Changing finance ministers: An unmitigated Des-aster
Many a politician has learnt, painfully, that a failed cover-up can be worse than the original sin. But the ANC has yet to learn that a failed explanation can be worse than the original mistake – and that several different explanations can be worse than no explanation at all.
Late last week, the ANC went on the offensive for the first time since the firing of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene and the furore that followed it, and early this week ANC heavyweight Jackson Mthembu took that offensive on to familiar ground for the party: blaming the media.
In a letter nominally about the #ZumaMustFall campaign, and his disgust about the lack of objectivity journalists and editors showed regarding it on social media, Mthembu argued that the relatively small turn-out at protest marches last week was evidence that the media had manufactured the outrage about Nene’s sacking.
#ZumaMustFall, Mthembu wrote, followed “a national event … that was received unfavourably by elements of the media”. But the best efforts of the media notwithstanding, ANC supporters “were not fooled by the anti-ANC propaganda and its disseminators – our local media,” he said.
ANC officials had previously intimated that the media had played an oppositional role during the finance minister saga, but had stopped short of claiming the media had actively misled citizens, or had disseminated propaganda.
So Mthembu was alone with his dark hints of a planned campaign by the media, the “laying the groundwork” and of the “double game being played”. It may have stuck, too, if a third conspiracy since the announcement that Des van Rooyen would be the new finance minister to replace Nene had not been trotted out.
Last week, another ANC heavyweight, Lindiwe Zulu, who is also a Cabinet minister, told the Mail & Guardian that business had to shoulder some responsibility for the “Des-aster” (we’re campaigning to give these events shorthand names to avoid yet another -“gate” suffix).
She subsequently accused the M&G of presenting her comments out of context, but, speaking off the record, others in the party put it even more plainly: business wanted to be rid of President Jacob Zuma, and had tried to use the Van Rooyen affair to try to topple him.
The third of the grand conspiracy theories had a similarly partial public face. Free State Premier Ace Magashule told City Press that some members of the ANC’s national executive committee had “said Zuma was wrong”, and at a public event in Sasolburg he warned that the party needs to speak with one voice. It was up to anonymous sources to confirm that there was corridor talk in the party of a group, or groups, that, you guessed it, want to topple Zuma.
None of the conspiracies held much water on their own, but collectively they painted Zuma as a victim. That, in turn, was notably different from the party’s initial official line.
“The president’s willingness to change an earlier deployment in the face of our sluggish economic climate and representations from role-players demonstrated bold leadership, bringing certainty and assurance in the finance portfolio,” the ANC said of Zuma’s appointment of Pravin Gordhan to replace the short-lived Van Rooyen, in a statement following an “extended” national working committee meeting. It went further, praising itself and Zuma for being responsive and open, and for other positive characteristics the Des-aster had supposedly illuminated.
The message did not have sticking power any greater than Zuma’s own initial justification – that Nene had been released to go on to greater things – or the initial argument from within the ANC – that Van Rooyen was qualified and the markets would settle down given time.
And so everyone kept looking for a line of argument that would make it all better, apparently not realising that every new approach served to devalue every other one that had come before.