Op-Ed: Singing Kumbaya to avoid a ratings downgrade? No, Mr President.
To get to the bottom of a political issue in South Africa is becoming harder and harder. Facts are elusive, spin is everywhere, dire prognostications abound. Nowhere is this truer than in the saga surrounding SARS, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, and his relationship with President Jacob Zuma. From the facts we know, there is a compelling case to believe they are in fact in conflict with each other. The Presidency disagrees vehemently, claiming that “information peddlers” are responsible for a “toxic narrative”. From their side, the Treasury wants the “political noise” to go away. But that is not so easy. Because it seems that at the moment, no other political battle will have as important a bearing on our future as this. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
The Presidency’s view on the reports of what it calls an imaginary conflict are unequivocal. There is no fight, no conflict, no “war” between Gordhan and Zuma. It says it’s “absurd” to claim that this is a battle for control of the Treasury, because the President, as President, has authority over all government departments, that he cannot be engaged in a struggle “to control a government department that he already controls, and also when he actually controls the whole of government”.
In a perfect world, that would be the end of the matter. We would be able to take the President at his word, the rand would strengthen, the ratings agencies would chill, and we could go back to singing Kumbaya.
But, the facts in the public domain so quickly belie this statement that you have to wonder why it was put out in the first place.
In this statement’s own words, the President “actually controls the whole of government”. This means, on their version, that Zuma has control of the Hawks too, and its head, Mthandazo Ntlemeza. You know what we are going to say next, don’t you? That he was appointed to the position after he was found to have lied under oath by a high court judge. On Monday, Zuma’s newish spokesman, the suave and sophisticated Dr Bongani Ngqulunga, was asked on the Midday Report whether Zuma was happy that a liar had been appointed to head the Hawks. “No, I can’t comment on that, I haven’t seen that” was his response, “but the fact of the matter is the President doesn’t have power to decide who is investigated and who gets prosecuted, that is not the power that the President has”.
It is a fascinating answer. Because, all of the history of the Zuma Presidency, from Mokotedi Mpshe’s “decision” to withdraw the charges against him onwards, points to the fact that control of the security cluster is very much the top of Zuma’s agenda. Two police ministers have supported his conduct over Nkandla; the opera-loving Nkosinathi Nhleko still claims, rather pathetically, to endorse his report that found the “security upgrades” included the fire pool, cattle culvert and chicken run, a position even Zuma himself no longer holds. Nhleko is also the person who appointed Ntlemeza. There is surely no reason whatsoever that Zuma could not say, in public, that he is not happy with the appointment of a liar to the position of head of the Hawks.
Which means there can only be one reason why he has not said this. It’s because he is happy that a liar is heading the Hawks.
But that alone is not the end of the matter.
A brief look at all of the other statements put out in public on this issue proves, beyond almost any doubt, that there is very much a conflict at play here.
Just two weeks ago Gordhan issued a statement in response to the Sunday Times report that his arrest was imminent. He said in that statement, “I appeal to all South Africans to protect the National Treasury staff, who have diligently, honestly and skilfully served the national interest to the best of their ability. They are recognised worldwide for their professionalism and competence.”
Why would a Cabinet minister issue such a statement if they did not believe they were under threat? It was, quite literally, a call for help. He also, in the same statement, said that the “malicious rumours and accusations about ‘espionage’ activities are false and manufactured for other motives”. There we have it, the motive being ascribed, that it was “malicious”.
And it is not just the view of the media that there is indeed a conflict here. In February, on a Friday that saw Trevor Manuel say that if he were Finance Minister again, “I’d take 20 seconds and use it to craft a letter of dismissal for (SARS Commissioner) Tom Moyane”, Gwede Mantashe, the secretary-general of the ANC gave his view. He said of the leaking of the fact that the Hawks had sent the infamous 27 questions to Gordhan, “In our view this is a well calculated destabilisation plan with all the elements of disinformation, falsehoods and exaggerated facts.”
Is the Presidency now seriously suggesting that Mantashe is one of these “information peddlers” who are fermenting a “toxic narrative”?
The Presidency also does not appear to be keen on doing what it has said it would do, which is to bring to an amicable end the conflict between Gordhan and Moyane. Gordhan has said Moyane’s conduct in continuing with a restructuring is “outrageous”. Moyane believes that he has the legal authority to continue. Zuma has said that he is brokering an agreement between them. But that is where his comments stop. There is nothing else, no progress report, and presumably no end to the dispute.
And then there is Zuma’s strange trip to SAA. To see Dudu Myeni, the chair of the airline, the chair of the Jacob Zuma Foundation and the woman known as his “nongirlfriend”, after he issued a statement saying they were not in a romantic relationship. During that visit, three weeks ago now, there was no mention of Gordhan, who is in fact the person who bears ultimate political responsibility for the airline. But Business Day has reported that the long delay in appointing a new board for the airline “is a result of the stalemate between Mr Zuma, who insists on the retention of his close friend, SAA chairwoman Dudu Myeni, and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, who has proposed the new board”.
One of the problems with reporting on this story, or attempting to uncover and analyse what exactly is going on, is that all of it is incredibly damaging for our economy, and perceptions of it. On Friday we are due to be told whether we will be relegated to junk status by ratings agencies. The Treasury, presumably, would be much happier if this noise was not around, if online dailies like this one would just shut the hell up.
It’s an argument that does deserve our sympathy. But that would also be a betrayal of media’s raison d’être, to uncover facts and to present them in a way that adds to the understanding of our audiences about what is actually going on. Imagine if a ratings agency employee were to read our articles, and make a finding on South Africa’s credit-worthiness only to find out that we had held back from publishing certain information, because we were worried about the rating. They would find that dishonest, and correctly so. The same applies to our audiences in this country. More so, in fact.
And of course there is also a duty to correct statements that we do not believe to be true. It seems, on the evidence that we have in the public domain, that the Presidency’s statement simply is not be true. The facts of the matter do not back it up.
Because we cannot base our views of what is happening here on what is being said by the President. We have to base them on what is being done. And the actions speak, loudly, for themselves.DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma is seen during a visit to the Kwanyamazane township with the ANC’s 102nd birthday celebrations in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga, Wednesday, 8 January 2014. Picture: SAPA stringer