The news broke late at night, slipping past newspaper deadlines and awakening broadcast media who had settled into the slower rhythm of night. But instead of shrugging their shoulders at yet more political interference in the country’s technocratic systems, South Africans raged.
Something snapped in the nation’s patience of Wednesday night.
The hashtags #NhlanhlaNene and #NeneFired quickly turned to the overriding message coming from the public on social media—#ZumaMustFall. Nene may have started his public life by falling off his chair during a television interview, but people wanted his departure from the stage to bring about the fall of the president who booted him out.
@Lisa_Sol: Dear #jacobzuma. I know the rand dollar rate doesn’t affect you because you have #nkandla and you are getting a jet. But it affects all of us.
@AshorSarupen: @PresidencyZA we gave the president a lovely house called Nkandla. Can he please give us back our economy in return?
@Cfa89: Wait Zuma is asking other countries to help fund climate change in developing nations!? :O but what van Nkandla that ou has no shame
@ZackieAchmat: I have no political party to vote for … #ZumaMustFall
@DjCyaSA: If @MyANC_ wants what’s best for the people, they will take this seriously #ZumaMustFall
@TCILANA_8: You fire a finance minister who stood up against your friends. Watch out guys, we’re dealing with a dictator over here
@LinaMpolase: Rape culture, abuse, drug use, unemployment, failing education, health challenges and Nkandla are part of the apartheid legacy mos
One particular quote from Nelson Mandela seemed to resonate particularly well with angry South Africans, and was shared across all sorts of social platforms. “If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.”
The EFF led the political response, calling out what it thought were the real reasons for Nene’s dismissal – his objection to the trillion-rand nuclear build and his turning down of SAA board chairperson Dudu Myeni’s proposal to introduce a middleman to the fraught negotiations with Airbus over new planes. It called the latest reshuffle – the sixth since 2009 – “a sign of a serious pathological crisis in the leadership and direction of the country”. The party tapped into the existing national outrage over the quarter of a billion Nkandla build, saying Nene’s successor “will be prepared to even approve further upgrades to Zuma’s Nkandla home by putting a private zoo that has exotic animals like domesticated tigers”.
DA leader Mmusi Maimane said: “President Zuma has made one thing very clear tonight: If you stand in my way as finance minister and seek to introduce fiscal prudence, you will find yourself redeployed and cast aside.”
A response from the other side of the benches was conspicuously missing. The presidency’s 8PM release gave no details for the axing and has been quiet since then. Shortly after its release, the ANC released a statement saying: “The African National Congress notes and respects the decision of President Jacob Zuma to appoint a new Minister of Finance … The president has exercised his Constitutional prerogative.”
Trade union Cosatu – once the lynchpin of the tripartite alliance – said it was “shocked and disconcerted” by Nene’s removal. The union said that the minister’s tenure was short, and problematic since the economic sector does not cope well with abrupt and unqualified changes.
Media were quick to look at the financial implications of axing a finance minister that has drawn respect from traders and other major players. The Daily Maverick’s editorial called the dismissal “an act of wilful sabotage”. The Times headline ran: “Zuma takes economy to brink with axing of finance minister.” None of the news was good.
But the strongest reaction was one at incredulity at the appointment of Nene’s successor – the unknown David van Rooyen.
@AdriaanBasson: The new minister of finance Des van Rooyen has a company called Late Bloomer Enterprise. You can’t make this up. #NeneGate
@rosenthal_jon: I have often told investors that they need not worry about S. Africa’s finances because of a strong SARB and Finance Ministry. I was wrong.
This quickly turned to a nostalgic call from people for the return of ousted president Thabo Mbeki.
@Sinister_Mike: There’s no perfect president but Thabo Mbeki was the best we ever had. Mandela laid the foundations, Mbeki built the house. Now Zuma ruins it
@ThinashakaM: I look at Mbeki like a technocrat and not just a politician. Isn’t a technocrat who is so well respected exactly what our economy needs?
With the currency tumbling, ratings agencies have lined up to relook at their rating of South Africa. This is just one move away from effective junk status – where the country would be unable to afford the rate of taking on debt. Last week Fitch Ratings cut the country’s debt to BBB-, the lowest level where a country can still expect investment.
Standard and Poor’s recently warned that “When we changed the outlook to negative [for the South African economy], we highlighted how important prudent fiscal policy is to us.” For now, the agency has said it will adopt a “wait and see” approach – giving the new finance minister a chance to show how he will manage fiscal policy.