POLITICS

Pravin Gordhan: The Leader Of The Resistance

The minister of finance is delivering his seventh budget speech on Wednesday, without the support of the head of state and under immense political pressure.

21/02/2017 11:58 SAST | Updated 28/02/2017 06:37 SAST

ANALYSIS

Pravin Gordhan will deliver the second Budget speech of his second stint as minister of finance arguably as de facto leader of the resistance, in the truest sense of the phrase.

He will stand at the podium at 2 p.m. in Parliament's National Assembly, without the support of his principal — President Jacob Zuma, sitting to his right — and with some Cabinet colleagues actively working to undermine him. This is a dramatic departure from how finance ministers have been treated in previous administrations. He is effectively being treated as an opposition figure.

Also present will be a grinning Brian Molefe, so-to-be newly-minted MP for the African National Congress (ANC), and one-time member of the "Treasury family", as loyal staffers at the National Treasury refer to themselves.

He has a tough task: the economy is not growing fast enough, government revenue is shrinking and pressure on the state is increasing.

But added to the stock-standard economic pressures of shortfalls, deficits and priorities is the political pressure hammering away at Gordhan and Treasury like a pneumatic drill, looking to break up the processes, systems and structures which has earned Treasury the confidence it enjoys.

Gordhan has been the face of the resistance against "state capture" ever since he was thrust into the fray after Zuma couldn't hold the line with his decision to sack Nhlanhla Nene as minister of finance and replace him with an unknown ANC backbencher, Des van Rooyen. Van Rooyen — replaced by Gordhan days after Zuma's sudden decision — arrived at Treasury, Gupta-linked advisors in tow, with very specific questions about certain state-owned enterprises, including about South African Airways (SAA).

Former public protector Thuli Madonsela's "State of Capture" report illustrated how the Guptas have gone about building their empire, with people like Zuma and Molefe playing central roles.

Since Gordhan's return to 40 Church Square, Treasury's headquarters, he has been harassed, harangued and hassled by the Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority and the Guptas. He has even resorted to asking the high court to tell the Saxonwold barons to leave him and Treasury alone. This is not how a finance minister should be treated.

But opposition to Treasury, accused of blocking spend on "developmental projects" and being "anti-transformational", has only increased. The Guptas' "paid Twitter" cohorts have been ratcheting up the rhetoric in recent weeks, while Zuma allies, the ANC's Women's and Youth Leagues, have been openly antagonistic and vengeful.

In Cabinet and within the Treasury family itself, Gordhan and his team are being vilified. Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane and Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini have both criticised the minister, while Tom Moyane, commissioner at Sars, is waging a low-grade war against Treasury.

All this is going on within the context of an extensive and complex system of patronage that has been woven and constructed within government at all three levels, a web which has now taken on a life of its own and wherein the Guptas have a serious stake. And any threats to this network of influence and rent seeking is viciously opposed.

Two senior ANC MPs and political operatives at Parliament told HuffPost SA a Samson-like Zuma is becoming increasingly dangerous "and that he seems quite willing to bring down the pillars of state".

"He is in a weaker position than a year ago, but he seems ready to try and go even further than last time. The Cabinet reshuffle is a card that he is keeping up his sleeve. Will he use it? Zuma, at this stage, might do anything," a veteran MP and senior member said.

Another MP — who is privy to high-level discussions in the ANC and government — said Gordhan has strong backing from a large chunk of Cabinet, but that not all the ministers support him: "We are holding our breaths for the Budget speech and what might follow. There is no doubt Gordhan is the right man for the task at hand."

But Gordhan is apparently much calmer, more focused and at ease compared to last year, even though political pressure is high, the economy isn't growing and government revenue is down. Sources with access to Treasury say Gordhan is "absolutely determined to do what's right for the country".

Former colleagues of Gordhan at Sars and Treasury say he is "resolutely committed to the fight against wastage and corruption" and that he drove his teams relentlessly, setting the example by working late into the night before the end of the tax year or ahead of the Budget speech.

"He has committed his whole life to creating a better South Africa ... he works extremely hard and expects the same from his officials. He takes the contract between the government and the citizenry extremely seriously. He lives a very simple life: no fancy cars, clothes, watches or holidays," a former senior colleague at Sars says.

"He was detained and physically injured by apartheid police, he lost his job because of how often he was detained and served in Codesa's management committee. He is a total patriot that really just wants to see the country grow and people benefiting from it. He will always try to do the right thing, irrespective of the situation," the former colleague adds.

"And he's anything but 'anti-Zuma'. He was the one that helped Zuma sort out his tax issues before Zuma became president and while he was still Sars commissioner. Zuma set it all out in an affidavit himself."

Gordhan will deliver a reality-check to the South Africans on Wednesday, as he has done six times previously. Only this time it will be in opposition to his own leader.