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OPINION: Zuma’s final insult to a battered nation

My grandfather lived out his life in a small Siberian town called Omsk. He was a medical doctor, specialising in radiology, who wrote a bit of poetry and took beautiful photographs of his family.

Omsk is a miserably cold place. When I visited there one February the mercury dipped to below -30°C, during the day. Dostoevsky was sent there by the Czar to spend four years in a prison labour camp.

My grandfather worked hard to build a life in this frozen land. He was very good at his job and was respected by his community. He smoked and drank too much, but he was going to have a comfortable, well-earned retirement.

Then the system crashed.

The Soviet Union collapsed, the country's economy was looted and mad economic scientists experimented with the currency, adding or subtracting zeros as they saw fit. People's entire life savings or pensions were erased. Thirty, forty, fifty years of hard work evaporated like snow at the arrival of spring. Some people's monthly pensions were suddenly enough to buy no more than a couple of cartons of cigarettes.

Imagine that for a moment. An entire lifetime of doing the right things undone by people you have never met - and who are often nowhere near your level of intellect - but who control every aspect of your existence.

I thought about my grandfather this last week. I thought about the gentle man who kept childhood photographs of my sister and I in his tiny flat, even though we had left Russia more than twenty years ago. The man who struggled financially through his retirement and received handouts from his family because he found himself going on pension at the wrong moment in history. A specialist in his field, a learned man who led a virtuous life but who, along with his wife, fell victim to reckless leaders.

There is little to match the agony of watching politicians, or one politician, mess with your life. It's the kind of agony that makes you want to crawl out of your skin. Or run up and shake sense into them, demanding to know how dare they gamble with your future so recklessly.

Years of making solid financial decisions. Paying your tax. Saving for your children's education. Balancing your debt. Paying off your loans. Taking on extra work. Pushing yourself through long, hard days. And then to sit and watch it all being devastated by a selfish man making selfish decisions.

For the poor it is far, far worse. It is not just savings going up in smoke, or a dream holiday deferred, it is the difference between survival and ruin. A full-blown catastrophe. An anvil falling onto a delicate tower of matchsticks.

I'm not comparing what Jacob Zuma did to South Africa's economy to the collapse of communism, but the reason my mind went to Omsk is because of the helplessness. Complete helplessness as the rand nosedived, sending us closer to a financial meltdown. Over two days every sound financial decision we had made over the years meant nothing when put up against the power of a single man who long ago proved himself incapable of managing his own finances, never mind those of an entire nation.

Zuma's decision to fire his finance minister Nhlanhla Nene reportedly wiped out hundreds of billions of rand from the stock exchange and stabbed the country's economy right in the jugular. It was a mistake that no president should ever be forgiven for. Especially at a time when the country's economic growth is all but dead in the water and students are being pushed back with stun grenades for demanding money to study. The decision also plays right into the hands of dangerous populist politicians who feed off chaos. Simply put, this has got to be Zuma's final straw. The final insult to a battered nation. The last laugh of a man who does not care about the people he leads.

After claiming he owed no one an explanation, Zuma capitulated and issued a series of statements (four to be exact) on Friday night and Saturday morning 'explaining' his Nene decision and rubbishing rumours that he has a love-child with SAA chairperson Dudu Myeni. The claim that Nene is going to the Brics bank is a bold-faced lie and an insult to our intelligence. No human with a functioning brain can believe such nonsense. Then, late on Sunday night, Zuma finally admitted he messed up and brought back Pravin Gordhan as finance minister.

Walking into the newsroom on the morning after Nene was fired was like walking into a house where a family member had just died. There was a mood of sadness and anger, and of despair. Most South Africans read about each of Zuma's countless scandals and then get on with their day. For journalists, those scandals are their days. From the time they wake up to the time they switch off their phones at night they digest them. Many reporters had worked through all of Zuma's debacles, from the rape trial to the corruption trial of his financial advisor, from Nkandla to Guptagate, from power crisis to water restrictions, from SAA to the NPA and all the others. This felt like Zuma had finally crossed the line. We had moved the line back so many times, but now he was firmly on the other side of it.

What was also interesting to watch was how the media handled Nene being axed. For many respected reporters and editors, this was the tipping point. No longer did they hold back. Zuma was described as a serpent. His decision was slammed as idiotic and grotesque. There were sarcastic 'Thank you, Mr President' open letters and warnings that firing Nene was the work of a lunatic, which came close to treason. All the anger that had lived in the work kitchens or around the water cooler burst like a fountain out of the newsrooms. The shield fell and the pens, so to speak, went to work.

Those two days also finally drew a line in the sand and separated the independent, critical and free-thinking media from that which has been bought or corrupted. Those that stood for democracy published brave 'not in our name' editorials, declaring that South Africans were finally leaderless or that Zuma's intentions were poisonous and amounted to sabotage. Those that had fallen remained silent and ran front page stories about irrelevant events, burying the Nene story and distorting it as best as they could. They twisted so hard to try and squeeze out the 'good story to tell' that they strangled it to death, and all but suffocated themselves in the process.

What happens next is crucial. Some say everything. Others say nothing. The problem, of course, is that any big moment passes and the window for action closes. If that happens, South Africa will continue limping along as it always has done, packing away another Zuma mess into its backpack. The money spent on Nkandla will feel like a 10 cent coin, when compared to the damage done to the country's economy.

Zuma's latest statement claims he has given South Africa a real finance minister again after listening to the people. That's good spin. But what it really shows is that he has absolutely no idea what he's doing. Zero.

The announcement was timed to allow the markets and the currency to stabilise and recover when the JSE opened again. They probably will. But Zuma cannot be allowed to get away with what he has done. There are too many doctors or teachers out there who should not have to have to suffer.

Alex Eliseev is an award-winning Eyewitness News reporter and the author of an upcoming book about a 13-year-old cold case titled Cold Case Confession. Follow him on Twitter @alexeliseev

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