Unlike Trevor Manuel, Pravin Gordhan cannot retire

It is the height of irony indeed. The elements of the ruling tripartite alliance, especially those within the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) who defeated what they call the “1996 class Project” in Polokwane in 2007 and installed President Jacob Zuma, now need a member of that “class project”, finance minister Pravin Gordhan, to serve as a bulwark against the Zuma tsunami they unleashed at Polokwane and fuelled with fresh momentum at Mangaung in 2012.

The looming prosecution of Pravin Gordhan, should it result in him being charged and discharged from Cabinet, will hurt deeply for a man who has given himself utterly to the cause of democracy.

Gordhan is on record as stating that the 27 questions sent to him by the Hawks ahead of delivering the budget earlier this year, after which he was told he was not a suspect, were designed to take his eye off the ball in preparing the budget. It can be similarly argued the timing of the summons for next week’s appearance, delivered earlier this month, were also meant to serve as a distraction from finalising the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS)

On both occasions he refused to blink, this time using the MTBPS to sound the warning of the crunch that is to come next year through rising taxes and spending cuts and start the long deferred and uncomfortable conversation with civil servants about job freezes, pay restraint and, should SA hit junk status, disastrous cuts in the civil service.

Throughout his time as both South African Revenue Service Commissioner and later finance minister, whenever he was quizzed about his future or next move in government, Gordhan stuck to the popular refrain, “I serve at the pleasure of the president”, learnt from his former boss and finance minister Trevor Manuel, the poster boy of the “1996 class project”.

He would then privately joke and extend that line by noting that “when the pleasure ends, so does my time”. He could never have imagined that the end of that pleasure would he hastened by what appear to be flimsy fraud charges.

His task has been an arduous and ultimately thankless one. The year before Gordhan assumed office, in September 2008, Manuel came from the IMF/World Bank Spring meetings and that of the African Development Bank reporting widespread gnashing of teeth in the world economy as the market jitters that took hold in August 2007 and culminated in the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 to trigger what is now officially recognised as the onset of the recession.

Manuel announced, among a rage of measures, R187-billion spending on infrastructure in the three years ahead to bolster demand. Gordhan described that speech as a “confidence booster”.

In 2009, Gordhan’s first task when assuming office was to explain how National Treasury would work with the newly formed department of economic development under Ebrahim Patel. In his introductory appearance at the portfolio committee of finance, he was at pains to emphasise his constitutionally mandated role as custodian of economic policy.

He then stood by and watched as Patel unveiled government’s official response to the recession, hapless and disjointed as the effort was in retrospect.

When his turn came to deliver his maiden medium-term budget policy statement, Gordhan’s task was to reveal the full extent of the damage caused by the recession, which by then had claimed one million jobs and introduced the idea that South Africa would have to raise the national debt from 27.8% of GDP in 2008 back to whre it stood in 1995, matching the current level of nearer to 50% of GDP. There was no time to point out to the left that if it was not for Mbeki’s Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) programme, much hated by the left, that fiscal space simply would not exist.

It is as though Manuel dazzled global markets for 13 years, then, through fortuitous circumstances, handed Gordhan the poisoned chalice of steering the economy out of the quagmire of the recession.

Most of his budget speeches were about propping up Zuma’s flops and failures at State of the Nation address. The end of the current term of government, at which Gordhan will be 70, would have marked his exit from public life. But now, given the backing he has received from Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, he finds himself dragged into the ANC’s succession battles. Whether is coincidental or by design, Gordhan has undoubtedly become the rallying point for change by those who want Ramaphosa to replace Zuma as the ANC the country’s president.

In March 2014, Gordhan would have watched Manuel retire from politics. Manuel, seven years Gordhan’s junior but his senior for a decade by virtue of reporting lines, retired partly because he realised that, in Zuma, he did not have the kind of political backing required to implement the National Development Plan. He did not have the kind of backing that, more than a decade earlier, had allowed him to stand up in Parliament and unveil Gear, or the backing of pedigree, sheer force of personality and experience, that enabled Manuel to stand up to the ad hoc committee that oversaw the formation of the National Planning Commission and was determined to limit the commission’s and Manuel’s powers, and thereby to clip the wings of the “1996 class project”.

Gordhan has had had such backing. Nor does he have, it seems, the luxury of retiring, as Manuel had. He recognises that he has the vital task of assuring markets of his continued presence should he be required, as he was in December last year.

And now, the thanks he gets for his loyalty is a spit in the face from Zuma, in the form of the fraud charges against him. South Africa has to hope that the humble pharmacist from KwaZulu-Natal is about to see his life’s work and legacy sacrificed by an executive pandering to cronies.  

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Thebe Mabanga
Thebe Mabanga is a former journalist.

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