They may deny there’s a rift, but words betray them

Poitical dance: Some say the president is protecting Nomvula Mokonyane. 
(Photo: Peter Andrews/Reuters)

Poitical dance: Some say the president is protecting Nomvula Mokonyane. (Photo: Peter Andrews/Reuters)

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has dismissed suggestions of a falling-out between him and President Jacob Zuma.

“He [Zuma] is the president. We sit in the same Cabinet. How can you produce the budget without talking to the president?” said Gordhan during an interview with the Mail & Guardian in Cape Town on Thursday.

The tired-looking finance minister earlier on Thursday told delegates at the Brimstone Investment breakfast that he and Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas would survive, despite what are widely seen to be concerted efforts to discredit the treasury under their leadership.

The swearing in of former Eskom chief executive Brian Molefe as ANC MP on Thursday fuelled speculation of an imminent Cabinet reshuffle.

The ANC youth and women’s leagues have called for Gordhan to be removed from his position as finance minister, as he is seen by some within the Zuma camp as being an obstacle to economic transformation. But Gordhan’s supporters believe the finance minister is being targeted because of his firm stance against corruption.

On these calls by the leagues, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe defended Gordhan, saying they did not augur well for the organisation. “It’s terrible for us. For any structure to call for a dismissal of any other comrade, it’s just bad,” he said.

But Mantashe would not be drawn on the possibility of disciplinary action against these structures, saying that the organisation would deal with such issues internally.

Gordhan poured cold water on claims of increasing tension between him and Zuma. But treasury insiders told the M&G this week that Gordhan believed he was not getting the necessary political support from Zuma.

The finance minister is also said to be frustrated by Zuma’s apparent failure to call to order some of his Cabinet ministers who have been found to be on the wrong side of the law. Sources pointed to the president’s failure to pronounce publicly on the looming crisis with the South African Social Security Agency as a case in point. They also cited Zuma’s failure to deal with Water Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane, who has been unable to account for some of the money allocated to her department. 

Comment could not be obtained from the presidency at the time of going to print.

Statements made by the two senior ANC politicians themselves, in private and in public, also tell a different story to the official line that harmony prevails.

The apparent deep-seated differences between the two played themselves out during Gordhan’s budget speech on Wednesday, with the finance minister appearing to dismiss the populist line taken by Zuma and some of his supporters regarding radical economic transformation.

The budget speech served as a neutraliser to the bold promises and radical tone taken by Zuma in his State of the Nation address last week.

The two leaders seemed to have been singing from different hymn sheets as they agreed on the concept of radical economic transformation but differed on the finer details of how to roll it out.

Outlining his plans for the year, Zuma encouraged government to forge ahead with “driving radical economic transformation for the good of our country” this year.

Although Gordhan agreed with the need for radical transformation, he took a more careful and measured approach, calling for clarity on what such transformation would entail before it could be implemented.

“We need a consensus on a transformation programme — with each of us clear about the contribution and sacrifices we have to make to ensure optimal inclusivity,” he said.

The two addresses also carried evidence of differing opinions over who would benefit from the radical transformation.

In his State of the Nation address, Zuma focused heavily on the black African population, lamenting their inadequate access to property, jobs and business opportunities. 

“Twenty-two years into our freedom and democracy, the majority of black people are still economically disempowered,” Zuma said.

“The gap between the annual average household incomes of African-headed households and their white counterparts remains shockingly huge. White households earn at least five times more than black households.”

His view was that radical economic transformation should be implemented to rectify wrongs against black people.

But Gordhan expressed a different opinion on the matter, saying the benefits of transformation would have to be shared across all racial groups.

“Transformation must result in an economy that belongs to all, black and white, where the legacy of race domination is no longer visible,” he said.

Even the role of government in implementing radical transformation was viewed differently by the two. Whereas Zuma promised that the government would “utilise to the maximum the strategic levers that are available to the state” to drive transformation, Gordhan said the government could not “carry all of the responsibility for ensuring that every citizen experiences a palpable change in wealth”.

Gordhan told the breakfast meeting that people needed to distinguish between slogans and reality when talking about radical economic transformation. He urged South Africans not to fall into the traps of those who were hiding behind radical transformation to protect patronage for a selected few in the country.

“When few [people] benefit, you have the kind of problems that [you see in some parts of the world]. 

“We [in South Africa] had few [people] benefiting [in the past]. Some of these things are taking us back to last year. Why is the treasury so evil, except for implementing the Constitution?” said Gordhan.

He lambasted those who were obsessed with blaming the treasury, and not other government departments, for lack of transformation in the country.

“Why is [the treasury] so important and not other departments? If you talk to actual delivery, there are many other things. Let’s focus on [service] delivery. People must feel they are benefiting [from the government].

“Those with ulterior motives must be exposed. They are attacking the treasury every day. What are we standing in the way of? What is there to hide? This is what people should ask,” said Gordhan.

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo is the political editor of the Mail & Guardian. He joined the newspaper in 2003 and has won numerous awards since then, including the regional award for Vodacom Journalist of the Year in the economics and finance category in 2015, SA Journalist of the Year in 2011, the Mondi Shanduka SA Story of the Year award in 2008 and CNN African Journalist of the Year – MKO Abiola Print Journalism in 2004.
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