Turbulence at Treasury: A short history

Pravin Gordhan, minister of public works and enterprises and former minister of finance.
Pravin Gordhan, minister of public works and enterprises and former minister of finance.
Photo: Denzil Maragele

National Treasury and the ministry of finance have been a beacon of good governance and stability since 1994 – the last couple of years however have seen the institution suffer under a barrage of criticism and a political assault that resulted in four finance ministers in four years.

1994 – 1996

Derek Keys, a former  mining executive, was the first minister of finance in Nelson Mandela’s Cabinet, managing the transition before resigning and being replaced by Chris Liebenberg, a banker. Liebenberg had no political affiliation and was roped in by Mandela before the then minister of trade and industry, Trevor Manuel, took over the position.

1996 – 2009 

Manuel oversaw the establishment of Treasury as the crown jewel in government; a department that managed to attract some of the South Africa's top talent in helping to stabilise the country’s finances. Under Manuel Treasury became world-renowned for its budget management process and enabled government to post a series of budget surpluses in the early 2000s. Manuel and Treasury was also responsible for the implementation of then-president Thabo Mbeki’s macro-economic framework, called GEAR, which led to sharp divides in the governing alliance. Mbeki and Manuel’s economic policies were also criticised because it did not lead to widespread job-creation but rather "jobless growth". Manuel was booted upstairs after Jacob Zuma became president in 2009 and placed in charge of the National Planning Commission.

2009 – 2014

Pravin Gordhan, until then commissioner of the South African Revenue Service (SARS), was moved to Treasury as part of the post-Polokwane change of guard where it was demanded that Manuel be removed from finance. Gordhan however continued on the path of his predecessor and close friend Manuel in pursuing conservative fiscal policy. He however became minister after the global financial crisis hit and foreign debt climbed steeply during his tenure.

2014 – 2015 

Zuma removed Gordhan after his first term of office and replaced him with deputy minister of finance Nhlanhla Nene. Like those before him, Nene also came from the "finance family", having previously been chair of Parliament’s standing committee on finance followed by a stint as Gordhan’s deputy. He was widely perceived to be a pair of safe hands in the ineffective and corruption plagued Zuma government. Nene was unceremoniously fired by Zuma on December 9, 2015 and replaced by little-known ANC backbencher Des van Rooyen. Van Rooyen arrived at Treasury with advisors provided to him by the Guptas in tow and immediately started to ask sensitive questions. After four days of uncertainty Zuma was persuaded to replace Van Rooyen with Gordhan, something which he did not want to do.

2015 – 2017

Gordhan’s second stint at Treasury was marred by a calculated political onslaught against the institution, something which had already started when Nene was there. He was faced with a hostile president and had a number of enemies within Cabinet who actively undermined him. Gordhan was at various times investigated by the Hawks and charged by the National Prosecuting Authority and even had to resort to public statements asking South Africans to protect the institution. Gordhan and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, were fired by Zuma in March 2017 and replaced by Malusi Gigaba. 

2017 – 2018

Gigaba was widely believed to have been deployed to Treasury because Zuma became frustrated that a series of finance ministers refused to tow his line. The Gupta leaks showed that the former minister of home affairs and public enterprises had a relationship with the Guptas, visiting them at their home and seemingly helping them to obtain citizenship and travel visas. He was never at home at Treasury and according to insiders spent more time planning his next political move than actually getting to grips with the country’s finances. He was replaced by Nene in early 2018.


Nene’s return was widely interpreted as an opportunity to complete unfinished business. He has travelled overseas alongside President Cyril Ramaphosa trying to coax back investment in the country and has helped stabilise Treasury, which has experienced trying times over the last couple of years. His revelations last week that he met the Guptas six times at their home in Saxonwold – twice as minister – after he earlier denied it has made his position as Cabinet minister almost untenable. Treasury officials say they retain respect for him and don’t believe him to be corrupt. Meeting the Guptas and later denying it however shows bad judgement, some say. The minister of finance is due to deliver the all important Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) in two weeks’ time.

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