THE threat of arrest hanging over Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s head is not an idle one. Gordhan was never meant to be finance minister again after he was removed at the end of President Jacob Zuma’s first administration in May 2014.
That Gordhan landed back in the seat from which he was purposively removed was an accident that Zuma was unable to avoid when the president was caught in the storm over the appointment of Des van Rooyen as finance minister in December last year.
Faced with a refusal from Nhlanhla Nene to return to his position after the debacle, Zuma had to find an acceptable replacement in a hurry.
Gordhan was the only choice that the ANC could be dead certain would stop the slide.
But ever since, there have been signs that groups in the state want this reversed.
In addition to the patent lack of co-operation that Gordhan has received from the Presidency on issues such as South African Airways, the South African Revenue Service (SARS) and Denel, there have also been more pointed threats.
The first was the set of 27 questions from the Hawks sent to Gordhan just days before tabling the budget. The questions centred on the creation of the SARS investigative unit, Gordhan’s role in it and his knowledge of its activities. However, the Hawks would not say what possible crime they were investigating and what laws they believed to have been broken.
No questions were sent to any other protagonists with involvement in the unit, including those who were directly involved in its day-to-day operations. Coming when it did, on the eve of the budget, the intervention brought Gordhan close to resignation.
The second was last week’s story of his imminent arrest, which arrived in the WhatsApp message boxes of some journalists, politicians and state officials. The message could have originated from any number of places.
The important point, though, is not who sent it but that the news it conveyed resonated so strongly among those with links to the security establishment.
While to most reasonable people the arrest of the finance minister looked far-fetched and ludicrous, to those familiar with the machinations of SA’s security institutions and networks, it was not just plausible, but likely.
If that isn’t persuasive enough evidence that the knives are out for Gordhan, then there are also the actual words and deeds of some of the actors.
In March, in defence of the Hawks’ 27 questions, State Security Minister David Mahlobo and Police Minister Nathi Nhleko held a news conference in which they robustly defended the Hawks’ actions in singling out Gordhan.
This week, neither the Hawks nor the National Prosecuting Authority did much to set minds at ease. Both confirmed that there remained an active investigation into the SARS investigative unit, although it was not at a point at which arrests would be made.
Speaking on Friday, before the story broke, Zuma again bemoaned how unjust it was that he had been forced to “un-appoint” Van Rooyen, whom he again reiterated was the most qualified person for the job.
This was because black people were not really in control of SA’s economy, he said, because they had failed to use their political power to do so. “We are the only country in the world where the majority are not in control of the economy,” said the president.
His statements fed the narrative that the Treasury’s past and present leadership is responsible for this through collusion with white capital and foreign governments. This idea has been expressed in several briefing documents from a variety of sources, as well as, increasingly, in speeches by Zuma loyalists.
Here, the idea is to lay the political groundwork for the structures of the ANC to accept the removal of Gordhan, likely to be after the August 3 elections.
Zuma has made it clear he wants a set of keys to the Treasury and he has not given up trying to get it.