President Jacob Zuma’s decision to fire Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister is expected to deepen tensions between him and his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, ahead of the ANC’s 2017 elective conference.
The Mail & Guardian has been reliably told that Ramaphosa and other senior ANC leaders – including ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe – were unhappy with Zuma’s decision to remove Nene.
The decision to remove Nene is seen by some within the ANC-led alliance as move by Zuma to neutralise Ramaphosa and to consolidate his power before the party’s next leader is elected.
ANC insiders believe Zuma wants to anoint his ex-wife and African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to succeed him as a ANC president in 2017 and the country’s leader in 2019.
Zuma himself has said he believed the country was ready for a woman president. He has privately told those close to him that he did not want Ramaphosa to replace him as ANC president.
Three ANC leaders who asked to remain anonymous told the M&G this week that Zuma did not even take the party’s top six officials into his confidence regarding the decision to remove Nene.
“It’s not like the president is forced to inform the [ANC] top six about his decision to reshuffle the Cabinet. It’s his prerogative. But it is expected that he would raise it with the officials as a matter of courtesy,” said an ANC leader based at Luthuli House.
Another senior ANC official told the M&G that Nene’s removal was intended as a warning to Ramaphosa.
It is a very “loud message” directed at Ramaphosa, said the official, “that the same could happen to him if he dares raise his head”.
The official also confirmed that the rest of the ANC was in the dark on that matter: “Not even the top six knew about it.”
As ANC deputy president, Ramaphosa also heads the party’s deployment committee, which is responsible for placing officials and politicians in key positions within the state.
Ramaphosa worked closely with Nene in trying to turn around the cash-strapped SAA and to toe the line of fiscal discipline against rampant state spending.
He is believed to have given Nene his blessing when the then finance minister turned down a proposal from the SAA board to restructure a fleet transaction with Airbus.
Nene’s department released a statement last week, saying the SAA board’s proposal to restructure the Airbus deal would leave the airline in a materially worse financial position and unable to meet commitments as they became due.
In September Nene rejected SAA’s application for a R5-billion bailout. According to reliable sources, Nene wanted a new board and a seasoned chief executive with the skills to steer SAA in a new direction before he would be willing to give the airline more money.
ANC and government sources said Zuma was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the cordial relationship that was developing between Ramaphosa and Nene.
Zuma supporters said on Thursday that they believe Ramaphosa and Nene had been plotting to remove SAA’s controversial chairperson, Dudu Myeni, a close ally of Zuma’s, to further their own personal interests.
They cited as an example the supplier relationship between Bidvest and SAA. Before becoming deputy president Ramaphosa served as the chairperson of Bidvest, in which his Shanduka vehicle also held shares. Ramaphosa divested himself from various business interests when he took up the deputy presidency.
Attempts by the M&G to contact Mantashe, ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa and Ramaphosa’s spokesperson for comment were unsuccessful.
Nicholas Mazia, deputy general secretary of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu), which has defended Myeni, said he found it interesting that Ramaphosa never said anything publicly about the SAA shenanigans.
“If things get in tatters and the deputy president is not saying anything, we get worried. He has not given direction on this matter,” said Mazia.
Satawu, a vocal Zuma supporter, released a statement last week calling for the president to take action and move SAA under his wing.
Zuma supporters have also complained about Nene’s continued relationship with former ministers Pravin Gordhan and Trevor Manuel, who had also been seen to be dragging their heels on projects Zuma considered important, including the upgrading of his Nkandla homestead.
The push for a woman president also enjoys support from the party’s women’s and youth leagues and the so-called premier league, which consists of the North West, Mpumalanga and Free State premiers.
Nene’s removal was apparently not the end of the current Cabinet reshuffle, with insiders saying other ministers face the chopping block.
Ministers who may find themselves ousted from their jobs include Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies, Communications Minister Faith Muthambi and Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson.
Meanwhile, the ANC’s left-wing partners have warned Zuma of the consequences of removing left-leaning leaders, including Nzimande, from his Cabinet.
A number of communist ministers may have grounds to fear that they may be targeted because of the growing tensions between the nationalists and communists in the ANC.
Communist leaders in Zuma’s executive include Nzimande, who also serves as South African Communist Party general secretary, as well as Davies, Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana, Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi, Deputy Public Works Minister Jeremy Cronin and Deputy Minister in the Presidency Buti Manamela.
Both the SACP and Cosatu have made it clear that they will support Ramaphosa to succeed Zuma.
The ANC Youth League and some senior ANC leaders have called for Nzimande’s head in the wake of the #FeesMustFall student protests.