Johannesburg - The uproar around the impending arrest of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has escalated into verbal sparring, with President Jacob Zuma and his deputy Cyril Ramaphosa sending conflicting messages.
This was as the ramifications of the political saga continued to rattle the government, the ANC and its partners in the tripartite alliance, as well as business.
As the Hawks’ pursuit of Gordhan and other former Sars officials for their role in the “rogue unit” threatened to blow up in his face, Zuma went on the defensive on Thursday.
In a flurry of media statements from the Presidency echoing those in the days after the firing of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister last year, Zuma said he had no power to halt investigations.
He said the presidential committee on state-owned enterprises announced on Monday was the product of recommendations from a review of parastatals adopted by the cabinet.
Gordhan had significantly raised the stakes in the stand-off by effectively challenging the Hawks to come and get him if they dared, for their use of a purported investigation into Sars to instruct him to report to their offices.
While Zuma on Thursday said he had “full support and confidence” in Gordhan, he insisted he did not have the powers to stop any investigation against him.
However, Zuma’s denial, while strictly correct in law, was received with scepticism and criticism. This was as evidence mounted that the Sars saga was turning into a public relations disaster for him.
A few hours later, however, Ramaphosa, in an apparent proxy war with Zuma, contradicted him when he publicly backed Gordhan.
Ramaphosa, who was speaking at the funeral of former minister and diplomat Makhenkesi Stofile in the Eastern Cape, said Gordhan’s integrity was unquestionable.
“The minister of finance is today facing what could be an arrest. It should concern us. When the government works well, it should not be a government that wages a war against itself,” warned Ramaphosa.
Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas were part of a team of ministers attending Stofile’s funeral in the Eastern Cape.
“I am here to pledge my total support to the minister of finance,” said Ramaphosa, who has been working closely with the finance minister in unlocking growth in the economy.
Former foreign affairs director-general Sipho Pityana was particularly scathing of Zuma, saying that if the president had been in the Eastern Cape for Stofile’s funeral, he would have pleaded with him to resign. He then asked the mourners to use Stofile’s funeral to rid the ANC of the ills of corruption and nepotism.
“May his (Stofile’s) wish for the movement to go back to its former glory during his last few days not be in vain,” said Pit-yana, who pointed out that he was disappointed that Zuma was not at the funeral to listen to him make all these pleas.
This came as public sentiment overwhelmingly swung behind Gordhan and the other Sars officials, with jurists, lawyers, opposition parties and academics adding their voices to the call for Zuma to block the Hawks from locking up Gordhan.
Following an open letter to Zuma from Business Leadership SA on Wednesday begging him to call off the Hawks for the sake of the economy, advocate George Bizos, retired judge Johann Kriegler and the Helen Suzman Foundation came out in support of former Sars deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay and former group executive: strategy and risk Peter Richer, agreeing with Gordhan that the charges were baseless.
“Not only are the charges baseless, but the manner in which they have been pursued is clearly calculated to besmirch the names of the individuals, and has predictably already seriously impaired our national economy,” said the Helen Suzman Foundation and Freedom Under Law in a joint statement.
Former finance minister Trevor Manuel has been backing Gordhan. Opposition parties in Parliament have also backed Gordhan, saying he was standing up to Zuma for trying to capture the National Treasury.