Pravin Jamnadas Gordhan is without a doubt the epitome of what this country would like its leaders and its citizens to be. He is a man who grew up, as Sol Plaatje once inimitably termed it, “a stranger in the land of his birth”.
Attending school at the then all-boys Sastri College, Gordhan would work in his family’s clothing store in Durban’s Prince Edward Street on Saturdays, securing a place at the University of Durban-Westville to qualify as a pharmacist in 1973.
He was disgusted not just by the injustice of apartheid South Africa, but any injustice. He joined the ANC and the SACP, both banned organisations , and led student protests against a rector they saw as tyrannical.
As a pharmacist at Durban’s King Edward Hospital, he would dispense drugs and discuss organised resistance with Mac Maharaj. The same hospital would fire him in 1981 – while he was being detained without trial – but nothing could deter him. He was part and parcel of the foundation of the United Democratic Front a couple of years later during the dark days of apartheid repression, but also working underground at the same time.
He would be detained three times, once for 160 days in 1981 – the year the hospital fired him – when the beard he wore was physically ripped from his face by his torturers.
He was a key member of uMkhonto we Sizwe’s four-year long Operation Vula, set up as counter-measure should the negotiations between Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk towards a peaceful transition fail. He would be arrested along with other Struggle luminaries like Maharaj and the future head of the SANDF Siphiwe Nyanda.
Gordhan would play a key role in Codesa, (Convention for a Democratic South Africa) the unprecedented negotiations to transfer power from a racial minority to the majority. He co-chaired the Transitional Executive Council, which prepared South Africa for its watershed 1994 elections.
Afterwards, he would serve in Parliament as an MP, chairing the Constitutional Committee of the Constituent Assembly, the midwife of our much-lauded and well-tested Constitution.
But it was really only in 1996 that his career would evolve into what he has become best known for and paid the highest price for – the elevation of the SA Revenue Service into one of the finest revenue collection agencies in the world.
Appointed deputy commissioner in March 1998 and commissioner in November the next year, he created an organisation that was not just a benchmark for civil service excellence – it would also be the greatest scourge of those hell bent on enriching themselves in the kleptocracy that became known as state capture.
A decade after becoming commissioner, Gordhan would be elevated to Cabinet as minister of finance, able to use the monies his former agency was so successfully collected to build a new nation. Alas, it was not to be.
As the state capture project shifted gear, so too was Gordhan moved – to the Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Ministry and then, with haste, back to the Finance Ministry a year later, following uproar in the international markets after Jacob Zuma made his first midnight Cabinet reshuffle with the unknown and unqualified Des van Rooyen.
Gordhan took up the appointment with his usual grace and dedication, surviving the next 16 months in a pressure cooker of a portfolio made unbearable by the perpetual sniping and ambushes of the Hawks and National Prosecuting Authority.
Not only did he have to face an unprecedented level of increasingly vicious ad hominem attacks, he had to watch the theft and destruction of the once-proud Revenue Service as the kleptocrats worked to ensure they could never be held to account, and to finally square the circle by ensuring the emasculation of the last of the state agencies to pose a possible threat to their liberty.
Gordhan never wavered. In March 2017, he was fired because he could not be suborned, and he could not be beaten into submission. He did not disappear into obscurity to lick his wounds and regroup.
Instead, he threw himself with courage and dignity into openly fighting the people who had debased the organisation he had given his life for. He was a beacon for others who might have felt the same but were too timid to speak out. He led protests, as he had as a pupil and as a student. He mobilised . He spoke to whoever would listen about the perils of corruption and just how deep its roots extended.
But he didn’t just speak of corruption, he spoke of its hand maid too, the collusion of the corporate sector.
By February the following year, he was back – serving a new president with a new dawn – this time tasked with cleaning up the pillaged state-owned enterprises, the once rich looting grounds of the capturers .
His name, Pravin, is of Sanskrit origin, it means knowledgeable, skilful and proficient. He is well named, but he is far more than that; he is honourable , he is principled, he is a true patriot. He has fought wars against oppression and injustice, his courage has never been in question.
His hardest battles have been against foes he never imagined; former comrades who would accuse him of turning against his own principles; his bitterest skirmishes against enemies he was never able to see, lurking in the twilight of the digital sphere, plotting and scheming to discredit and hurt him in any way possible.
He has survived to have the satisfaction of seeing the “Sars Rogue Unit” narrative, perhaps one of the most tragic episodes in South African media history, wholly discredited and disowned. He has lived to see his and his loyal colleagues’ reputations restored, but still his work remains unfinished.
For Gordhan, the level of success he enjoys is measurable by the decibel level of the brickbats thrown against him. The anguished clamour is rising again, the trolls are hard at work trying their best to shift the narrative, as Gordhan methodically goes about turning off the taps into what were once teeming pools of brazen theft.
For us at Henley Business School Africa, he is the personification of active corporate citizenship.
His courage inspires us, his unshakeable moral compass and sense of purpose are a beacon to all of us.
* Jon Foster-Pedley is dean of Henley Business SA. This is the oration he delivered before Pravin Gordhan was capped on Thursday night by the international dean of the University of Reading’s Henley Business School, Professor John Board.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.