Ranjeni Munusamy: Govt big guns head for the exit
The elections will be the big political event of 2014 - provided of course that we do not have another presidential recall or an unfortunate incident at the Nkandla fire poo l which would require a new Number One to be installed (or Kgalema Motlanthe to come off the reserve bench again). But what happens after the elections? Who will be on the team at the top of the political food chain, and who will join the ranks of sad opinion writers and grumpy old men and women lamenting their glory days?
One thing for sure is that the aforementioned Kgalema Motlanthe will soon be out of his misery. There is no one who seems more ill at ease in government than the current deputy president. Motlanthe has been a reluctant occupant of the West Wing of the Union Buildings from the start. He was sent to government by the ANC while Thabo Mbeki was still president - with the odd mission to monitor whether the Mbeki-ites were looting the state before the Zuma crowd took over.
While Motlanthe was still settling into the Cabinet, the ANC national executive committee (NEC) decided to recall Mbeki. This meant that while Motlanthe was still getting accustomed to not being able to drive his little Volkswagen Beetle around Johannesburg, he suddenly had to run the country. He clearly took no pleasure at being Number One under those circumstances and happily handed over the reins after eight months to President Jacob Zuma.
Since the ANC's 53rd conference at Mangaung in December 2012, when Motlanthe stood against Zuma for the position of party president and lost, he permanently wears an expression of sitting on the wrong train and being unable to get off. Ever the complicated character, Motlanthe tried to make some point by not campaigning for the ANC leadership, then being roundly defeated and declining to serve on the NEC. The point was lost on the conquerors, delirious in their victory.
Despite being uncomfortable with having to serve in the state without holding any position of leadership in the ANC, Motlanthe agreed to stay on as deputy president in order not to rock the boat. Had he chosen to leave, it would have required Zuma to reshuffle Cabinet or for the ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa to be sworn in as a member of Parliament in order to take up the post.
At the Mangaung conference, Zuma announced that Motlanthe would head political education in the ANC. But this turned out to be a PR stunt to show there was no bad blood between them and that the ANC still valued the knowledge and pedigree of its former deputy president. The political education programme never took off and Motlanthe has been left watching the clock, waiting for the term to expire until his retirement.
He is not the only one in Cabinet eager to leave. As the Zuma administration descends into further ignominy, some of the older generation ministers who have served in government from 1994 want to preserve their own legacy by retiring now. There are few people, even those serving in Zuma's government, who believe that the next term will see a dramatic turnaround in the conduct and performance of the administration. With Zuma's first term being so scandal plagued, it is unlikely that the president will suddenly display outstanding leadership skills and redeem himself and his government.
Nelson Mandela's death last month also marked a sentimental departure from the ANC of old, which will allow people to make a psychological break from the organisation and chart their own paths. Part of the mourning process for the elder statesman was also for the passing of a generation of towering figures in the ANC and the end of an era of heroism. What's left is an organisation tattered by greed and power battles, which nauseates those who remember the glory days.
This was rather apparent in an open letter by National Planning Minister Trevor Manuel to the ANC's Western Cape secretary Songezo Mjongile, challenging his views over the dismissal of Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois.
"I am also loath to take public issue with an article in the name of Songezo Mjongile, my provincial secretary of the ANC, but I want to assume that he wrote in his personal capacity, and the ANC encourages debate among its members. The introspection occasioned by the passing of Madiba compels me to ask: 'What is the right thing to do now?' My response, therefore, arises from a sense of duty," Manuel wrote.
Here's the thing though, the ANC does not really tolerate such debate. And Manuel knows this from personal experience. In early 2011, Manuel wrote a scathing open letter to the then government spokesman Jimmy Manyi in which he called him a "worst-order racist" following comments by Manyi that there was an "over-supply" of coloured people in Western Cape.
For this, Manuel received a slap down from the ANC, from no less a person than the secretary-general Gwede Mantashe. "The NWC (national working committee) further appealed to all ANC members to stop and refrain from behaving as if they are free agents who speak as individuals, reflecting comments that are not informed by policy," Mantashe said.
Asked if he was referring to Manuel, he replied: "We refer to Trevor Manuel or anybody who is a member of the ANC… (because) to act as free agents as they wish, then you might as well not have an organisation so it's not only about Comrade Trevor, it's about everybody."
Manyi had no pedigree or position in the ANC. Mjongile does. So if the ANC reacted harshly to Manuel's letter then, an attack on its secretary in a province where the party is struggling to increase support would infuriate the leadership. It seems this could have been Manuel's intention; it has the hallmark of a person looking for a way out.
In the letter to Mjongile he wrote (regarding allegations around the dispute between Dasnois and Independent Newspapers): "I need to understand on what authority the provincial secretary of the ANC has acquired and verified such information, and why he thinks that it is his place to drag the 102-year old ANC into this dispute in so unseemly a manner?
"And then, I must declare, 'Not in my name!'"
He went on to say: "We should never allow expedience to triumph over our history and our values. Too much blood has been spilled and far too much pain endured in the struggle to create the democracy described in our Constitution."
Manuel has made the distinction between the ANC of the past and the ANC of the present. And he wants to be associated with only one of them.
Another Cabinet minister has also put out signals that he desires he career change. During the Christmas break, Business Report carried a story which quotes Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan as saying he is talking to his family about retiring from his portfolio.
"I will be discussing that with the family over this break," Gordhan said. "Retire means you give up one thing and you do something else. I've worked all my life. The age doesn't really matter."
He was careful though to toe the party line: "That decision is partly personal, partly political. The ANC will decide."
The story seemed cleverly engineered to put out the information gently and at a time when it would not cause a shock in the market. Gordhan also appears to be an ill fit in the Zuma administration. He is a stickler when it comes to fiscal discipline and is conservative in his approach to state spending. The spending patterns of the Cabinet, however, suggest that Gordhan is isolated in his thinking and out of kilter with the rest.
In his Medium Term Budget Policy Statement in October, Gordhan announced sweeping measures to cut waste and extravagance in government, particularly the lavish spending patterns of political high-fliers. The new measures were to take effect from 1 December 2013. But the Sunday Times reported two weeks ago that the Treasury quietly published an instruction note that back-pedals on Gordhan's announcement that taxpayers' money will no longer be spent on alcohol.
Gordhan said in the revision note that taxpayers will, from 1 January 2014, be paying the booze bills for state banquets, parties attended by foreign dignitaries and functions that promote South Africa or its goods and services. The paper also reported that despite Gordhan announcing that government credit cards would be cut up, Treasury is allowed to exempt departments and state-owned entities from the ban if circumstances justify it.
It is not known what prompted the turnaround in thinking between October and December. The Sunday Times reported this weekend that in defiance of Gordhan's directive against splurging on government vehicles, the North West Premier Thando Modise purchased a R1.3 million BMW 750i.
It is clear that Gordhan's adherence to cost cutting and desire for people in the upper echelons of government to set the example is not being taken seriously. If he stays on in government in this corroded environment with his own colleagues making a mockery of his directives, he will be acceding to the legacy he built from his time as head of the South African Revenue Service being tarnished.
The big question will be who would replace Gordhan and Manuel in these two key portfolios. All indications are that the ANC election manifesto will lean heavily on the National Development Plan (NDP), which means that there will need to be a firm hand to keep it afloat, especially in light of continued opposition from the left in the alliance. If Ramaphosa is appointed Deputy President, he could be charged with the NDP as he has intimate knowledge of it as deputy chairman of the National Planning Commission.
The Finance Ministry will, however, be a big challenge. Whoever holds the position has to have the confidence of the markets and investor community and, at the same time, be acceptable in the alliance. The most obvious candidate is Gordhan's current deputy Nhlanhla Nene. He has been the deputy minister since 2008 and previously served as the chairman of the finance portfolio committee in Parliament. However, he could also be viewed as too conservative and adhering to Gordhan's line of thinking.
When Zuma made the big appointments in his first term, he had the advantage of strong support and general goodwill in the country. This time around, South Africa has the benefit of experience and perspective of his leadership.
These appointments will be the people who will keep his administration afloat or see it sink. They could be the biggest decisions of his life.
This column appeared in Daily Maverick.