'We are not interfering' - American chamber on Gordhan support

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. (AP)
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. (AP)

Cape Town - Desperate times call for desperate measures and another sign of this is a call for action in support of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan by the American Chamber of Commerce in South Africa.

In an advert published in a local newspaper, the chamber called on all organisations to make their voices heard in support of Gordhan.

READ: Business backs Gordhan as Hawks intensify probe

The chamber represents 250 companies registered to do business in SA. A survey conducted in 2013 among about 35% of these companies showed that in total they contributed R278bn to the South African economy and collectively employ more than 220 000 South Africans.

The chamber makes it clear in no uncertain terms that SA is in urgent need of immediate "visible political leadership", because "we stand at the abyss of a tumbling rand and an assured ratings downgrade".

In its view, that is the only way to assure that SA has a future "that embraces stability, prosperity and enjoys the benefits of economic growth".

READ: FULL STATEMENT: Why Gordhan won't meet the Hawks

The chamber stated that it gives its full support to Gordhan and encouraged him to "stand strong", because SA needs him. They also called on President Jacob Zuma, the ANC's National Executive Committee and members of Parliament to publicly and consistently support Gordhan. It stated that this would be to assure the public and international investors that they (Zuma, the ANC's NEC and Parliament) will safeguard Gordhan.

The public, business, labour, civil society and "every concerned citizen" are also asked to pledge support for Gordhan in whatever way they can.

As for allegations against Gordhan and others regarding a SA Revenue Service (Sars) the chamber said it recommends that an independent organisation like the public protector be tasked to investigate the matter in order to resolve it.

The elite Hawks police division is investigating a tax surveillance unit within the Sars set up in 2007 when Gordhan was the commissioner of the revenue authority. They ordered Gordhan to report to their offices last Thursday, but he refused.

Analysts blame the stand-off between Gordhan and the Hawks for undoing the rand's improvement and causing SA bonds to plunge the most since December.

The Presidency issued a statement last week to say that Zuma has "full confidence" in Gordhan, but that he does not have the power to stop any investigations into any individuals.

ALSO READ: Hawks move on Gordhan unravels all rand’s good work

On social media there were mixed reactions to the American Chamber's call. It ranged from applause for the move to questions on where the local business' support for Gordhan is, to those calling for #PravinMustGo and claims that those supporting Gordhan "are carrying out the command issued by the American Chamber of Commerce".

Attack on Gordhan hurting economy

Carol O'Brien, executive director of the American Chamber South Africa, told Fin24 on Tuesday that it represents 250 US companies who employ South Africans.

"So, we feel we have the right to comment on the economic space. We normally work behind the scenes, but this time we decided to change our policy and comment in public and support Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

"We felt it was necessary, because South Africa is at the edge of an abyss in terms of what ratings agencies need to ward off a ratings downgrade, and the attack on the minister of finance is hurting the economy," said O'Brien. "Ratings agencies have emphasised that especially state owned enterprises must be better managed."

She said the chamber feels Gordhan is doing a good job and "is probably the only one committed to ensuring the downgrade will not happen". 

"The chamber always works behind the scenes, but this is one time we thought we would come into the open and try to create a lot of public interest and get the public involved in supporting Gordhan and ask him not to give up," said O'Brien. 

"We agree that the minister is not above the law, and, because he is the symbolic head of the country's finances, we suggested in our article that the Public Prosecutor be tasked to investigate the allegations."

She said the chamber has had a very positive reaction to its call for support for Gordhan, which was published in a local newspaper.

"We have had little negative reaction, primarily from persons who are ill-informed and think the American Chamber of Commerce consists of Americans who are interfering in South Africa," she said.

In response to a question about similar allegations on social media that the chamber's notice is a sign of US interference, O'Brien said the chamber is a membership driven organisation and gets its revenue from its members in the private sector. No other entity supports the chamber.

"The American Chamber South Africa is completely autonomous from the US government. We do not take instructions from anybody and we value and jealously guard our independence," said O'Brien.

"The notice in support of Gordhan came from the executive leadership of the American Chamber South Africa. The companies they represent are registered in South Africa, pay taxes in South Africa, and invest millions of rands in skills and communities. In addition, they contribute ingenuity, innovation and technology to South Africa.

"In total these companies contribute about 10% of SA's gross domestic product (GDP) and in order to ensure the economy is able to grow so that we can create jobs and alleviate poverty, we felt it was necessary for the chamber to come out and support Gordhan."

Heidi Ramsay, acting spokesperson for the US embassy in SA, also emphasised the autonomy of the American Chamber of Commerce South Africa.
“The American Chamber of Commerce South Africa is a private organisation that represents US businesses, and is not part of the US government. We defer any questions regarding the statement issued on August 26 2016, to the American Chamber of Commerce South Africa,” Ramsay replied to a query by Fin24.

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