South Africa’s long-suffering electorate got something of a reprieve following the resignation of Finance Minister Nhalnhla Nene. Notwithstanding the palace intrigue of ANC factions still vying for power, the country witnessed a rare event – the voluntary resignation of a sitting Cabinet Minister – and a very senior one at that.
To put it mildly, there has never been – either pre-1994-nor post – a tradition of accountability amongst our elected officials – and especially those in the pound seats of government.
At the very least, the Nene resignation injects an all-too-rare dose of liability and culpability into our political discourse and represents an important new flank for President Cyril Ramaphosa’s much-vaunted ‘new dawn’ of governance.
For once, a senior public representative did what his counterparts would’ve done in the United Kingdom or in a wide variety of mature democracies. When you’ve been caught lying and have an ongoing cloud over your head, you leave public office – and in so doing, you retain some honour in doing the right thing.
All credit to Nene on this count. Despite the obfuscation on his relationship with the Guptas, this was a minister who can take exceptional credit for steering South Africa away from a perilously close clash with bankruptcy by refusing to rubber stamp the now infamous nuclear deal.
Of course, Nene was also party to ongoing leaks about his meeting with the Guptas and – as yet – unresolved accusations of a conflict of interest relating to his son’s business dealings with the Public Investment Corporation. Amidst the growing firmament of the Zondo commission and bitter ANC infighting, leaks of alleged impropriety might not just stop here and may leave many Ministers, former Ministers and still senior ANC office bearers with sleepless nights.
The real issue here is whether the Nene case becomes a litmus test for a raft of those still protected within cabinet to come clean or face even further public humiliation. It piles on the pressure not only to those individuals concerned, but also to President Ramaphosa himself to exact confessions from his team.
After all, if you’re the boss and the board have skeletons to hide, you are owed an honest admission of guilt to avoid deep reputational damage. And for the ANC, still struggling to find their post-Zuma feet, the looming election should prompt Ramaphosa to call for his entire cabinet to come clean.
Clearly, the Nene saga has opened a window of accountability, it behooves the President to make sure the window remains wide open.
Within this context, Ramaphosa managed to claw his way to victory from the jaws of defeat. Appointing Tito Mboweni as Nene’s replacement cements the Ramaphosa faction in their quest to shore up their often-fragile control. This was no Des Van Rooyen ‘weekender’ special, this was an appointment with gravitas and credibility – and the markets reacted accordingly.
Ramaphosa clearly wanted a finance minister who spoke his ideological language and also someone with credentials to tackle the waning confidence in the domestic economy. Mboweni has that and more. And, he has almost an equal measure of internal respect within the ANC – and external corporate exposure to make him a choice to be cheered by a variety of domestic constituencies.
It was a well-considered choice and will leave both domestic and foreign investors with an added sense of security as government grapples with a medium-term budget and economic stimulus package that really needs to begin bearing fruit.
Amidst the tumult of the last few days, reality will quickly set in. Mboweni is now at the heart of government’s rescue mission. But, external factors causing volatility across most emerging markets are still blowing. Deep structural issues – with political overtones – continue to prevent South Africa breaking out from its severely under-performing growth rates.
Mboweni will only be able to make headway if his own party allows him to – and there remains the rub. On paper, he may just be the right person to take control of the ‘poisoned chalice’ portfolio in the most challenging of times. With populists resisting any attempts at austerity and the governing ANC hell-bent on not asking the IMF for any rescue package, Mboweni is in for a tough ride. Much will depend on the broader Ramaphosa faction and its ability to begin to turn the lumbering ship that is the ANC more towards its policy path.
Ultimately, these events could be a positive turning point for South Africa in that they combine accountability with much-needed governance skills. It’s not often that you get a Ministerial appointment that well-suited to a particular portfolio – and Tito Mboweni has that distinct advantage.
But, to paraphrase - the politics of it all might still upend the best laid plans of Presidents and Ministers. Ramaphosa has put down a marker – now can it extend across his broader cabinet to drain the swamp of rot and replace it with the real skills to get the job done? The country waits in anticipation.