[OPINION] Gordhan is a sacrifice to political expediency

In the life of every democracy gone wrong there are men and women prepared to sacrifice principle at the altar of political expediency. Shaun Abrahams, head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), did that today as he contorted his way through another press conference explaining the fraud charges being brought against Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

These charges relate to the establishment in 2007 of an investigative unit within the South African Revenue Service (Sars), as well as the early retirement of Mr Ivan Pillay, a deputy commissioner of Sars at that time.

The rule of law demands that no one should be above the law and that the charges should be answered.

Yet of course the timing and circumstances surrounding this matter is interesting.

President Jacob Zuma has been playing a kind of chess game since he first tried to place National Treasury in the hands of Des Van Rooyen in December last year. Since then the Hawks have been circling and threatening to charge Gordhan in relation to the Sars investigative unit.

In August Gordhan responded defiantly by digging his heels in and famously saying, "Let me do my job!" In a dramatic twist, Gordhan, following legal advice, declined to appear before the Hawks as requested.

Much ink has been spilled on the matter and regarding what exactly is going on. There is a possible answer to all this which might simplify matters.

It goes something like this: Gordhan and the relatively powerful Team Treasury have been doing a sterling job in overseeing South Africa's macro-economic stability and ensuring that the ratings agency downgrades are kept at bay. Most economists will say that they have already "factored in" a downgrade but, be that as it may, Gordhan has been preaching fiscal discipline and has been firm that government expenditure has to be cut.

Gordhan, his deputy Mcebisi Jonas and National Treasury have held the line against a maverick and dangerous populism and nepotism within the ANC and from Zuma himself. Gordhan's stance represents an inconvenience for Zuma and his cronies. He therefore must be replaced. Removing Gordhan or pressuring him to resign would ensure that someone more pliable might be appointed, thus allowing Zuma and his merry band free rein over SOEs and related contracts worth billions.

Zuma is now clearly fighting back despite the credit ratings agencies hovering and the mini-budget coming up later this month.

The news of Gordhan being charged comes against the backdrop of two significant developments relating to Zuma himself. The Constitutional Court ruled this past week that it was unable to hear the misguided appeal in the Spy Tapes matter relating to the 700-odd charges of fraud hanging over Zuma's head, and the decision in 2009 that he not be charged.

One wonders why Abrahams has gone to such great lengths to appeal the matter and why Zuma is not simply charged given the overwhelming evidence that he should be?

But again the answer is self-evident.

LISTEN: Judith February unpacks the Gordhan summons with 702's John Robbie

At the same time this past week, outgoing Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, who has started an investigation into allegations of state capture, was given short shrift by Zuma on the matter. Curiously, Zuma has also requested Madonsela not to finalise her investigation before her term ends, as he needs an opportunity to question his Cabinet ministers about the issue. Zuma seems rather confident that incoming Public Protector Busisiwe Makhwebane might not show the same enthusiasm to continue this investigation. It certainly does not behove the president to disclose his relationship with the Guptas, or any other connections for that matter. But the process has been started and Makhwebane is already on the back foot by hinting that this particular investigation will not be at the top of her agenda.

The history of this tawdry and destructive presidency has shown us that Zuma is willing to manipulate state institutions to ensure that his narrow interests are protected. It is for this reason that his personal attorney Michael Hulley plays such an important role in dealing with Zuma's legal matters and why it was crucial for Zuma to appoint Berning Ntlemeza as Hawks head.

It is worth repeating that Ntlemeza himself is the same person which the North Gauteng High court found to be unfit to hold his position. In fact, Justice Matonjane said Ntlemeza was "biased, dishonest and lacks integrity and honour" and found that he made false statements under oath. One might say that an application to set aside Ntlemeza's appointment would be appropriate.

So again this leaves us betwixt and between. Will Zuma now fire Gordhan because he operates "under a cloud"? Or will Gordhan be able to ride this out too backed by parts of the ANC, civil society and business? Can Zuma survive this latest chess move or has he overplayed his hand this time? We asked that in December when he fired former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene. It was an act of calculated daring then and the rand went into free-fall. Something similar is bound to happen in the next days, but there is nothing to suggest that Zuma cares about the matters of state. The problem is that Zuma, aided and abetted by lackeys around him, and his merry band of corrupt cronies within the ANC has essentially 'gone rogue'. Who can stop him now and what further destruction can he leave in his wake?

This is endgame politics. If there were those willing to deal Zuma the final blow, now would be the time. It's long overdue anyway.

And if anyone is struggling to find the president in all of this, he is on a state visit to Kenya while the streets are burning with student protests and his Finance Minister is being pursued.

Vintage Zuma.

Judith February is a governance specialist, columnist and lawyer. She was previously executive director of the HSRC's democracy and governance unit and also head of Idasa's South African governance programme for 12 years. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february.