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

CityPress - - Front Page - HLENGIWE NHLA­BATHI, SE­TUMO STONE and AN­DISIWE MAK­I­NANA news@city­press.co.za

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.

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