The sudden fall from grace of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene reveals something about the inherent weaknesses in mediatised politics or politics as it is played out in the public domain by politicians, framed by the media, and consumed by the public.
Narratives about political figures are told in binaries of "heroes" and "villains" and we use these codes to categorise political figures to help us understand complex phenomena and contradictory roles in unfolding national sagas in simpler ways, albeit from specific and biased vintage points.
The process of designating the side on which politicians fall in the hero-villain divide, if not continuum, is not independent and data driven. It is rather driven by exposés and tacit manipulation of information by mostly the players themselves and at times the producers of content.
In other words, how politicians are viewed in public is not a function of who they are in their hearts of hearts or in their conduct in public and behind closed doors. It is rather a function of what is yet known about that politician in the public discourse – the staged, not the actual, reality.
Until last week, Nene was known only as a hero to our country. Among other things, he had fought courageously against the advances of "economic hitmen" and saved South Africa from an unaffordable nuclear project that could have entrapped the country into unsustainable debt.
John Perkins outlines in his book Confessions of an Economic Hitman the process in which countries in the global south were induced into takeover bids by top multinational companies, development finance agencies and foreign governments during the Cold War.
Developing countries were induced to take loans from western controlled development finance institutions to build mega infrastructure projects that were known at the time they were proposed to be unaffordable using cooked GDP or cost-benefit analyses from rogue economists.
They would then be allowed to default on the loans in order to justify their takeover by foreign governments. The benefits for the foreign governments would be installation of puppet regimes in those countries, siphoning of national resources and domination of the voting choices of those countries in international fora.
Given the allegation by Nene and others, that affordability did not feature high up in the agenda of Jacob Zuma and his co-conspirators, if not the whole Cabinet, in the nuclear deal saga, theirs was a dangerous path that could have compromised South Africa's national sovereignty and sold its soul to emerging powers who have a hidden neo-imperialist agenda. They were playing the kind of game that would have entrapped, not only us, but generations of our children in servitude to countries we were told were benevolent while their neo-colonial aspirations were clear.
Nhlanhla Nene and company in that context played a great role and saved the country from the reckless acts of their colleagues, which were tantamount to treason.
Indeed, he needs to answer to the wider public regarding the exact nature of his relationship with the Guptas, what they wanted, and what his responses were. There is enough public evidence that he refused to budge when it came to supporting some of the projects that could have benefitted the Guptas. But that is not enough to conclude that he did not do anything untoward to satisfy their seemingly insatiable hunger for the public purse.
It is also not easy to believe (admittedly based on mediatised politics) that the Guptas would have the audience of the then deputy finance minister and minister and not make the kind of requests they later became infamous for as the minister has suggested.
Did they perhaps promise him Pravin Gordhan's job before the 2014 national general elections and managed to get him to accept the offer only to turn his back on them once he got into office? Could he be embarrassed that, in this scenario, he did not take his colleague into confidence like his deputy Mcebisi Jonas had done to him?
To someone seemingly caught between serving his country and actually doing it to some extent, the ideals of revolutionary morality on the one hand, and the difficult environment of a captive state as he described it on the other, it would not have been easy to navigate such a predicament. But we can never know whether this was even an issue until the minister comes clean.
That notwithstanding, we should remain forever grateful to Nene for the role we all know he played in saving the country, even to the point of being fired. However, neither he nor any in the ANC should take issue with the backlash he is now getting as a result of the relationships with the Guptas and the conflict of interest involving his son at the Public Investment Corporation.
- Ongama Mtimka is a researcher, lecturer and political analyst based at Nelson Mandela University. He writes in his personal capacity.
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