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[OPINION] South Africa: How low we have sunk

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As Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas walked to the podium to deliver their final news briefing this afternoon, Treasury staff broke out into that old haunting struggle song Senzeni na. ‘What have we done?’

They would probably not have guessed they would be singing it in a democratic South Africa.

How far we had come and now, how low we have sunk.

The deed has been done. The axe has fallen. President Zuma now presides over a Cabinet of mostly lightweights, also-rans and those who are ethically compromised like their boss.

He has once again done the unthinkable. As the tension of last week piled up he finally did what he has wanted to do since 2015 and that is to fire Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas and bend the National Treasury to his will.

The act of cowardice happened at the witching hour on Thursday with attendant chaos and confusion - and one might say complete disregard for the citizens of the country.

At all times this reshuffle was being treated like an internal ANC scuffle. It is not.

Yes, the president is able to exercise his constitutional right to hire and fire ministers, but when he does so he exercises public power. That must be done rationally and accountably. That was not the case here.

As Gwede Mantashe says, “the list of ministers seemed to have been collated elsewhere”. What a scathing indictment on the state of the ANC. Mantashe appeared almost resigned, exhausted and without answers.

Zuma had ‘gone rogue’ and was acting alone, along with his corrupt cronies.

It’s important to be clear that since no proper reasons have been given for the reshuffle - apart from some mealy-mouthed talk of ‘radical economic transformation’ - there was only one reason that Zuma acted so recklessly.

In Zuma’s world, Gordhan needed to go. Gordhan and the relatively powerful Team Treasury have been doing a sterling job in overseeing South Africa’s macro-economic stability and ensuring that the ratings agency downgrades are kept at bay.

Gordhan, Jonas and National Treasury stood as a bulwark between South Africa and complete state capture. They have also intelligently and thoughtfully made the case for proper transformation of the economy based on sound economic principles and proper financial management.

In addition, they have refused to sign off on tenders that they believe are detrimental to our country. The North Gauteng High Court case against Zuma’s friends, the Guptas, and in which Gordhan intervened, would have raised Zuma’s ire. Likewise Jonas’s revelations regarding the Guptas’s offer of cash to him would have made Jonas equally inconvenient to Zuma.

Gordhan and Jonas pretty much confirmed our thinking in their press conference on Friday. Gordhan referred to the ‘fake’ intelligence report in which it was alleged that he was plotting against Zuma and the state while on the international investor roadshow.

Removing Gordhan and replacing him with the rather more pliable Malusi Gigaba allows Zuma and his merry band free rein over SOEs and related contracts worth billions.

Gigaba underwhelmed when he was Minister of Public Enterprises and has now been rewarded with the most important position in Cabinet. There is nothing which suggests he is qualified for the task apart from his alleged friendship with the Guptas and his insult of Ahmed Kathrada in defence of Zuma. He played his cards right on that one. We now have a lightweight running the Finance Ministry. One need not wonder how the ratings agencies will respond.

But this is who Zuma is and so we should not be surprised. His time in office has given us plenty of insight into his character. He has undermined democratic institutions and abused state resources for private gain. The ANC have stood passively by while the party itself has been dragged further into the abyss and the country along with it.

In a calculated move Zuma has not fired ‘the communists’ and a few others; Rob Davies, Blade Nzimande and Jeremy Cronin have been retained and Ebrahim Patel and Aaron Motsoaledi too. Zuma is perhaps daring them to resign. They should.

And the Great Silence from Cyril Ramaphosa was broken when he said Gigaba’s appointment as Minister of Finance was, “Unacceptable. Unacceptable”. Is that all he has to say? It has gone way beyond unacceptable. I think perhaps Cyril resigning might not be such a good idea!!!

The focus now turns to a motion of no confidence in Parliament. Zuma would have calculated that he has the numbers to survive that. In terms of s102 of the Constitution, that motion would need a ‘majority’. Are there enough ANC members who are prepared not to toe the party line and rise up against Zuma? That remains to be seen.

What role will ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu play in all of this? No doubt Speaker Baleka Mbete, as ever hedging her bets, will try to drag out the process for as long as possible.

These are difficult days for our country and as the axing of Gordhan and Jonas has shown, in Zuma’s Cabinet there is only space for the weak, cowardly and the ethically pliable ones. The exceptions who still remain in Cabinet will be known by the company they keep.

We have taken a dangerous turn this week and Zuma is probably not through with us yet. But in a week where we buried Ahmed Kathrada, we also saw the best of South Africa on display and so we continue trying to build that accountable democracy which so eludes us.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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