David vs an economic Goliath
New finance minister’s friends and former colleagues say he is punching above his weight as finance minister during these troubled times
New Finance Minister David “Des” van Rooyen’s old comrades are happy about his new appointment, but few believe he has the ability to run South Africa’s public purse. A former colleague of Van Rooyen, DA councillor Blackie Swart – a council member who has sat on the finance committee of the Merafong municipality for the past 15 years – said the former mayor was a hard worker.
“But you don’t learn how to run a country’s finances based on municipal experience,” he said.
Like many others who have worked with Van Rooyen, Swart had good things to say about his former colleague, but was worried about the new finance minister’s lack of experience.
“I have studied finance and worked in the industry for years before I came to the municipality,” he said.
“As a minister of finance, he will have to deal with a totally different environment. This is the worst possible time he could have come into the role with the economy as it is.”
But Swart is not the only one concerned about South Africa’s economy.
One of Van Rooyen’s close political allies, who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak for the ANC, said he was elated for his friend, but he had some concerns.
“As a homeboy and a former colleague, I am happy for him. Coming from these dusty streets and making it up the ranks like he did is amazing. It would be great to walk into his office and say, ‘Hey Des,’” said the man.
But he does not think Van Rooyen is up to his new job. “Now, on a national level, he is punching well above his weight. Any other position would have been all right, but this one is not for him.
“This was a bad decision by our leadership. Des does not have the capacity,” he said.
The man reasoned that the position needed his homeboy to be groomed and given the time to learn the ropes.
“He is going to need to represent the country on an international stage where we are talking about finance, the economy, exchange rates, bonds and stuff. They are setting him up for failure.”
Old neighbours who grew up with Van Rooyen said he was a political activist towards the end of the struggle in the 1980s and went into exile to join Umkhonto weSizwe at the end of that decade.
When he returned in the early 1990s, he joined the SA National Defence Force (SANDF).
He then left the SANDF and, in 2000, returned to North West where he became a councillor for a ward in Khutsong.
An ambitious man, he made it on to the council as a member of the mayoral committee (MMC) for public safety.
Former mayor Ellen Mabille, who chose him for the position, said her choice was based on Van Rooyen’s experience in public safety.
“He came from the army, so it made sense to give him that position,” she said.
Mabille only held office for three years before she was ousted and replaced by Van Rooyen after the ANC in Gauteng sacked her.
Ironically, it was similar to what has happened in him replacing Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister.
The ANC said it appointed Van Rooyen to “strengthen governance”. When Zuma appointed him this week, he said Van Rooyen would “strengthen the path and continue to support all efforts aimed at improving the lives of ordinary South Africans”.
Mabille refused to comment on the circumstances of her dismissal, saying she could not speak about internal party decisions.
“I’ve known Des for too long. I first met him as a young, radical youth leader who was passionate about the struggle in 1988/89.
“He was full of life and, when I had the opportunity to make use of his skills, I brought him in as an MMC in 2000.”
The last time she saw him was at a funeral a few years ago, where she learnt that he had been moved to Parliament.
“It’s the president’s prerogative to appoint anyone he pleases. As the community of Khutsong, we will pray for Des and his new role,” she said.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Khutsong, another political ally and ward councillor, who asked not to be named, said Van Rooyen was going to be a fall guy. “If [ANC secretarygeneral Gwede] Mantashe won’t speak, who are we to say anything against this decision?
“I don’t want to come across as jealous of Des, but this is not the kind of role you wake up into.”
The councillor warned that Van Rooyen might be used as he had been during the failed attempt to include Merafong in North West.
“When they needed Merafong to be moved into North West, he was called in and Ellen was removed. Then, when the ANC saw that the people would not take it lying down, Des was the fall guy. I’m worried for him. They have thrown him into the deep end, but I don’t have any bad things to say about him,” he said.
Van Rooyen’s abrupt departure as Merafong mayor came in 2008 after furious community members burnt down his family home.
The Auditor-General at the time, Terence Nombembe, was not happy with the municipality’s financial performance and gave it qualified audit opinions during Van Rooyen’s tenure.
According to Merafong’s 2008/09 annual report, Van Rooyen did not declare his business interests and Nombembe picked up unauthorised expenditure of just more than R14 million. Swart said no real reason had been given for Van Rooyen’s departure. The municipality’s debt levels were at R95 million in 2000. By the time Van Rooyen left in 2008, the debt had ballooned to R340 million.
“His last recorded meeting was in October 2008. When I checked the November minutes, there was already an acting executive mayor,” said Swart.
“But there was never a reason given for why he left. We know by now that such things are usually kept really quiet.”
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A resident walks past the spot where David van Rooyen’s family home once stood in Khutsong, North West
David ‘Des’ van Rooyen