Zuma: A loot-a continua
When a plane carrying the wedding guests of the Gupta family landed at the Waterkloof Air Force Base in 2013, the country was consumed with outrage. To many, this brazen violation of our sovereignty was proof that President Jacob Zuma had sold the country to his friends and the benefactors of his family. They thought we had plumbed the depths – that this was the lowest Zuma could possibly go.
This incident seems to have faded from memory and pales into insignificance compared with the damage Zuma has wrought on our country since. He has gone on to inflict wounds on the National Prosecuting Authority, the SA Police Service, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, the SA Revenue Service and other key state institutions. His political party has not been spared either. Zuma’s corruptible ways have infected its ranks and encouraged a culture that seems to say that access to public office equals access to the public purse. This rapacious practice has spawned factionalism on a grand scale as members fight over what rightfully belongs to the public. This factionalism has affected governance, decision making and the ability to deliver public services.
The heavy toll of the Zuma presidency is incalculable. This week, he added to his list of casualties. At the stroke of a pen, he destroyed domestic and international confidence in South Africa’s fiscal management regime when he fired Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene.
Since the early days of our democracy, National Treasury developed a reputation for being a worldclass finance department. It attracted the brightest minds and its staff members were poached by local and international financial institutions.
Previous presidents recognised the importance of the Treasury and gave it all the support it needed.
More crucially, they accorded it independence and the power to say no to spendthrift ministries and provincial governments.
Treasury’s tight hand and its influence over economic policy earned it many enemies – in government and on the political left.
But with supportive presidents in Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, it was able to keep the country on a trajectory of fiscal responsibility.
When Zuma came into office, he seemed to get this. He appointed the well-respected Pravin Gordhan as finance minister in 2009 and gave him the space to operate the Treasury with as much autonomy as his predecessor, Trevor Manuel.
But reasons for concern arose late in Gordhan’s tenure as whispers began about a strain in the relationship between Zuma and the finance department. When Gordhan was not returned to his post after last year’s elections, the development was seen as a removal, not a deployment of his skills to the local government portfolio.
But the ascension of Nene, who had served as deputy to Gordhan and Manuel, was reassuring.
His acumen, experience and gravitas more than made up for the fact that he was not a political heavyweight like his predecessors. It dispelled fears that he could be bullied into making irresponsible decisions by his peers or his principal.
His 18-month tenure was too brief to give him a proper mark for his performance. But the sentiment in political and business circles was that he was the right man to guide the South African economy through these choppy times and prevent us from spending money we do not have.
But Zuma had other ideas. His unceremonious sacking of Nene and promotion of someone with all the pedigree of an Ellerines furniture salesman was tantamount to committing economic treason.
Within minutes, the rand lost 5% of its value and by the end of the week, it had lost 10%. The markets also felt the pain of Zuma’s announcement. Did the president care? Did he feel the need to calm negative sentiment, douse the anger throughout South Africa and contain the confusion in the party’s senior ranks? Nyet!
The next time he was seen in public was when he arrived in Paris for the climate change talks, wearing his trademark grin.
Zuma can grin because he is confident that once the noise has died down, he will continue on his merry way, misgoverning the country and enriching his family and friends. His escape from censure has left South Africans feeling powerless and hoping the people who cosset him will catch a wake-up.
But how long will the people have to wait before members of the ANC’s national executive committee, national working committee and other structures of the party realise this man is demolishing the republic?
How long before they see that the president is a servant not of the people, but of greedy interests? How long before they accept that South Africa cannot go on like this? What will it take before they rein him in and tell him he will only complete his term on their terms?