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[BOOK EXTRACT] Enemy of the People

Enemy of the People is the first definitive account of Zuma’s catastrophic misrule, offering eyewitness descriptions and cogent analysis of how South Africa was brought to its knees – and how a people fought back.

This extract looks at the period just before President Zuma fired Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and Treasury DG Lungisa Fuzile resigned.

As the plane taxied to Heathrow’s Terminal 2, Fuzile switched on his phone. It beeped immediately. There was a text from Jonas’s chief of staff, warning him they might have to return to South Africa immediately. Then his phone rang; it was Gordhan’s personal assistant: ‘We’re getting mixed messages. What should we do?’ Fuzile was perplexed, but replied: ‘Wait before you do anything. Let me talk to PG. You don’t think we’re about to get fired?’ he joked with her. Another text message then came through, this time from Cassius Lubisi, his opposite number in the Presidency. It was long and officious: ‘At the direction of His Excellency, President Jacob Zuma, I have been instructed to call you back to South Africa …’

As Fuzile disembarked from the plane, Gordhan called him and asked where he was. ‘I’m 30 minutes behind you. I think we should proceed with today’s meetings. But let’s talk at the hotel.’

Arriving at their hotel, where a ballroom had been booked for the event, without a chance to freshen up – Gordhan and Fuzile immediately went into crisis mode. They had been given no information about why they were instructed to return from such a crucial international engagement. For the first time since his return to the Treasury 15 months before, Gordhan looked despondent. He usually thrives in a crisis and had already managed to stare down the Hawks, the NPA and some of his colleagues over the previous months. He didn’t do the job for the money: he was financially secure and his children, one a doctor and the other a chartered accountant, were grown up. He was driven by his activist instincts to do good for his country. But now obstacles were being thrown in his path to achieve that.

Reports started coming though from South Africa about the reasons why Gordhan, Jonas (who hadn’t yet left South Africa) and Fuzile were being ordered back. One narrative said they hadn’t been given permission by Zuma, but then it emerged that an ‘intelligence report’ fingered the trio as being in cahoots with ‘international bankers’ to bring about ‘regime change’ in South Africa. Gordhan decided they would return on the same overnight flight that they had come on, but that Monday’s commitments would be met. ‘Look, the worst thing we can do is to cancel on those investors that are already travelling to meet us this morning,’ Fuzile told Gordhan. ‘We have to see the ratings agencies that are here and we have to talk to the people from New York. We can’t tell the ratings agencies, “Stuff you!”’

After checking reports on News24, Gordhan agreed, adding they would have to confront this issue ‘head-on’. Fuzile then spoke to the Treasury team back in Pretoria, instructing them to arrange their return flights that evening and to cancel the second leg of the roadshow in New York. They also contacted investors who were about to travel to London to cancel their travel plans. Gordhan and Fuzile then freshened up before they met their teammates from business and labour, explaining what had happened and how the programme would change. Jabu Mabuza, president of Business Unity South Africa, was incredulous: he had seen Zuma shortly before he left for London and there was no inkling of what was afoot. Stakeholders and investors were baffled by the developments, coming off the back of the Treasury’s concerted efforts to pacify jittery international markets. Their questions were pointed: how will government achieve its growth forecasts? Will it be able to balance its books on the spending and income side? And, importantly, who will take over the ANC leadership in December? Gordhan’s mood improved during the day and he seemed more relaxed during a working lunch, answering questions about the country’s political stability and fiscal outlook. ‘He knows investors like him and he likes us. We asked him why has to go back, and he answered: “I do what my boss tells me,”’ said one attendee.

Back in South Africa, it was chaos. The rand – earlier buoyed by the flailing US markets and up on trading – fell by 3%, bonds tumbled and banking shares slid by 3%. Yolisa Tyantsi, Gordhan’s spokesperson, couldn’t confirm any details and referred all questions to the Presidency. Bongani Ngqulunga, Zuma’s anonymous spokesperson, remained true to form and kept his cellphone turned off. It became clear Zuma was gearing up to fire Gordhan. The consistent attacks on the finance minister – from the jibes by the president directed at Gordhan, to the intimidation before the budget speeches and the vexatious charges by the Hawks – all pointed in the direction of an eventual Cabinet reshuffle. There was a train of thought that Zuma wouldn’t dare fire Gordhan, as that would remove any pretence that he was beholden to the national interest rather than to other, familial and private interests. But the fight for access to state resources was bloody; it was a zero-sum game wherein good governance and something like credit ratings played no role.

Speculation and panic moved into the vacuum created by the lack of communication from government as South Africans readied themselves for another political shock. By then, hushed talk of a Cabinet reshuffle turned into louder discussions of who would replace Gordhan. But, to some, it still seemed far-fetched that Zuma was willing to go down the same route he had gone in December 2015. Economists immediately reacted, warning that rating agencies don’t take kindly to political machinations like this, that government bonds would quickly be sold off and that the country’s investment profile would risk another downgrade.

Senior staff at the Treasury’s headquarters were in a state of panic, saying they were ‘shocked’ and ‘in the dark’. A terse statement issued by the Presidency just before midday then confirmed the news: ‘President Jacob Zuma has instructed the Minister of Finance, Mr Pravin Gordhan and Deputy Minister Mcebisi Jonas to cancel the international investment promotion roadshow to the United Kingdom and the United States and return to South Africa immediately.’

Gordhan and Fuzile left London that night. They didn’t sit together on the flight, but they did share the same fears about what the following day held. ‘I found the whole affair offensive – it was almost like you had to live by the law of the jungle,’ says Fuzile. ‘There needs to be a semblance of normality and respect in government dealings … but here you had a disrespectful leadership calling back the minister, the director general, businessmen and unionists, who had all put time aside from running their organisations to work with government and to prevent a downgrade and preserve our rating. I just knew: it was the end of PG and I realised I did not want to be part of this any longer.’
He started composing his resignation letter in the middle of the night on the return flight. He didn’t tell Gordhan.

Enemy of the People, by Adriaan Basson & Pieter du Toit, is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

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