The Gordhan way

2016-11-01 06:00

AFTER 18 hours in the air, travelling to Washington this week, I experienced unexpected withdrawal symptoms about not being in Cape Town on Wednesday for the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

One can sense that political events in South Africa are building towards a crescendo and major developments are in the offing.

Gordhan had to deliver the budget statement in the context of a jittery economy, due in part to the onslaught he faces from within the South African state. He is to be charged next week for fraud for signing off on a retirement package for former South African Revenue Service official Ivan Pillay.

It was therefore an unprecedented situation for the minister of Finance to deliver a budget policy statement while preparing to step into the dock.

It seems Gordhan’s troubles have emboldened him and he is defining himself politically through words and actions.

His speech this week was highly anticipated to see whether he could conjure up a magic formula to resolve the university fees crisis. He could not utter the words “free education”, which the protesting students desperately wanted to hear. As free higher education is not government policy, it was impossible for the minister of Finance to announce a budget that enables universities to scrap fees.

Students once again took their protests against tuition fees to Parliament amid heightened security measures to protect the precinct.

As with most protest action around the country, people demand to be heard and government responds through the force of the South African Police Service.

On Wednesday, Gordhan decided to do things a little differently. Instead of dispatching an unknown official to interface with the students, Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas, together with a host of senior Treasury officials, went to the gates of Parliament to receive their memorandum of demands.

Students shouted at him and there was no opportunity for dialogue. “I’ve been in your position many times over‚” Gordhan was quoted telling the protesters. He signed the memorandum and then went into the National Assembly to deliver the budget statement.

In the speech, Gordhan said violent protests signal unresolved social challenges. “Our social contract is under pressure. It is as if we have put unnecessary hurdles in the way of realising our potential and implementing our development plans.”

One very loaded line in the speech was this: “Vested interests and political contestation interfere with decision-making.”

Gordhan flagged that there will be significant tax increases announced in the February budget to raise revenue. He said a further R17,6 billion is needed over three years to subsidise higher education for poor students. This will be in addition to the R16 billion additional funding that will be allocated to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.

It is not what the students want, but it is what is financially possible within existing government policy, with a further pinch on taxpayers and cuts on government spending. It will probably not be enough to placate protesting students who refuse to budge from their demand of free higher education.

As the speech was in progress, violent clashes ensued between students and police. From the time the fees protests began, political leaders across the spectrum have taken cover and avoided meeting with the students. Gordhan and Jonas made an important political statement by going out to meet the students — the government cannot continue to be locked away from people wanting to be heard.

With all the troubles he is facing, and powerful figures in government working against him, Gordhan could have thrown in the towel by now. Not only is he fighting back, he is showing that true leadership entails facing the people you serve, even in hostile conditions. His appearance in court next week looks increasingly like a tipping point for the country. Gordhan’s enemies might rue the day they decided to take him on.

• Ranjeni Munusamy is a political journalist and commentator for the Daily Maverick.

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