Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene out; David van Rooyen in; Finance Minister Van Rooyen out; Pravin Gordhan in. The turbulence began on Thursday, December 10 2015. Over the next two days, it became a gale, then a storm. On Sunday, the “perfect storm” that was destined to happen tapered off.
It has not ended though. It continues to seethe and froth like an active volcano, waiting to erupt. It sends a message: “Anticipate me to your salvation; ignore me to your damnation.”
Blogger Sarah Freeman describes a “perfect storm” as “a convergence of forces or circumstances that work together in the worst of all possible ways in order to magnify the intensity and impact of an already negative event”. In South Africa, though, it is now the culmination of a series of negative events that have been building up over two decades of post-1994 democracy.
At first steady and not easy to recognise in the euphoria of the first five years of freedom, the events, perhaps beginning with what came to be known as the arms deal, began to run, canter and then gallop out of control. In their momentum, they began to show signs of a system by which to generate and reproduce themselves. This system is striding towards maturity in the presidency of Jacob Zuma. It will not reach maturity yet, but may become more self-conscious.
“I have decided to remove Mr Nhlanhla Nene as minister of finance ahead of his deployment to another strategic position.” This was how President Zuma announced the axing of Minister Nene. There was a technical finality in that cold, terse statement.
If Nene had been a rogue spender of public funds, celebrations would have erupted upon such presidential decisiveness. But he was a highly respected finance minister who had demonstrated regard for the constitutional requirements expected of a public officer of his standing. The president’s curt dismissal of him proclaimed its own insufficiency.
Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe was the first to follow with a statement. In all likelihood, President Zuma knew of it and approved it.
“This is a post-Cabinet briefing,” Radebe began, in an unscheduled briefing, “and Cabinet happened on Wednesday. At the conclusion of the Cabinet meeting, there was no new finance minister and there was no way we could have predicted [what would happen].” Indeed, he went on to add: “I don’t think Cabinet had an idea that there was going to be a reshuffle, because this was the president’s prerogative.”
Radebe’s words revealed that Zuma’s Cabinet was formally ignorant of the president’s intentions. This also affirmed Zuma’s presidential prerogative to keep them ignorant. The two “facts” together have a powerful effect. One is to get us to deduce that Radebe was himself not trusted enough by Zuma to be part of a momentous decision. We can even read his statement as a subtle protest: “I, too, am among the ignorant who have been denied important information.” But Radebe’s statement, as technically curt as the president’s, achieved more: it endeavoured to effect a technical closure to a catastrophic event.
Does the technicality of Cabinet’s ignorance necessarily imply all in Cabinet were factually ignorant? Could there have been, among the community of the “technically ignorant”, Cabinet members who were “in the know”?
If no one in Zuma’s Cabinet was consulted by Zuma, who then did he consult? Either there are people he consulted in Cabinet who would then become “technically ignorant” within the formality of Cabinet, or he consulted people outside Cabinet. There is a third option: President Zuma arrived at his decision completely alone, without reference to any other living being. Did he?
Each of these carries dire implications for three things: the character of governance within a constitutional democracy; the nature and quality of political leadership within the democracy; and the increasingly fraught relationship between political power and capital.
Public systems are wont to be opaque, transparent or to trudge a mean in between. The combination of President Zuma’s and Minister Radebe’s respective statements gives us an insight into the nature of the governance of the South African state at this moment.
The country continues to aspire to and affirm a human rights-driven constitutional democracy. Judging from the conduct of the governing party, the ANC, which for two decades has shaped both the public and private conduct of its governing elites, this is still true. But this is being hollowed out by resourceful, even intelligent, nontransparent behaviour.
The effect of such conduct over time is to structure