It is a difficult business trying to create a financial and fiscal policy veneer of respectability, while owing one’s job to President Jacob Zuma. That is the unenviable position in which Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan finds himself as he faces massive pressure to account for a national political administration that is behaving more like a pyramid scheme dressed up as a government.
Hardly a day passes without some scandal lurking in government departments. The most prominent of late has been the Public Works Department, which is doing political acrobatics trying to explain why R250 million, at least, of taxpayers’ money has been spent on the private compound of the man-at-the-top.
Amid all of this, the SABC has issued instructions to its staff not to use pejorative language like “Nkandlagate” and “compound”. What exactly is pejorative about a compound? It is a term that has been used to refer to former US president George Bush’s private Kennebunkport, Maine, estate. There may be an argument about “Nkandlagate”, but it is rather like demanding the sighted be blinded to the fact that “the emperor has no clothes”.
At a parliamentary briefing ahead of the medium-term budget policy statement, Gordhan was tackled on whether he believed the Nkandla spending was irregular, and if not, why not? It clearly was not a question that he wished to be asked.
An official response was that it was too sensitive to be answered by the Treasury and the minister himself would have to answer at the briefing. He was asked and he responded: “I don’t have the exact numbers… I have spoken to the minister of public works. He has started processes within the department.”
The following day, Tim Harris, the DA finance spokesman, said this wasn’t good enough. The matter could not be “kicked over” to Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi. “You [the Treasury] play the main role in appropriating funds… you need to account on this number [the Nkandla spending] in particular.”
Gordhan took exception to the suggestion that his budget was “propping up” the presidency and that there could be a taxpayers’ revolt. He said: “You can ask as many questions you like [but] let us respect the office.“
Earlier this year on the fringes of the June ANC policy conference, Gordhan found himself putting out fires in an attempt to downplay populist rhetoric that was being spewed, including references to releasing the economy from the clutches of “white males” and veiled attacks on the vast land holdings of commercial farmers.
Zuma had complained about the stranglehold whites had over the commanding heights of the economy – both during his opening address and at the closing session. He said the real economy – the means of production – was still mainly in the hands of white males. This had to be addressed.
Ever the diplomat, Gordhan carefully chose his words.
While appealing to South Africans to move away from the “noisy” use of language and “divisive” tactics, he asked that the private and state sectors worked together to resolve problems.
The president’s rhetoric needed to be understood in the context of the “structural” legacy of apartheid, which included the spatial patterns of settlement, putting Africans far from workplaces.
Gordhan has the sort of job where “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” applies. Despite his role in defending the indefensible, thank heavens he is the one forced to do it, rather than some of his cabinet colleagues with far less integrity.