The Gathering 2016: One exceptional moment in time
President Jacob Zuma said he “did not take even a penny” of taxpayers’ money for the upgrades at his Nkandla home – a statement negated by the Public Protector’s report showing undue benefits and the Constitutional Court judgment confirming the president should reimburse the state. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan told us at The Gathering 2016 that neither he nor anyone else being investigated by the Hawks regarding the SARS investigation unit “have ever stolen one cent of public money”. Almost the same configuration of words that caused widespread exasperation and showed contempt for accountability also led to a powerful and moving moment in South African politics. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Many years ago, I tried to bum free medical advice from a doctor. On the way to the ANC’s 50th national conference in Mahikeng in December 1997, I walked up to Dr Zweli Mkhize, then the MEC for Health in KwaZulu-Natal, and asked him about what was clearly a heat rash on my chest. He looked at me with a slight grin and said, “It’s just people’s eyes”. It was hardly a precise diagnosis but a suitable way to fob off what must be a perpetual annoyance for medical doctors.
I remembered this incident on stage at The Gathering as Stephen Grootes and I were questioning Mkhize on the ANC’s local government elections manifesto, the state of the economy and the issues plaguing his organisation. Mkhize still has the gentle bedside manner of a medical doctor and the dexterity of a skilled politician, able to navigate difficult issues without exactly answering the question.
Asked why the ANC national executive committee (NEC) aborted the investigation into state capture – political parlance for the interference of the Gupta family – Mkhize manoeuvred around the issue: “In reality, the ANC takes these allegations seriously, but as far as we are concerned, we would resist any form of capturing the ANC.” He said the ANC had already confronted the Guptas on their behaviour, the results of which are not evident, but avoided answering why they had not confronted those in the ANC and the state enabling the family’s improper influence.
Mkhize also swatted away questions about succession in the ANC, an issue hanging over the organisation as it prepares to elect a new leader next year. “Internal and informal discussions remain so. The conference is coming. We will talk about it at the right time,” Mkhize said, refusing to say whether he still supported Cyril Ramaphosa to succeed President Jacob Zuma.
Questions about the Hawks’ investigation of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and former officials of the South African Revenue Service (SARS) made Mkhize drop his guard momentarily. “There are some things that come up that are a bit of an irritation when you have to deal with the issues of SARS and the Hawks. It becomes an irritation because these are intra-governmental rivalries that must be managed backstage.”
Gordhan has been under tremendous strain because of the Hawks investigation and from inside the party, with certain factions clearly not wanting him in the job. While ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe had initially declared strong support for Gordhan, he seemed to backpedal after the last NEC meeting. He warned against people trying to “ring-fence” and protect Gordhan as if he were an institution. “When you do that you’re actually, even if you want to do that to express love for Pravin, you are actually harming him.”
But Mkhize called on the ANC to rally around Gordhan. “He comes from the same party so I think that we need to give him a bit more support and not continue to create a kind of schism (between Gordhan and Zuma).” Mkhize said the ANC was in a catch-22 situation because it could not intervene to stop the “irritation” of the Hawks’ investigation but also faced pressure for trying to stay out of the matter.
Suspended head of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate Robert McBride, speaking in a later panel discussion at The Gathering, made a piercing comment about the persecution of Gordhan and others like himself. He said people with “struggle envy” were hounding them because they could not compete with their role in the liberation struggle. He said what the apartheid police had failed to accomplish, those currently heading the security agencies were trying to do as part of an orchestrated campaign to render institutions of accountability useless.
All this built towards the moment Gordhan sat down next to me. In my mind, time stood still.
Watch: Pravin Gordhan Q&A
I grew up in awe and slightly terrified of the man because of the stories I heard about him in my youth. When I first saw him in the early ‘90s after the ANC was unbanned, he looked nothing like the valiant freedom fighter and underground operative I had imagined. He looked like someone I would have seen in my dad’s barbershop, one of the regulars who came there to argue about politics.
Gordhan is not a garden-variety politician. He doesn’t bamboozle you with flamboyance and booming soundbites. He is a measured man who chooses his words carefully. You have to be careful of what you ask him because he will call you out if you’re taking chances. But he also not predictable – he says what he wants to say, not what you think he will.
When Gordhan returned to the Finance Ministry in December, his appointment came as a huge relief to many South Africans, including myself. As a citizen, it was difficult not to be in a state of panic then about the future of our country. I have learnt through life’s trials and tribulations to be wary of politicians. But his seem a safe pair of hands into which I can trust my pension fund.
A few weeks ago, I learnt that one of the Gupta brothers had informed people at a business meeting in Johannesburg that Gordhan would be arrested and then removed from his job. The person telling me about this was anxious and panicked, I felt anxious and panicked and my editor was anxious and panicked when I told him. This is not ordinary politics. It is the wilful sabotage of our country by people with a nefarious agenda. This is not about justice for a crime that was committed – we know this because Daily Maverick has scoured all the documentation and “evidence” and could not find anything pointing to culpability on Gordhan’s part. My colleague Marianne Thamm lives and breathes this case and through her we have examined this matter inside out.
Gordhan has answered the 27 questions sent to him by the Hawks and has spoken on the issue of the investigation several times, most poignantly in a statement he released in reaction to reports of his arrest. He told how the reports had distressed him and his family and warned about the “subversion of democracy”. Most extraordinarily, he appealed for South Africans to protect the staff of the Treasury. The statement was laced with emotion and revealed the intense pressure Gordhan was shouldering.
And so when he sat down next to me on Friday, I knew this would not be an easy subject to broach. It was a journey we would have to walk to get there. And get there we did.
Nobody, not even his harshest critics, can doubt Gordhan’s fervent commitment to his job and setting our economy on the road to recovery. When he spoke about the need for “moral and ethical” leadership, there was earnestness in his voice. He has been on a campaign to convince South Africans, the ratings agencies and the world that the storm is over.
But clearly the thunderclouds remain hovering over him. The strain has been evident for some time now. It must be soul-destroying to be accused of something he has not done and derived no benefit from while others get away with fleecing the state and making a mockery of the organisation he has served throughout his adult life.
“Let me tell you one thing, neither myself nor many of the people accused of all sorts of things have ever stolen one cent of public money,” Gordhan said. “When you find yourself in that sort of… Sorry, I’m a bit emotional.”
Those words hung in the air for a few endless seconds as the minister fell silent next to me. It was one of those times when your mind is desperate to escape, when the pain of the moment transports you to another place and another time in a frantic struggle for self-preservation.
The audience’s long applause carried us both back to stable ground. We were able to continue the conversation.
That was an incredible moment of humility and raw emotion, very rare in our politics. It also displayed, for all to see, the tragedy of our time and why our country is in such a state of brokenness.
The Gathering 2016, like the others before it, brought a group of people onto our stage to put together the picture of this moment in our history. The good doctor running an obstacle course, a young opposition leader with an unrealistic utopian vision, another fiery young opposition leader altering our world view from bicycle lanes to nanny councillors, a former death row prisoner who has taken up a new crusade against his former comrades who have betrayed him, a gentle giant trying to reverse our damnation while fighting for his survival, a poet showering a cascade of powerful words, a comedian celebrating our absurdity in song.
They all walked on and off our stage on a bright June day composing our crazy, tragic, intoxicating story in one exceptional moment in time. DM
Photo: Jay Naidoo, Marianne Thamm, Zwelinzima Vavi, Sisonke Msimang and Mark Heywood behind the scene, just before taking part in a panel at The Gathering 2016. (Greg Nicolson)