The axing of Nhlanhla Nene: signs of impunity writ large?


There are some things that send chills down one’s spine; Jacob Zuma’s firing of capable and ethical Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, for instance. It is never easy to call a crisis, but that is what we are in as a country.

For too long now, there have been whisperings about the diminished role of National Treasury and the disarray within the South African Revenue Service. They have remained whispers by those from within who are too afraid to speak. Yet, Treasury and the Ministry of Finance were the final vestiges of legitimacy and credibility within our governance system.

They held the line against a maverick and dangerous populism and nepotism within the African National Congress (ANC), and from Zuma in particular. Our president, after all, has a very thin understanding of economic policy; and it was always a relief that there were other, more capable people who could deal with these aspects of governance.

SAA's Miyeni remains protected by the president at the expense of the country

The strength of Treasury and the Finance ministry is what has always stood between us and a real economic crisis. It is Team Treasury and the Finance ministry that has held the line amid weak and often corrupt governance.

But when Nene decided to ‘do the right thing’ and stare down the chair of the South African Airways (SAA) Board and provide no further funding for a renegotiated Airbus deal, the die seemed to be cast. In addition, the financing of a potential nuclear deal seems to have been a sticking point.

Nene was digging in his heels; a principled politician, which seems to be a rare commodity. We just don’t have the money for nuclear flirtations with the Russians, among others. There is, after all, a reason why Zuma appointed himself as the chair of the cabinet sub-committee on energy. Might he need to be the ultimate puppet-master to facilitate a deal that benefits him and those close to him?

For a while now, there has also been intense speculation as to Zuma’s personal relationship with SAA’s Dudu Miyeni, and whether Nene would therefore survive Zuma’s wrath. Miyeni has been chastised by Parliament, with several calling for her resignation. She is patently unqualified for her position, yet she remains protected by the president at the expense of the country.

It seemed perhaps unlikely that in an economic climate of such difficulty, Zuma would play fast and loose with the country’s future and fire Nene. Yet, he has done exactly that. And so, if we never knew it before, we need to acknowledge that we are at the mercy of ‘strong man politics’ and a president who would do whatever it takes to protect his own interests and those of his cronies and friends; no matter what the fall-out is for the country.

The ANC, a house so divided, presides over this crisis. We now have an unknown finance minister of little reputation heading an economy that faces serious headwinds. Perhaps David van Rooyen is capable, although early reports of his tenure as mayor of Merafong do not augur well. And the timing of Nene’s axing could not be more suspicious. Does this not send a further signal to those who seek to oppose Zuma’s plans in future?

Fellow cabinet members might wish to ask what their role is in acceding to this crisis. Those within the ANC who still have a semblance of decency should surely now be questioning their part in this crisis? And all of us, as citizens, should finally be asking, why it is that Zuma remains in office when he has set about to undermine our democratic institutions with such devastating precision?

One need only look back at the year South Africa has had to see the truth of what is happening. Having protection services in Parliament has become commonplace to protect an unaccountable president; the Public Protector has been attacked with no respite from those around Zuma; and our state-owned enterprises are in a shambles.

The timing of Nene's axing could not be more suspicious

The likes of South African Broadcasting Corporation’s chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, survive despite patent wrongdoing and unethical conduct. Litigation abounds within the National Prosecuting Authority as Zuma seeks to ensure that a compliant National Director of Public Prosecutions does not pursue charges of fraud and corruption against him. That is the stark reality.

Where is the credible mass within the ANC, able to stem this tide towards a state that is failing to put the interests of its citizens first, and a president who flouts his constitutional duties? The option for the ANC at this time is clear. Zuma must be recalled for his blatant abuse of power and undermining of the constitution. History will surely judge those within the ANC who are silent during this time of crisis.

And so, while there are stranger things than the Economic Freedom Front’s (EFF’s) Julius Malema being feted on his ‘London tour’ and receiving rapturous applause at Chatham House and the Oxford Union, is it any wonder, given the self-serving leadership we now have? What Malema says resonates in some ways, despite his own contradictions and inability to set out viable alternatives to the current South African paralysis.

Malema’s EFF holds 7% of the vote and their message of ‘redistribution’ has been scant on detail. ‘Nationalisation’ of just about everything even they know is somewhat impractical. Their single strapline of the year – ‘Pay back the money!’ – captured the imagination, but what it has actually achieved has been limited. The ANC in general and in Parliament in particular, has been so strategically clumsy that it allowed the EFF to gain the upper hand in the minds of the public.

Given the Zuma government’s increasing move to securitisation and an ever-compliant Speaker in the House chair, the scene was set for clashes. Mostly the weakness and inability of the ANC to deal with an unaccountable president, has provided the EFF with the silver platter it needs for its filibustering.

But as we have come to learn, form mostly overcomes substance these days, and Malema and his red brigade are able to capture the imagination of the media. Those in faraway places are equally prone to such ‘personality cult politics’ instead of debating substantive ideas. And so, in some senses, Malema, the swashbuckling young ‘fiery freedom fighter’ also fits a stereotype of where Mandela’s South Africa might rather find itself. It is long a myth that those in the developed world have been pre-occupied with. And so, as we mourned Madiba’s passing two years ago, many were predicting some sort of descent into a race war. Well, that never happened.

South Africa needs new, ethical leadership and fresh ideas

While much of what Malema says is rhetorically titillating, it provides no real solution to South Africa’s intractable challenges. It was, after all, Malema himself who played a heavy hand in delivering the ethically compromised, shambolic President Zuma to South Africa.

Yet, where there are intellectual vacuums at the heart of public debate and where the ANC fails to lead, as it ought to, Malema will always find his comfortable niche. As he said in England, ‘we represent the poorest of the poor. We speak for them’.

One might question the accuracy of the statement, but in a country with stubborn unemployment, high levels of inequality, increasing impunity and corruption on the part of its leaders, it is easy for the Malema message to resonate. And so, it is that South Africa wafts just one level away from ratings agencies’ ‘junk status’. The axing of the finance minister will have a lingering and serious impact on our economy and the trust that underpins it.

Recently, veteran Financial Times journalist, Martin Wolf, visited South Africa for the first time in 15 years. Wolf’s concern is for a slide to populism of the wrong kind when he says, ‘The fundamental point is that if the country does not shift to a path of faster, employment-generating growth, the populist disaster seems increasingly inevitable. It may be too late to make the needed switch, particularly with President Jacob Zuma at the helm. But the stagnation and high unemployment of today are a politically unsustainable combination. Change will come. Let it be in the right direction.

South Africa needs new, ethical leadership and fresh ideas. This week, Anglo-American announced that it would be cutting 85 000 jobs. This is a crisis for those who will now be unemployed and most likely never work again. For that is the South African reality.

In such vacuums, Malema sounds like a promising alternative. Of course, it would be the wrong turn yet if the ANC continues along this trajectory of failure, nepotism and self-seeking governance, then other pretenders of even more dubious stature will vie for the throne. And that, among other things, is what Wolf and others are sounding the warning bells about.

Given the impunity with which Zuma now governs, with scant regard for the economy and the rule of law, we are in Wolf’s very, very dangerous territory.

Judith February, Consultant, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

This article was originally published by Daily Maverick

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