Eskom and other captured and teetering state-owned companies. The Public Protector’s investigations against Gordhan have required hundreds of legal hours to respond to the complaint, to respond to her requests for information, to interdict and eventually to review them. Then, the EFF has put its battle against Gordhan into fifth gear. 

Its campaign started last year when Gordhan appeared at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into state capture and it has not let up since. Engaging a disinformation campaign, the party made such serious accusations against Gordhan that he laid crimen injuria charges against the EFF and its leader Julius Malema. On social media, a trolling army operating as a swarm attacks Gordhan almost every day and uses his second name disparagingly. 

“What about Jamnadas?” they will say in the face of any negative coverage of Mkhwebane. What is happening? Some of it is historical. Gordhan, as former Finance Minister, turned off the taps of patronage Malema benefited from when he was a tenderpreneur and former ANC Youth League president in Limpopo.

In 2011, Limpopo treasury was placed under administration in an early example of the looting we now know as “state capture”. Another reason is that Gordhan made enemies even as he turned SARS into a world-class revenue collector and customs authority. SARS brooked no ill-discipline and when an official was found to have engaged in illegal wildlife trade activities while on holiday, he was fired.

Thus began the long-running rogue unit saga with its dossiers of false flag operations that continue to ricochet across the South African polity. Gordhan is now facing both an old and a new coalition of the wounded which have weaponised his ethnicity (a lot of the attacks he faces are about him being Indian) and unleashed a powerful social media campaign against him. If you scroll social media, you will see the placement of memes, disinformation posters and caricatures of Gordhan across Twitter and Facebook. 

The new coalition of the wounded relates to his work at Eskom, Transnet, SAA and Denel. The details of how the four state-owned companies had been eaten out by rent-seekers have been aired at the state capture inquiry. And at each one, Gordhan, as Public Enterprises minister has appointed new boards who have, in the main, axed the senior executives they found. 

These powerful groups of people have allied with the old networks to form part of what is called the “The Fightback”, campaigning against Gordhan and others. By being able to use the Public Protector’s office as the bulwark of the battle, it is already stalling change at Eskom and elsewhere. If it is not rapidly mapped and stopped in its tracks, it could completely stall economic reform as this week’s revelations by Mboweni about the state of Eskom reveal. And perhaps that is the very purpose of the campaigners. 

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