12/04/2017 09:39 SAST | Updated 12/04/2017 16:49 SAST

Ferial Haffajee: An Unhappy Birthday For Both Gordhan And Zuma Today

They share a birthday but the two former comrades couldn't be further apart on the political divide.

They were more than friends -- they were comrades. And they are birthday twins. Former finance minister Pravin Gordhan and President Jacob Zuma share a birthday on Wednesday. It is the same day that opposition parties, galvanised by the axing of Gordhan as finance minister, are leading a national day of action calling for the president's removal.

The president turns 75 and Gordhan 68 –- and today they are further apart than they have ever been in the more than three decades they have known each other.

Both men hail from KwaZulu-Natal and both have lived starred and storied lives in the struggle for our liberation. Their paths intersected in that struggle when a generation of activists found ways to knit solidarity across the divisions of race that apartheid's architects tried so hard to throw up.

Zuma was of peasant stock: his family was so poor that the young Jacob herded cows and goats because there was no money to pay for him to go to school. But his enterprising spirit meant he wanted to learn and so he saved pennies and paid a young woman who could read to teach him.

Later, when he walked around Durban looking for jobs while his mother was a domestic worker, the young Jacob Zuma was politicised.

Gordhan was a graduate of Sastri College, a famous education institution in Durban, and came to the struggle from university. He is a legendary leader of the Natal Indian Congress. Gordhan worked underground while Zuma left the country for military training and returned. Arrested on his return, Zuma was sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island.

Gordhan formed part of his welcoming party upon his release. Then, the two men worked at King Edward hospital where Gordhan was a pharmacist. While history is not clear on whether Zuma was a member of Operation Vula, Gordhan was. Vula was the ANC's counter-ops plan to take down the apartheid government if the negotiated revolution did not work out. Their orbits intersected and coincided for all the years South Africa has been free and until Zuma fired Gordhan from his role in 2014, they were comradely with each other.

All that changed when a spooked ANC forced Zuma to reappoint Gordhan in December 2015 after the markets tanked and the country panicked when former finance minister Nhanhla Nene, Gordhan's successor, was also unceremoniously fired. Since December 2015 until his firing on 31 March, Zuma and Gordhan have been locked in a cold war fought largely by the President.

With just a few years left in power, Zuma felt that Gordhan stood in his way with his technocratic attention to the detail of public finance laws. The president and his inner Cabinet circle see the Public Finance Management Act, which sets rough rules for how public money is spent, as a hindrance to their ambitions, both political and personal.

Commentators see a presidential hand in the Hawks case against Gordhan. Zuma did nothing when his friends, the Gupta family, waged a 15-month long propaganda campaign against Gordhan via their ANN7 news station as well as New Age newspaper and also on social media in a campaign widely believed to be inspired by Bell Pottinger, the London PR company that now specialises in black ops and whitewashing despots.

Now, on their birthday, the two men's relationship is shattered and they stand on polar opposites of our political divide. Gordhan has rapidly become the figurehead of a nascent anti-corruption movement. Zuma is, depending where you stand, the face of corruption or the face of a radical economic transformation agenda he believes Gordhan stymied when he had the reins of the Treasury.

With South Africa perched on the edge of an economic crisis and engulfed in rolling mass action, it is not a very happy birthday for either man.