[OPINION] Ramaphosa’s Gordhan surprise: Sign of turbulent times to come
It's been said before, and it will be said again, that the charging of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan with fraud is the issue that divides the ANC. It forces people to take sides - are they for or against President Jacob Zuma or Gordhan, and all that they represent. It is the issue that forces people off the fence, away from the grey murky foggy ground of ambiguity and into the much harder, starker and firmer terrain of right and wrong. Through all of this, the Waterkloof scandal, CAR, Nkandla, a multi-year Gupta state capture in multiple phases, the reinstatement of the Zuma corruption charges - all of it - Cyril Ramaphosa has stayed silent. Finally, eventually, and possibly late, he has been forced off the fence. But what he has done is to make it that much harder for Zuma to fire Gordhan.
We live in unprecedented times. If last week marked the first time since 1994 that a sitting ANC premier, in Gauteng's David Makhura, publicly criticised the national ANC government (accusing it of "recklessness" in relation to Gordhan), then the weekend had plenty more to offer. Not only in the incredibly explosive proof of the Financial Intelligence Centre's concern about the R6.8-billion worth of suspicious transactions by the Gupta family and their companies, but also in the statement issued by the deputy president.
Surely, never before, have we had a sitting deputy president issuing a statement, in the full pomp of their office, in support of someone facing criminal charges. Just that simple fact shows you the power of this particular moment. Ramaphosa is so worried that he had to intervene, that he had to go public with his support for Gordhan. This was not a moment where he was asked by a pesky journalist after another event. Nor was it a previously scheduled press conference hijacked by other events. And it was not because a previous speaker at a funeral had given him no choice but to speak out. This was a deliberate move. A statement, issued using the full machinery of the government to make sure that it was widely distributed and properly received. That is not to say the wording is particularly strong, probably deliberately so. But it is highly significant in that it was issued at all.
And it cannot be unnoticed that the timing and context of this suggests that it might be a part of a carefully planned manoeuvre.
First, on Friday, the lodging of the legal application by Gordhan asking a judge to issue a declaratory order that he is not legally allowed to force the big four banks to continue their relationships with the Gupta family and their firms. Included, just in case anyone could possibly miss it, was the documentary evidence about the transactions. Then, the breaking of the news on this website on Saturday afternoon (through the incredible work by the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism). All of this followed up by the meticulous and comprehensive reporting of the Sunday Times.
It would surely have been the end of Ramaphosa's presidential hopes to remain silent in the face of all of this. Already, he has watched his image and, crucially, his legitimacy, decline in the last few months, mostly as the result of his silence. This was a series of developments that he could not ignore anymore.
But the real impact is that if Zuma chooses to reshuffle his Cabinet, or to remove Gordhan, or those who have defied him over this, he will look weak if he also does not act against his deputy. This limits his options dramatically. He cannot just perform a surgical excision of Gordhan and simply ignore the rest. If he wants to act, he may have to actually remove Ramaphosa as well. That is legally possible under the Constitution (the Deputy President is simply an ordinary member of Cabinet for those purposes). But it is surely close to impossible politically.
There will be a tendency over the next few days to praise Ramaphosa for his incredibly public stance. He will be seen as a moral counterpoint to the immoral behaviour of Zuma, and the National Prosecuting Authority that he controls (just for the avoidance of any doubt, Advocate Shaun Abrahams, I'm talking about you). But that would be somewhat misplaced. Any calculation by Ramaphosa also has to do with his own position. Otherwise how would one explain the frequent praise he has lavished on Zuma over the years, the refusal to speak in the past when all of this was brewing, and his acceptance of the position of Deputy President on the Zuma ticket in the first place. Part of this must surely be Ramaphosa's analysis that the time to act is now, and this is the issue to act on. He, like the SACP, must surely be aware that if things end now, history may remember him poorly. His record will be one of an enabler of Zuma's corruption. Tied to this is the problem that if he does not act, there might simply be no ANC, and no election victory for the party in 2019.
But he must also think that there is now real momentum building against Zuma.
There is probably another reason why Ramaphosa waited until this moment. He needed to be sure that he would not be alone. Makhura was not the only person to speak last week. Eastern Cape Premier (and leader of the ANC in that province) Phumulo Masualle has said Gordhan is a man of integrity, ANC Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu has said the same, and Treasurer Zweli Mkhize has said the case against Gordhan seems "thin". Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has used stronger language, and several other Cabinet ministers have now gone public. His comments now will give this dynamic more momentum.
Now, other people, both junior and senior, will be able to say the same thing. Someone like Derek Hanekom will be able to attend court with Gordhan in his position as Chair of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation knowing that if Zuma tries to punish him, he will have to punish Ramaphosa too. This goes all the way down the movement - don't be surprised if one or two other provincial leaders come out in support of Gordhan (although, some have been so "captured" themselves that you shouldn't be surprised if they don't either).
Consider the position of an ANC branch member that wants to support Gordhan. They can now proudly be outside court in their ANC T-shirt, and not have to worry about action being taken against them. They are not acting just in the name of some "senior ANC leaders", but actually in the names of the party's deputy president and many other senior officials.
For Zuma, this move by Ramaphosa presents a significant problem. Politics is about power, the ability to project that power, and the ability to be perceived as powerful. Gordhan appeared to simply and humiliatingly defy him by lodging his court application on Friday. Hanekom and others have done the same through their support for this defiance. Now Ramaphosa, his deputy, has done the same.
So, what does Zuma do now?
He could lash out further, but that brings the risk of the house falling upon him. He could do nothing and appear weak, and wait to see what develops. But as everyone expected Zuma to move against Gordhan after the local elections, so everyone expected Gordhan to have a counter move. That counter move came this weekend. Zuma must also have expected a response, and possibly has planned for that as well. The question is, what?
In the meantime, imagine the scene in a meeting of the ANC's top six. Zuma and Jessie Duarte, and probably Baleka Mbete on one side, with Ramaphosa, Gwede Mantashe, and possibly Mkhize on the other. How do they even discuss this in any constructive way? It would seem that they actually cannot. And if they cannot even do that, how can they even start to think of a solution to the problem?
The next question is, who really matters in this, whose influence, whose decisions will matter. There will be much focus on those in the upper echelons of the ANC. But it could be more important to watch those who have previously showed no real affiliation either way. They are in the position of the East German border guards just before the Berlin Wall collapsed. They decided not to shoot protesters, because if they did, they would be on the wrong side of history. So, these people, the "greys" if you like, are the people to watch. If their analysis as part of their bid to stay close to power shows that Zuma is going to stay on, then they will stay with him. But if they start to move closer to Gordhan's side and away from Zuma, that could be an indication that things really are likely to change.
There have been many warnings of turbulence this year. Ladies and gentlemen, we are now in that dark patch of cloud. We don't know if we will be climbing out of it soon, or if we will go crashing down. There's only one way to find out.
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_