Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan

Pravin for president? If only…

By THUMBA PILLAY Time of article published Mar 17, 2016

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Sweating it out in the sauna with my gym buddies after the usual workout, the “sauna dialogues”, as they often do, drift from the light hearted to the more cerebral.

The cause: the State of the Nation address, as delivered by our president and the eagerly awaited budget speech by our “in, out and in” Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

No one sticks up for the president. Not many, it seems took the trouble to listen to him. The lament: “The same stuff year in and year out.” “And Gordhan’s budget speech?” I ask.

Comment is spontaneous and wide ranging.

“He is someone you can listen to.”

“He speaks with authority and he knows what he is talking about. He commands respect.”

“He is confident and has the audience in the palm of his hand.” And so the compliments go on.

Someone confesses that on occasions he watches televised parliamentary sessions, purely for its entertainment value. Listening to the budget speech, he noticed for the first time ever that no one was nodding off to sleep, munching or nose-picking. There was no disruption.

Everyone listened in rapt attention, even the EFF.

I point out that Pravin did an amazing balancing act in his presentation of the budget, but to be honest, I thought he could at least have made a discreet reference to the need to trim government and help save the billions spent on a bloated cabinet and a plethora of deputy ministers with all the bureaucrats that go with them.

Why, for instance, do we need a deputy minister of Sport or of Arts and Culture? Why a deputy minister of Education and of Higher Education when the education ministry had already been split?

Has anyone heard of Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu? Well she is the Social Development deputy-minister, if you did not know. It is the politics of patronage I insist. Again I say that if we are serious about cutting government expenditure, Pravin could at least have expressed concern, without irking his cabinet colleagues, on how we could possibly justify the expenditure of hundreds of millions on foreign missions, reputed to be the highest number in the world!

Notwithstanding my reservations, eager to have his two cents worth, I hear the comment from someone that the best way to describe Pravin is that he has “charisma”.

And the usually pensive guy, with a sense of history and obvious political savvy, agrees, and tells us that Winston Churchill had “charisma”. So did Nehru, Kwame Nkrumah, John Kennedy, Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi and Harold MacMillan.

Not to be outdone, someone makes the observation that Obama has “charisma” and like Madiba, Narend Modi has it in abundance.

For the most part I agree, but add that one may not concur with the politics of any one or all of them, but one listens to what they had or have to say.

They exude leadership qualities and speak with authority. No one with an ounce of grey matter reaches for the off button on the TV decoder when they speak.

I add a word of caution: that it would be naïve to believe that “presidential aura” or “charisma” is all-important. Ronald Reagan had an engaging presence and charisma, if you will, yet is not much remembered for his intellect or political savvy.

Pravin, on the other hand, is presidential material. He looks and speaks like one. He has a commanding presence. He is respected for his intellectual prowess, nationally and internationally.

Who will forget hisperformance as chairman of Codesa 1 and 2? I know. I was there as part of the joint delegation representing the Natal and Transvaal Indian Congresses.

With Madiba’s backing he was appointed joint-chairman for the Transitional Executive Council from 1990 to 1994, a task he carried out with distinction.

The politically savvy guy says Kgalema Motlanthe also had, and still has, a charismatic presence, as did Trevor Manuel.

I agree unreservedly on Motlanthe, but throw in a damper that neither Trevor, if he did make himself available, nor Pravin, would make it in what is left of my lifetime or in the foreseeable future. There is muted support for Ramaphosa and somewhat forlorn hope that Motlanthe will throw his hat into the ring when Zuma goes, hopefully sooner than later.

Back in 2014, in this newspaper, I wrote about my long-standing friendship with the finance minister, highlighting his sharp intellect and his resolute commitment to the struggle for freedom, his amazing organisational skills, adaptability and importantly, his clarity of thought and communication skills.

I stated then that on more than one occasion I had taxed him on how he could survive in a cabinet, the qualities and competencies of which one could count on the fingers of one hand.

In the recent spat involving Zuma and a number of his cabinet ministers over the sacking of Nene and the appointment of Van Rooyen, and the latest fiasco involving Moyane and the Hawks, more and more people are asking the very same question.

What is it that motivates him to continue serving in a cabinet which is so riddled with corruption, factionalism and cronyism? It is becoming increasingly evident that aspiring to high office in government is seen as a stepping stone to the accumulation of unbridled wealth. In that process, those who entertain such ambitions inevitably fall prey to the corporate world in the capture of the state.

Those who actively worked towards the toppling of the apartheid state are not alone in trying to understand the abandonment of all those sacred principles on which the struggle was fought.

Surprisingly, one of Zuma’s coterie of spin doctors, deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte, who with minister Jeff Hadebe (“I am not a sangoma”) and secretary general Gwede Mantashe gave different versions of the events leading up to the shock sacking of Nene and the appointment of Van Rooyen, acknowledges the scourge of factionalism within the ANC .

She says, according to a report in New Age, that this factionalism is primarily driven by careerism and the intervention of business to capture the party in order to advance its commercial objectives.

Duarte is further quoted as saying: “Now you are dealing with very different scenarios. Internally, we are finding factions forming around one’s proximity to resources. The issue of careerism is also a contributing factor to factionalism. We are increasingly witnessing the consolidation around positions versus the execution of the party’s programme of action… the cabals existing in the interests of these businesses must be broken at all levels because they do not represent the interests of our members.”

A welcome and refreshingly frank observation and admission from someone who is the president’s known praise singer.

This factionalism is playing itself out to the detriment of the country’s economy in the inexplicable vendetta against Pravin Gordhan.

The current malaise in the party and the volatility of the situation involving Pravin, covered extensively by the media over the weekend, raises once again for me, as it does for the many others with whom I am in contact, an answer to the nagging question as to why Pravin would want to remain in government after being treated so shabbily by his colleagues in cabinet, who are plainly the president’s acolytes and who permeate nearly every structure of government save the judiciary as far as I know – and thankfully, for the time being, the office of the public protector.

Pravin, I know, will do what he has to do for his country. His commitment to the future of our young democracy is unshakeable. He is not one of those who will lie down idly and allow evil to triumph or gain a foothold. I believe that he will meet the challenges facing him with the steely resolve he is capable of, despite the sniping, provocation and humiliation brought upon him by the Hawk’s investigation .

Watching and listening to both the State of the Nation address and budget speech, I could not but help comparing the content and presentation of each with the other and the public reaction to them.

In relation to Pravin Gordhan’s speech, the question I asked myself is this: here we have a man whose quality of presentation, intellect, confidence, content (whether you agree with it or not) and commitment is evident, a man who is possessed of that aura or charisma if you like, a quality of leadership.

Could he ever be considered for the Presidency.?

Who else is capable or be prepared to take the heat as he has done, and continues to do, by venturing on his own initiative, leading a roadshow to the US and the UK to plead South Africa’s cause with rating agencies to exercise patience and understanding, and to explain his budget proposals?

More importantly, who in his right mind would want to venture an explanation to a puzzled world for the inexplicable firing of Nklanhla Nene and his replacing with the unknown Des van Rooyen?

When the rand went into free fall after the axing of Nene and the country lost billions and billions of rand, it was open to Pravin to refuse to step into the breach and rescue the country from financial disaster. Maybe he didn’t have a choice and the decision to return and assume the role of finance minister was not his to make, but was made by the impossible circumstances in which the country found itself. Has the heat takes its toll and the sauna dialogue tapers to an end, there is consensus that when all is said and done, the president just does not have the credibility or command the respect to convince a sceptical world, and indeed South Africans of all political persuasions, for the rationale behind the sacking of Nene and the appointment of the unknown Van Rooyen.

No one can understand the sheer recklessness of the ultimatum allegedly given to Pravin to answer the 27 ill- constructed and loaded question put to him by the Hawks this week.

Reckless I say with conviction, because it is on the eve of Moody’s in loco investigation, which could end up with the country being downgraded to junk status and consequent economic disaster.

Pravin is presidential material, my buddies conclude. Trevor Manuel too, they say, had the makings of national leadership.

But for now I say, let’s look to the possible. It would be good if Kgalema Motlanthe made himself available.

Finally, could the unthinkable happen in what is left of my lifetime, and here I mean the appointment of a white, coloured or Indian head of state?

I think not now, or in the foreseeable future. But surely there must come the time when we will mature as a nation and look beyond narrow sectional interests based on race, colour, creed or gender and put the country first.

Competency should eventually triumph over all else. Are we about to see the playing out of a 21st century version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar?

Beware the Ides of March!

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