The firing of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene could have pushed South Africa over the economic precipice, but the crisis became a beacon to guide us into the future, says Daniel Silke.
The magnitude of the last 12 months since Nenegate rocked the nation cannot be underestimated.
While the 2012 Marikana Massacre jolted the nation out of its post-liberation innocence as police actions uncannily resembled those of the apartheid years, Nenegate’s effect was ultimately to undermine faith in leadership – particularly in the office of the president.
The damage done to President Jacob Zuma was such that it simply has not been undone.
Nenegate, which refers to December 9 2015 when Zuma fired then finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, had multiple effects.
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Firstly, it introduced into our political lexicon the term ‘state capture’. While the Guptas had loomed large for some time, their alleged involvement in a plan to take control of the key finance ministry brought both the family and the term into popular conversation. It created an awareness that had hitherto been on the conversational back burner.
The heavy-handed way in which Zuma exercised his authority in dismissing Nene sent markets and the rand reeling. It was a jolt to the collective nation and its shockwaves of political interference, crony capitalism, rent-seeking and poor governance were in sharp focus.
All these issues have remained firmly embedded in our political discourse and the recent state of capture report from former public protector Thuli Madonsela effectively (and controversially) documented much of the event and related issues. The report is set to dominate domestic politics over the next number of months, probably through protracted litigation.
Of course, Zuma was no stranger to controversy – but the deleterious effects on the market and lack of confidence it ushered in took its toll on his office. The flip-flopping on such a critical Cabinet portfolio showed a weakness in leadership always suspected but now clearly visible.
Forced to backtrack by those in his own party and the captains of South African industry, Zuma had been tainted. Just like Marikana, the stain of bad governance was now impossible to remove.
It was also an event that rocked many South Africans out of a slumber of distance from the politics of the day. So dramatic again was the market reaction that many who had been lulled into a veneer or normalcy saw this event as a catalyst to begin caring.
And, even for those with no exposure or interest in the markets, the fiasco of a turnover of three cabinet ministers in the most important portfolio at a time when the economy was showing severe signs of strain was a joke and embarrassment far too much for many South Africans to handle.
Nenegate turned ANC supporters into sceptics
Zuma had already been on the ropes for some time on issues relating to Nkandla and the Spy Tapes saga. This again exacerbated the negativity surrounding his office and opened the floodgates for the president to be belittled with new-found bravery and vigour. Nenegate had turned many South Africans – particularly ANC supporters into sceptics.
The discontent with leadership began to gain momentum. Nenegate unleashed pent-up frustration and public opinion began to turn. Clearly, the compound effect of a multitude of scandals – including Nenegate – resulted in the poorest ever showing for the ANC in the August 3 local elections and the significant loss of major metros to the Democratic Alliance.
The tainting of the president aside, Nenegate may be regarded as a crisis point for the South African economy. While the issues of capturing the National Treasury was a possible blight to permanently damage the institution, it was the consequences of Nenegate - the eventual stabilisation through Pravin Gordhan – that has been at the centre of South African economic life over the last year.
The Nenegate saga brought us Gordhan, who had been sidelined from the role as finance minister a few years before, but was now back. With it came a singular focus on preventing a rating agency downgrade. Moody’s, Fitch and Standard & Poor's might not have been as lenient as they have recently been if Des van Rooyen (and the Guptas) had been able to hold onto their position over those fateful three days.
Nenegate has been a crisis which could have precipitated an economic meltdown. Its unintended consequences have been an economy now in capable hands despite severe political, structural and policy difficulties that will keep the rating agencies at our collective throats.
Through Gordhan’s more honest ‘warts-and-all’ approach to outlining the country’s challenges, South Africans have collectively been included in the fight to keep the rating agencies at bay. Gordhan has managed to capture the confidence of the nation – a commendable consequence of the Nenegate disaster.
Politically, Nenegate also showed the limitations to Zuma's power. For any head of state to have his choice of minister so soundly defeated by both those inside and out of the governing party was a sign of a new era of presidential weakness. South Africans had never before witnessed such a backlash – and a retraction from as powerful a figure as the president.
Nenegate has clung to Zuma. Bad decision-making, a misreading of the political and economic climate, a failure to understand the reaction from global markets and the bad smell of crony capitalism at work now dog his presidency.
Nenegate had the effect of almost making Zuma politically impotent. Together with the increased factionalism in the ANC, it all adds to a sense of paralysis and inaction.
The point is that Nenegate was not an isolated event in Zuma's term. All the other scandals should be seen collectively as adding to his distress. However, Nenegate was so directly linked to his persona that its damage was felt constantly as the year progressed. Zuma never quite found his political mojo after Nenegate. The additional errors of judgement in governance reinforced what Nenegate had unleashed.
Ultimately, a president already under suspicion confirmed the doubts through his Nenegate actions. It was patently obvious that many in his own party were highly embarrassed as a result. Zuma’s leadership was also questioned. He always had a chance to recover to some degree, but never did.
While Zuma was the big loser because of Nenegate, South Africa has become a country that is much more vigilant. Our democracy has matured to a point where the governing party is no longer guaranteed victory in successive elections. Scepticism for the most senior politicians in the land is now widespread, and the lessons learned a virtual checklist used daily against the abuse of power.
Considering that Nenegate could have pushed South Africa over the economic precipice, our use of it as a warning is heartening. In typical South African fashion, a crisis has become a beacon by which to guide us into the future.
The country knows too well that allowing its most senior politicians a second crack at another Nenegate will lead to disaster. The precedence the people now have to protect the integrity of governance is invaluable.