JOHANNESBURG - President Cyril Ramaphosa this week drove the final nail into the already crumbling Gupta empire.
Ramaphosa sacked Lynne Brown, Faith Muthambi, Mosebenzi Zwane, Des van Rooyen and David Mahlobo, among others, from his cabinet. Few eyes will shed a drop over their departure. For while they made for some entertaining education on how not to run a government, they also cost South Africa billions of rand in capital outflows and investments.
Brown allegedly opened the Eskom vault to Atul, Ajay and Rajesh Gupta to plunder as they pleased. She appointed Gupta acolytes such as Brian Molefe, Anoj Singh and Matshela Koko, while swearing by whatever was most sacred to her that all was right with the utility. Even when she was found to have misled Parliament, she simply shifted the blame.
Muthambi, a rural girl from an obscure village called Vhembe, thought it very professional to let the brothers in on some classified cabinet decisions. She also competed with Brown in getting what to her were the best minds to run key government institutions (Think Hlaudi Motsoeneng).
Zwane single-handedly elevated the Guptas from an ordinary immigrant family seeking greener pastures in South Africa into a sleek machinery that ran the country’s coal mining industry like no other company had done.
The morbid Van Rooyen lied so nonchalantly that he even attracted the attention of Public Protector Busi Mkhwebane away from the SA Reserve Bank. As for Mahlobo, he should take comfort in the probability that his hilarious intelligence reports will one day make for a must-read in early childhood development centres.
When Mkhwebane’s predecessor Thuli Madonsela drafted her State of Capture report, some cabinet ministers were fingered as chief lieutenants of the state capture project, making it possible for the Guptas to plunge the economy into a crisis, while fattening their bank accounts. They moonlighted as Gupta consultants on key state transactions and ensured that state-owned entities (SOEs) were turned into cash cows for the family.
Their fall, therefore, signals an end to one of the most painful chapters of South African history, where an elected government chose to enter into a joint governing expedition that shuttled between Mahlamba Ndlopfu and the Gupta’s Saxonwold compound.
The only survivor in Ramaphosa’s Monday night axe is Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, who returned to his portfolio just five days after delivering his maiden Budget speech. Most people expected him to take the fall for his actions in his previous portfolio as the minister of public enterprises and also at home affairs. It was he who approved the Gupta brothers’ naturalisation into South Africa.
But as we turn our backs on their prominence in our body politic, we must spare a serious thought for those who are now tasked with cleaning up the mess they left behind.
New Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan probably has the toughest job of all the returnees into cabinet. Gordhan has to make sense of how once successful enterprises such as Eskom ended up being a strain on the fiscus. He has to make sure that Eskom is out of the reach of scorpions such as the Guptas.
He has to ensure that steps taken by Ramaphosa to stabilise its leadership are followed by the appointment of competent and credible people, who will be able to resist any interference with their executive responsibilities and stabilise the parastatals’ financial systems.
He will do well to confer with former board chairperson Popo Molefe on how to tackle this monster called the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa.
He will also have to develop much more interest in Transnet and Denel than Lynne Brown ever did in her tenure as a minister.
More than anything else, he will have to restrain his own colleagues from interfering with the running of the SOEs.
Parastatals are high on the National Development Plan as the drivers of state-driven expansive economic growth model and job creation.
Returning Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene will have his job cut out for him. Besides trying to stave off further downgrades, Nene will have to deal with a civil service that is already irked by last week’s 1percentage point increase in VAT.
Public sector unions have made it clear that they will look for wage increases that will take care of additional costs on their stretched pockets. Nene will have to convince them that the belt-tightening exercise cuts across all sectors and that the bloated cabinet is firmly under his and Ramaphosa’s microscope. He will also have to rein-in the ruffians that currently run the SA Revenue Service and kickstart an all but moribund economy.
Then there is poor old Gwede Mantashe, who will have to polish his negotiation skills to deal with the monumental bungles that Zwane has left behind in the mining industry.
Under Zwane’s stewardship, the bodies of three workers remain trapped in an underground container in Lily Mine. Last year the industry recorded 82 fatalities between January and November. This was the highest number of deaths in the sector in 10 years.
Mantashe will also have to rebuild bridges between an industry that had decided to boycott engagements with Zwane, because of his carefree attitude over the disastrous third version of the Mining Charter. When the controversial charter was released, mining stocks shed more than R50billion in value on the JSE.
He will have to craft a careful balance between the sustainability of the industry and the dignity of those who work for it.
He will also have to allay fears that Optimum Mine will not turn into another Aurora Empowerment System, where the politically-connected Khulubuse Zuma, Zondwa Mandela and Thulani Ngubane condemned workers into abject poverty after making millions at their expense.
Jeff Radebe will have to muster enough guts to look into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s what former US vice-president Joe Biden called “soulless eyes” and tell him that despite what Mahlobo may have promised, South Africa simply does not have any money for nuclear energy.
This is what Ramaphosa’s new era will have to do to convince South Africans - who have been numbed by the previous administration - that the country is indeed on a new path.
Ramaphosa may have started on a high, but his legacy will be judged on how deep he manages to bury the Gupta ghosts and how far he manages to turn the country from a laughing stock into a respected investment destination.