Fear, panic in Cabinet
Ministers speak of suspicion, confusion and anxiety as they fear they are next in line after Zuma’s surprise sacking of Nene
President Jacob Zuma’s axing of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene has triggered panic in Cabinet as ministers fear they are next in line – despite the presidency issuing statements denying the rumours, and trying to contain panic on domestic and international markets. Four ministers who spoke to City Press told of an atmosphere of suspicion, confusion and anxiety in Cabinet. One spoke of having bags packed in case they were given their marching orders. Treasury officials seen as “stumbling blocks” were also watching their backs as the new minister was expected to bring his own advisers and chief of staff, City Press has learnt.
But a senior government official told City Press that there would not be another reshuffle.
The official also insisted that Nene was shifted aside because government knew he was likely to get the head of the African development job at the new Brics bank.
The official said the president had not immediately announced the Brics position when he fired Nene because he wanted to allow Brics to make the announcement itself.
“Brics is not just another government department. It has its own board and we wanted to give them space,” the official said.
The official further said the presidency did not understand why “people” decided to pick on new finance minister David “Des” van Rooyen, because this was not the first time Zuma had chosen a little-known minister.
In 2009, most of his Cabinet were former MECs who were being picked to serve as ministers for the first time. The official said they were also confident that Van Rooyen, who served on the finance committee in Parliament, knew Treasury and its staff, and would therefore fit in seamlessly. The official added that the presidency believed that markets would not react negatively because a new minister did not necessarily mean a change in policy.
But a serving minister told City Press that Cabinet was expecting another reshuffle. Asked how Cabinet felt about Van Rooyen, one said the prevailing mood was one of confusion, but many had decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. Nene himself is awaiting his new posting. A third minister, who admitted a lot of phone calls were exchanged on Wednesday, said Zuma was fanning the fires of widely held views that he just wanted to surround himself with weak people, and that he was consolidating power in time for his exit by placing those loyal to him in strategic institutions.
“The issue is that he is seen to be deliberately looking for a weaker candidate to control,” said the minister, adding that there must have been someone who successfully lobbied for Van Rooyen.
“Why would the president bypass Nene’s deputy? No one really has a clear answer. It is the president himself who can answer that. That’s the reaction at all levels. Out of all people he could have appointed, why that Van Rooyen?” asked the minister.
“It’s not the first time that the ANC and the Cabinet gets the shock of their lives regarding his [Zuma’s] decisions on deployment. Look at who heads key departments like mineral resources [Mosebenzi Zwane] and state security [David Mahlobo], and now this?
“We were all calling each other and people are questioning how he overlooked other, more experienced people,” said the minister.
“There is also a view that Nene’s firing is linked to certain decisions he made, a recent one being the stance he took on SAA.”
A colleague agreed, saying that Nene was fired because of his stance against the SAA board’s proposed Airbus deal and on the nuclear power deal.
The presidency yesterday dismissed the claims as malicious rumours: “Media reports that Mr Nhlanhla Nene is being redeployed because the SAA board chairperson was unhappy with the National Treasury directives to SAA with regards to the Airbus deal or any other matter is a malicious fabrication.”
However, it was clear that Van Rooyen was going to endure a baptism of fire, according to an insider, because Nene was fired at an “appalling time”.
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Taxes will probably be increased next year because government revenues are down and, by then, the finance minister, who is due to present a budget in Parliament on February 24, would have made his important budgetary decisions.
The fiscus was “very challenged” at the moment – it was the most challenged Treasury since 1994, he said. However, the country was not yet close to needing a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, which several other countries, including Greece, have had to ask for.
Zuma buckled under pressure to explain himself – by offering three different statements on Friday night, about 48 hours after his announcement. He suggested he had not foreseen the damage his unpopular decision would wreak, particularly on the economy, but also on the people he served. Yesterday, the presidency issued yet another statement, this time going so far as to deny a romantic relationship between SAA chairperson Dudu Myeni and the president.
Zuma tried to assure the nation that no stateowned entity, not even SAA, would dictate to government how it should be “assisted”.
He said Van Rooyen’s appointment did “not signal a change in the government’s fiscal stance” and he would receive the necessary support from Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas, who Zuma acknowledged carried many years of experience in the economic cluster.
But his attempt to calm the storm came too late. The markets did not buy this story, and the rand remained sluggish.
City Press has learnt that Nene’s new deployment was discussed by the officials at Luthuli House on Monday. However, there are conflicting reports about whether or not there was agreement on the issue. Some sources say there was vehement disagreement, while others say the top officials agreed to the sacking after a briefing by the president.
ANC spokesperson Keith Khoza said it was not true that officials did not see eye to eye on the decision to fire Nene.
“The officials were informed by the president that he had decided to nominate Nene for the Brics bank and that if Nene goes, there would be a need to appoint someone to replace him – and there was no debate.”
Khoza said the discussion about removing Nene from office would have been informed by a need to comply with the deadline for the submission of Brics nominations. City Press understands that, under normal circumstances, Zuma would not have consulted the top six about his Cabinet decisions.
A KwaZulu-Natal ANC insider said that when Siphiwe Nyanda was axed as communications minister, there had been an attempt to get an explanation from Zuma and “it was brutally shut down”. Subsequent reshuffles were not questioned.
An alliance leader said that it was an “open secret” that Zuma’s close allies were trying to cripple the political left – which was rallying for Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to become president – by removing Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande.
“If Zuma fires Nzimande, then that is a declaration of war. That’s the isolation of the communists.”
Government officials told City Press that rumours that Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies and Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe were also going to be fired by Zuma had no truth to them. In a statement on Friday, Zuma allayed fears of a further reshuffle, describing as mischievous the circulation of names of ministers supposedly on the chopping block.
Zuma and his ministers will hold the year’s last special Cabinet meeting on Friday.