This is a country that understands bad news. Yet last week was particularly bad and probably challenged even the most optimistic among us. Words of anger and outrage can come easily. It truly has been a watershed week for South African politics.
Pravin Gordhan is gone. In his place is Malusi Gigaba, the former youth leaguer whose stint at Public Enterprises can only be described as underwhelming.
Gigaba spent most of his first press conference trying to convince us all that he would ‘adapt’ to his new position and that downgrades don’t happen because ‘one individual’ departs the stage.
That press conference went on for hours and on Monday South Africa woke up to the reality of a ratings downgrade by S&P designating it to so-called ‘junk status’. Gigaba then tried to reassure the markets by saying that ‘inclusive growth’ was definitely still on the agenda. Where had ‘radical economic transformation’ gone? He also somewhat ham-handedly said that a downgrade was something we could eventually get out of.
Clearly, the minister has time. It takes years to reverse the effects of a downgrade and South Africans are all instantly poorer after Monday. But why let the facts get in the way of some (poor) spin?
Gigaba is quite obviously out of his depth. He has no real understanding of how the markets work and rather naively said he had spoken with Moody’s and Fitch. Is he hoping to avoid their possible downgrades? Money has no loyalty and since the president has not deigned to explain precisely why Gordhan was fired, we are left to draw our own conclusions. The ratings agencies will do the same.
Gigaba has no gravitas. He is a lightweight and has been placed there to do President Zuma’s bidding. Gordhan had to go because he was an inconvenient stumbling block to the enrichment of Zuma and his cronies. He also led a National Treasury of impeccable integrity and adherence to rules and proper procedures. Given Gigaba’s past record, there is nothing that suggests he will continue the fiscal rectitude of his predecessors.
In the Tuesday press briefing he also did not deny that he has visited the Guptas’ Saxonwold home. That was probably a prerequisite for his getting the job, some might say. The keys to the Treasury have been handed over to a pliable lightweight with a poor understanding of economics. But again, this is Zuma’s world and he now presides over a Cabinet which is largely compromised and corrupt - bar the few still hanging in there.
Strangely, Zuma himself has said economic policy will not change.
But as Zuma was wrecking the economy, ‘Paid Twitter’ and other sycophants were praising him for finally creating a path to ‘radical economic transformation’. Some may say ‘radical looting’.
The arguments made in defence of Zuma create the very carnival of chaos we have come to expect from those continuously making the case for the so-called ‘transformation’ of our society.
It goes something like this: ratings agencies are ‘Western’ tools of white monopoly capital (WMC) and so should not be taken too seriously. They are ‘anti-transformation’ and therefore this downgrade was to be expected. It’s false logic because it will be the poor who will suffer most as the cost of basic items rise. The conditions for growth and thus job creation were already anaemic and a downgrade will simply make things worse, Zuma’s supporters say. The ‘transformation’ double-speak muddies the waters because what is really being spoken about is a loosening of the rules and an open door to lucrative tenders.
There have been several expressions of concern and calls for Zuma to step down, but ultimately it is the ANC that will have to summon the courage to deal with Zuma. Moody’s has delayed its ratings decision and will conduct a review that may take between 30 to 90 days. Currently they have us two notches above non-investment grade status. Can something be done in that time to reverse the catastrophe Zuma has inflicted on the country? One wonders.
Several marches have been planned for this Friday. Yet they will need hundreds of thousands of people committed to sustained action if they will have any impact on Zuma, or indeed the stalemate within the ANC. In South Korea, almost a million people protested against President Park Guen-hye before she was removed from office. They did so consistently in various public spaces around Seoul. Something must therefore shift if protests are to cross race and class barriers and to place the requisite pressure on the ANC itself as well as Zuma.
Focus has also shifted to Parliament and the ever-ambitious and conflicted Speaker Baleka Mbete. She is ‘consulting’ regarding a motion of no confidence in Zuma called for by the opposition in terms of s102 of the Constitution. Only a majority is needed to oust Zuma. But will the ANC MPs vote their conscience or follow a ‘three-line whip’ to vote for Zuma? Time will tell whether they are able to show they place country before party.
South African politics has become a study in unpredictability. Whatever analysis one might proffer would usually happen within a framework where we are agreed that the rules matter and the Constitution remains our touchstone. For a while now, Zuma has acted in ways that were unacceptable and often corrupt. He paid lip service to the Constitution, yet in form, if not in substance, he begrudgingly submitted to its authority.
Last week Zuma changed all that. He showed us that he would exercise his constitutional prerogative to hire and fire ministers without reason or rationality. He showed us too that he is comfortable to exercise the public power he has without any accountability to the country, its citizens or even his party.
We are in very dangerous territory.
Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february