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Will Zuma end South African exceptionalism?

President Jacob Zuma’s axing of Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan and his deputy was brazen, but expected. It has been met with unprecedented outrage, but Zuma isn’t budging. The question is, can the ANC do the extraordinary, and vote out its president in Parliament?



president Jacob Zuma

President Jacob Zuma was kept at bay for some time, but his intention to place his man in National Treasury to facilitate the looting of our state coffers has been obvious ever since the day he fired former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene and tried to replace him with a nonentity.

Last week, with the timing worthy of a mobster boss, Zuma’s midnight cabinet reshuffle axed Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas.

At stake are a string of lucrative deals – from airliners to nuclear power plants and a bank to conduct all government business – which Zuma wants to see happen before his term ends in 2019, but which have been stalled or blocked by a fiscally responsible and too independently-minded Treasury under Gordhan and his predecessor, Nene.

The current urgency, which saw Zuma recall the finance minister in the middle of an international investor roadshow, desperately trying to rescue the country from junk status, may be the looming deadline for the acquisition of Habib Overseas Bank by associates of Zuma’s personal allies and funders, the Gupta family.


A photo dated 17 February 2010 and made available 14 December 2015 of then South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan delivering the 2010 budget speech in parliament, Cape Town, South Africa. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

The Guptas also want the minister of finance to intervene on their behalf after the four major banks in the country shut down Gupta bank accounts, because there were too many shady transactions – about R6.8 billion’s worth of “suspicious and unusual payments” . Zuma tried at the eleventh hour to join the court case but was turned down. Within hours of his recall, Gordhan turned up at court to hear how the case was proceeding.

Read: Pravin Gordhan vs the Hawks: what really happened?

The threat posed by Zuma to South Africa’s democracy and its economy cannot be understated. As struggle veteran and now business leader Sipho Pityana told the Cape Town Press Club in February, “When our National Treasury is overrun [by Zuma] it will be game over for South Africa.”

Since coming to power, Zuma has already done incalculable damage to the economy. Following his cabinet reshuffle, the currency immediately plunged by 5%. The fall in the rand would have been far worse had the present eventuality not already to some extent been factored into the market. It is quite likely Moody’s will downgrade the country in the coming week, making the nation’s debt and the interest payments on it more onerous.

File picture: Swearing-in ceremony of the new cabinet, 26 May 2014 Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba is sworn in at a ceremony held at Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guesthouse in Pretoria. (Photo: GCIS). Photo: GovernmentZA/Flickr

Gordhan has been replaced by Malusi Gigaba, who has a chequered cabinet career, including the mess he left as Minister for Public Enterprises during which time his advisor was in and out of the Gupta compound, the family with which Gigaba has “cordial” relations.

Read: Zuma versus Gordhan: the stakes have never been higher

Public reaction was swift. Citizens, civil society organisations and faith-based groups took to the streets to protest outside Parliament and the Union Buildings. Treasury staff stood on the ramparts of their building holding up copies of the Public Finance Act. The funeral of struggle stalwart and Nelson Mandela’s bosom buddy Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada became a rallying point. At the memorial on Saturday, Gordhan gave the final speech.


Politically, the reshuffle was condemned across the board – from opposition parties, unanimous in their outrage, to the South Africa Community Party and the ANC itself.

In a media statement released by ANC Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize, the party says Zuma’s actions will have ‘long undesirable consequences for the ANC and South Africa’ and ‘what matters most should always be the interest of the ANC and country above any other narrow interest’.

South Africans should not be fooled; in the eyes of the ANC powers that be, Zuma’s error is not his corruption, but that he has crossed the line by hogging the spoils.

President Jacob Zuma with Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng during Freedom Day Celebrations. Photo: GovernmentZA/Flickr

He also did not listen to any of the party’s cabinet recommendations, preferring to consolidate his political patronage ahead of the ANC elective conference. Hopelessly incompetent ministers with constituencies were kept, and competent ministers without constituencies were fired.

We’ve been here before, out on the streets, hoping our Tahrir Square moment had come – after Zuma fired Nene, the state capture report, the Nkandla scandal, when Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng found the President failed to “uphold, defend and respect” the constitution of the country and the oath of his office.

A view of the controversial homestead of South African President Jacob Zuma in Nkandla on January 21, 2014. Photo: ANP/ AFP Marco Longari

Thabo Mbeki went “voluntarily” when he was “recalled” as President by the ANC. It was unconstitutional, but he did it because of the instability to the country it would cause if he dug in his heels. Zuma has no such compunction. As the nation saw at the time of his rape trial, he was happy to see the country burn if that is what it took to get to power.

There are only two legal ways to force Zuma out. A majority vote by 201 members of parliament (not members present in the assembly) of no confidence, or an impeachment vote which requires a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.


File picture. South Africa’s Sports and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula. CHAN 2014 media briefing, 16 Jan 2014. Photo: GovernmentZA/Flickr

First, parliament would have to be reconvened. Then ANC MPs would be asked to risk their salaries for the sake of principle and a bigger cause. It seems unlikely then any vote will succeed.

Taking to the streets, if it isn’t peaceful, will probably play into Zuma’s hand and allow him to further clampdown on democratic space. That he has made a buffoon like Fikile Mbalula Minister of Police is disconcerting.

The question now is will South Africa continue sliding towards caudillismo or will it once again be exceptional and pull itself back from the brink.