Most major business lobbies issued a variant of the same statement: puzzlement at the decision, concern about losing what they see as gains made by Nhlanhla Nene and a cautious olive branch to his replacement, Des van Rooyen. From the Chamber of Mines to the SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the JSE, the overall refrain was “why?”.
As the most powerful minister in Cabinet in a time of austerity, Nene has hurt and upset any number of constituencies from the president down to local municipalities. Most speculation has centred on immediate controversies: Treasury’s opposition to a nuclear build programme, its battle with SAA CEO Dudu Myeni over buying new Airbus aircraft and even the refusal to allow Zuma to buy a new official jet.
But Nene’s short term has seen Treasury take a hard line on other far more fundamental issues that has arguably done untold damage to political networks all over the country right before a crucial local election.
Nene has been overseeing the long-overdue reform of the national tender system through the establishment of the chief procurement officer, a central national supplier database and an online tender portal geared at introducing far more transparency into tender processes.
He has also taken a strict position on the other major sphere of cronyism, the municipalities that often fly under the radar and waste staggering amounts of money. In March, he invoked his powers under the Constitution to cut off 59 municipalities, a fifth of the total, from government grants that provide 40% of local government revenue. This was a stick to force them into starting to clear their arrears with Eskom and water boards – arrears that would otherwise become Treasury’s problem when Eskom comes begging for another bailout.
In September, Nene also refused municipalities’ requests for yet another extension to the 2007 regulations on minimum job requirements in local government. This policy sets a bachelor’s degree or equivalent certificate, as well as other criteria, as a basic minimum requirement to hold a senior position in a municipality. The deadline was last year and had already been extended once.
The move was meant to professionalise municipal management and would, if nothing else, make it harder to dish out positions that involve access to public money.
All these interventions in the local sphere of government came ahead of next year’s elections, where the ANC is expected to face unprecedented competition.