For weeks now, media-consuming South Africans have been agog at the spectacle playing out before us — that of the president and his allies engaged in a standoff with the finance minister and his allies. We have also been baffled and dismayed by the feeling that there isn’t much we, as ordinary citizens, can do about it.
This goes to the heart of the issue of how our democracy functions — and whether the fabled vote for which the ANC fought is really worth anything in terms of empowering the people.
It’s bizarre that the battle has continued for so long and has become so drawn out, with escalations on both sides — though the escalations are usually provoked by bumbling, quasi-legal manoeuvres by the Hawks, who are seemingly fighting for President Jacob Zuma. The chief example of that would be the “warning statement” debacle in which a legal instrument was clearly being abused by the alleged crime fighters to intimidate Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.
We now know that this intimidation was going on even as negotiations were underway to resolve the SAA crisis, in which the national carrier needed rescuing from the cliff it would otherwise soon fly into. The intimidation of Gordhan, in the middle of this, was a sign that Zuma’s proxies were treating it like a war and not a matter of skilled governance, let alone sound business sense.
That the president can even allow himself to be perceived as warring with his finance minister is mind-boggling. Still, the intimidatory tactics worked — the final deal cleared SAA’s entire, compromised board (which the treasury had to do to keep SAA aloft), but had to agree to retain chair Dudu Myeni, who you might say is the Zuma nominee. So, win some, lose some — a temporary negotiated ceasefire, rather than a true treaty. This war will go on.
It will also further destroy confidence in South Africa’s economy and push up the costs of borrowing — costs that the state is largely going to have to bear if the drought of private investment continues, which it is likely to do, or gets worse. The state-owned enterprises need a great deal of money if they are to keep going or expand in any meaningful way; the saga of Eskom’s new power stations (way over budget and overdue) is an egregious instance of the problem.
Gordhan confessed this week that he was living (rather like when he used to be an underground ANC operative in the early 1990s) on a fortnight-by-fortnight basis, expecting he could be fired at any time by Zuma. Meanwhile, the country’s largest asset manager washed its hands of three state-owned enterprises it was in the process of funding or finding loans for. Then Denmark’s Jyske Bank announced a similar move, triggering fears that more fund managers could follow. Amid all that, the rand fell a bit more.
In this very dangerous game, Zuma has taken the entire nation and its economic future hostage in his pursuit of more power and, therefore, more money. The nation has to find a way to make it end.