Politician and Professor: Pravin Gordhan’s week at the Zondo commission of inquiry in focus

On the day after former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene was fired by then-President Jacob Zuma in December 2015, I went to interview Pravin Gordhan, who was then Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs. 

I wanted an inside track about what on earth was going on, because it felt like Armageddon for South Africa as the markets tanked and billions were being wiped off the stock exchange (and therefore off pensions and savings) as the news sunk in.

Gordhan kept checking his Blackberry, looking very worried, as the currency went into freefall.

What he gave me was a list of books to read on state capture, including one called Why Nations Fail. I was looking at my notes from that meeting as I prepared this profile, and they taught me two things: firstly, that Gordhan is the consummate politician, for he revealed very little - certainly not that he was, by then, in talks with the ANC to return as finance minister a few days; and secondly, that he is professorial by bent.

Take this week’s evidence to the judicial commission of inquiry into state capture chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, where Gordhan was the second sitting Cabinet minister to take the stand. He is now Public Enterprises minister. At 68 pages, his testimony was among the longest yet, and spanned the widest experience of what happened to South Africa in the past decade.

In it, Gordhan as politician and professor was again on display. He opening statement was an account of his history in the ANC and later, he provided the first public details of how close he and Zuma had been as comrades. Gordhan, a pharmacist and underground guerilla for the ANC, was part of the reception committee which provided transport and other services to Zuma when he came off Robben Island to return to active mobilisation in Durban. The testimony shed light on how that relationship had come apart.

Then, the professorial Gordhan used books and reports, including Betrayal of the Promise, edited by academics Ivor Chipkin and Mark Swilling, to place state capture within a rubric of how he understood capture. He would return to it again and again in his three-day testimony, like an academic refining a concept. By the end of his testimony, I had noted his references to at least two other books I needed to read as I studied state capture.

The Betrayal report defines mafia networks of capture with its constituent parts, and Gordhan had obviously made a close study of this as he explained often how the state-owned enterprises over which he now has political authority had been captured. He called Zuma the controller of the network and placed Cabinet ministers and others as elites or brokers using the report as reference.

But, later, asked by the commission’s chairperson, Judge Raymond Zondo, to name ministers involved, he deflected from doing so – the professor gave way to the politician. 

In President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government, Gordhan is earning both opprobrium and kudos as the face of the fight against corruption. In this, he is becoming akin to Kenyan anti-graft campaigner John Githongo and his Nigerian counterpart Nuhu Ribadu. Githongo and Ribadu did what Gordhan is now attempting to do: to clear big post-colonial African democracies of patronage and corruption systems in order to stimulate broad development.

Gordhan has taken a scythe to several boards of public enterprises. As the commission sat on Thursday, news came through that the Labour Court had thrown out an appeal by former Transnet CEO Siyabonga Gama against his dismissal. At Eskom, Gordhan was instrumental in ensuring that the board was changed, and a new CEO installed even before he became Public Enterprises minister. 

"We will not tolerate corruption. We will act forcefully," he said during his testimony this week. 

Neither Githongo nor Ribadu lasted very long in their positions, as the patronage and mafia networks they were trying to investigate and prosecute turned out to be too strong. I wondered if that would be Gordhan’s fate too. He is unsettling some in the ANC by taking out executives like Gama and cleaning out state-owned enterprise boards of cadres like Dudu Myeni, the Zuma aide who chaired (and some say, crashed) SAA.

A 1995 profile of Gordhan in the A to Z of South African Politics, published by the Mail & Guardian, notes that he is "highly talented" and sets out in detail the style he deployed as co-chairperson of the multiparty negotiations at the World Trade Centre in the 90s. 

"He won widespread acclaim for his skilful and firm – and sometimes openly manipulative – handling of the talks, but also made enemies for what was seen by some as unprovoked jabs and sarcasm from the chair, aimed at those not in agreement with the ANC." 

Gordhan deploys the same jabs and sarcasms with patronage networks and those with whom he disagrees today, and it can earn him enemies.

Until the ANC came out in support of Gordhan on Friday, he seemed quite isolated early in the week.

For the entire week, he faced an unprecedented attack by the EFF, even by its own standards of politics as war. At a rally on Tuesday afternoon, EFF President Julius Malema capped a month of attacks on Gordhan by calling him a "dog".

"We must beat the dog," he said about Gordhan.

A day earlier, Malema’s deputy, Floyd Shivambu, alleged that Gordhan had given Zuma the so-called spy tapes because he wanted the job of Finance Minister. On both days the sounds of "Phantsi, Pravin Gordhan, phantsi," filtered into the venue of the commission. 

The party launched a social media attack on the Public Enterprises minister’s daughter Anisha, zapping photographs of her into the ether, along with allegations that she was director of a number of companies that did business with the state. 

By Wednesday, the strain was telling on him and on his family, who attended each of the long days of testimony. The commission of inquiry is a place of some vulnerability and intimacy, as people like ministers, directors-general and others - who are not accustomed to opening up processes in the ANC government to public scrutiny - do exactly that. As they complete their testimony, I detect in them both a catharsis and nervousness.

As he finished his testimony each day, Gordhan stepped over to his family: his two daughters and his wife Vani, among other family members. In testimony, he would reveal again and again how his political decisions are always taken in consultation with his family. When Zuma asked him to take, again, the mantle of Finance Minister, after the economy and country went into freefall on that fateful weekend in December 2015, Gordhan did not immediately say yes.

"I want to consult my family," Gordhan told Zuma.

He did so, he explained, and despite the family's reluctance, they opted to "give the commitment to serve" due to the country's position.

After the week’s testimony, and seeing many of Gordhan’s varied identities on display, it is this one - that of a family man - which lingered, and on which he ended his testimony.

His written testimony was going to end on a political note, but because his daughter had come under attack during the week, he ended by stating clearly that she had not done business with the state; neither did she own the string of companies the EFF had put into the ether all week long to create a deflecting narrative. "I am not a commodity for sale, and the Guptas learnt that too," he said, repeatedly, in his testimony. And, neither, he seemed to say, is my family for sale. 

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson was published by Crown Publishing Group in 2012.

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