OPINION: The day we realised we’re in serious trouble
There are moments in politics when agendas are revealed so suddenly, and in so blatant a fashion, that they almost change the entire paradigm. The firing, because that is what it is, of Nhlanhla Nene from the position of Finance Minister is one such moment. In just one move, it appears that President Jacob Zuma has revealed that he does not govern the country for the good of its people, but for his own narrow interest, and those around him. The statement which announced Nene's sacking was so lacking in detail, so insulting, that it is impossible to put any kind of spin on it. Nene was fired for the simple reason that he went against the wishes of Zuma. And as the rand weakens again to the world, we are all going to pay the price for it.
When Zuma first ascended to the presidency there was widespread speculation about who would take the role of Finance Minister. For a man who had been labelled 'policy lite' by The Economist, it seemed unlikely that Trevor Manuel would stay on. He was too orthodox, too conservative, too, well, Mbeki-ist. But Pravin Gordhan's appointment was an incredibly shrewd move: he was well-respected, similar to Manuel but not too similar, and someone who the world, it seemed, could do business with. There is a reason for that: Gordhan is an incredibly impressive figure. When he left, the same speculation started again.
And then came Nene. Everything he did seemed to scream that he was a lot like Gordhan. He was careful, considerate, thoughtful, prudent. He was not afraid to go against the political grain, to warn people that spending too much money that we did not have would have long-term effects. And he seemed to have more support across the political spectrum than almost anyone else in the ANC. For a portfolio like finance, this is crucial. Don't forget in the 1990s FW de Klerk realised how important it was, and thus appointed Derek Keys to that portfolio as a business person, and not a politician.
Now, suddenly, with little warning and no explanation, Nene has been fired. The symbolism of this move makes it much more important than the sheer firing of a single minister, albeit in the most important portfolio.
Here's why: If Nene had done something wrong, something that most people, whether in the ANC or out of it accepted as wrong, that would have been explained. If not in the official statement, then in some other way, perhaps a briefing here, or a suggestion there. In this case, there is no such indication. He has simply been fired.
Which means, as always, we have to look at the context.
The most recent action undertaken by Nene was his public decision to tell SAA chair Dudu Myeni that she could not do what she wanted, and she could not run the airline as if she owned it. It was a sharp rebuke, suggesting that if she went ahead with a plan to restructure a deal with Airbus in a way that forced the Treasury to make a R1.5 billion payment to that company, it would constitute financial misconduct.
In the absence of any other explanation, and applying the usual political test (by asking the question 'who benefits'), the sacking of Nene looks like a response to that action. In case you've forgotten, Myeni is also the chair of the Jacob Zuma Foundation.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the country where finance ministers are fired because they don't let the President's friends do what they want with state assets.
It is as simple as that.
Look at the timing here. It is, simply put, catastrophic. The rand touched record lows to the dollar this week. This action will make that happen again. We were downgraded last week, and are now flirting with 'junk' status among the ratings agencies. And there is no official explanation as to why Nene was fired.
And the most one-eyed Zuma supporter is not going to be able to explain one simple aspect of this. If Nene was really being 're-deployed', why was his new position not announced right now? The absence of that information surely proves the claim that Nene is being fired because of Myeni.
Further proof, should it be needed, lies in the person replacing Nene. It is David van Rooyen.
Not someone most people will have heard of. He's a former executive mayor of Merafong in the North West. As a general rule, when an unknown is appointed to a key position, it's because they will be beholden to the person who appointed them. In other words, van Rooyen will do whatever Zuma wants, because he has no constituency of his own to protect him. Think Nkosinathi Nhleko at the police department. And he has no track record to fall back on when opposition parties, as they most surely will do, just label him a Zuma lackey.
Now, consider the consequences of this action.
The rand will weaken; at the time of writing, it has already passed R15 for one US dollar. Our bonds will be declared junk. We will all be poorer. Someone who was working on our problems, who had gained our trust, has now gone. Our problems, as a country, are huge, massive in fact. We understood that good and able people were working on them. That understanding has been shown to be false.
But that's not the worst of it. The worst of it is the realisation that we are actually being governed by someone who doesn't care about any of that. His cares are clearly elsewhere. He is more interested in protecting people close to him. And not just in protecting their bodily integrity, but in protecting their business interests. In making them rich.
How is this not the act of a corrupt state, one which is being hollowed out, its assets stolen, its people left weaker and poorer? How does this not prove that someone is lying when he claims to be concerned about the plight of the poor? How does this not show that we are now in serious trouble?
Serious, serious trouble.
But there is one other question that must be asked: Up until this point, I have always disagreed with those who think the ANC would ever act against Zuma, would ever recall him in the way that he allowed Mbeki to be recalled. Now, I'm not so sure anymore.
This act, clearly taken without consultation, will have consequences for the country that are plain for all to see. The thing about financial markets is that they send signals, they will signal that this was the wrong decision. Before too long, South Africans will feel much poorer. And that has got to be bad news for the ANC. It considers itself a democratic organisation: will there now be a reaction to this move by Zuma? Ordinary members will ask questions about why Nene was fired, they will know about Myeni, some action could be taken. And if the ANC does not take that action, voting South Africans are going to ask the same questions.
It will not just be investors in rand stocks who will be upset this morning. It will be people like Paul Mashatile, David Makhura and Parks Tau. Upset and angry, as they know that, in just a few month's time, there will be an inevitable reaction at the polls.
This is a democratic country. For every action, there is almost always some sort of reaction. Zuma could have just brought that reaction closer. A lot closer.
Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for _ Eyewitness News _ and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of SA Politics Unspun. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes