The revolt against President Jacob Zuma has begun and Parliament is leading the charge.
The deployment of Pravin Gordhan, unceremoniously dismissed by Zuma as minister of finance less than eight weeks ago, to the parliamentary portfolio committee on public enterprises was a strategic masterstroke by Jackson Mthembu, the African National Congress' chief whip.
Gordhan, displaying his crisp, clinical and dispassionate articulation of the problems at hand, flayed the hapless Minister of Public Enterprises Lynne Brown and Ben Ngubane, the chairman of the Eskom board, during Tuesday's committee meeting about the Brian Molefe reappointment.
Goodness. Gordhan! https://t.co/M0df3fL70H— Ferial Haffajee (@ferialhaffajee) May 23, 2017
Given the fact that state owned enterprises – like Eskom, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, Transnet and the South African Airways – is the feeding trough of choice for rentseekers and those that wish to capture the state, Gordhan's deployment to the public enterprises committee is significant.
He comes with an enormous amount of inside information, he knows the facts and figures inside out and he knows exactly where the bodies are buried. Brown, or any other bureaucrat, will not be able to hide from Gordhan's knowledge and piercing questions. He knows exactly how much money Eskom owes, he knows who it's owed to, he also knows all the detail about every dodgy deal the parastatal has entered into and he knows exactly down which road to lead MP's in order for the truth to emerge.
Mthembu – who publicly decried Gordhan's sacking by Zuma – seems to be preparing the caucus to go on the offensive. Discontent with Zuma and the party's leadership has been simmering among a significant number of the parliamentary caucus ever since they were forced to defend Nkandla and Gwede Mantashe, the ANC's secretary-general, twice had to quash resistance in the caucus ahead of two no-confidence debates.
Gordhan, the ordinary backbencher, might be a game changer.
He was brutal. He accused Brown, the Eskom board and senior executives of being part of a "conspiracy" to capture Eskom for the benefit of a few, adding "that's the reality . . . let's dispense with the technical questions".
And he lifted the lid off his efforts to protect the fiscus and combat state capture, saying:
- "We are reaching a stage in governance where a significant number of people in the bureaucracy and on boards say 'I don't care what you know, I don't care what you see, that resources are being diverted, or I don't care how many reports the Public Protector releases . . .because I'm protected.'"
- "The public is starting to connect the dots. Context matters and there's a pattern here. I'm seeing people keeping a straight face, like we did when the security police interrogated us during the struggle. I'm seeing the extreme arrogance with which people are keeping a straight face . . . it's remarkable."
- "State-owned enterprises play an important role, but we're seeing the parcelling off of state resources, assets and procurement to a handful of beneficiaries."
- "If we are to connect the dots, let's connect all of the them and let's go back to Brian Molefe's days as chief executive of Transnet and let's see who did what, where?"
- "We want to know who instructed whom (in regards to Molefe's return to Eskom), which phone calls were made, what meetings were held? I'm not expecting a truthful anwer, by the way."
- "These days you don't steal R1-million, or R100-million: you steal R1-billion."
- "We must have a debate about a full parliamentary inquiry, backed by a thorough forensic audit into decision-making at Eskom."
- "The board must be dismissed or resign voluntarily."
Gordhan blasted Brown and her hangers-on, and in the process fired a volley of warning shots across the collective bows of bureaucrats everywhere – including ministers – that Mthembu's caucus is more than ready to do battle.
Events in parliament were significant, but Cosatu's banning of Zuma from addressing events or meetings hosted by the trade union federation and ANC stalwarts' stoic insistence on a consultative conference was as important.
If you want to see the two ANCs in action, watch Pravin Gordhan questioning Lynne Brown & Ben Ngubane right now on Eskom. #ZANCvsANC— Adriaan Basson (@AdriaanBasson) May 23, 2017
Cosatu – with its' president S'dumo Dlamini running the show – has been a loyal supporter of Zuma, until now. Bheki Ntshalintshali, Cosatu's general-secretary, seems to have isolated Dlamini within Cosatu and the organisation's decision that Zuma must go was reiterated at a special meeting of its central executive committee. "We no longer trust and support his leadership," Cosatu's statement read.
Also on Tuesday, party elders under the leadership of the respected Murphy Morobe and former director-general in the presidency, the cleric Frank Chikane, said they remain insistent that the ANC's national executive committee (NEC) must call a consultative conference, independent of any other conferences scheduled for the year.
And: Bloomberg reported ANC sources saying that Zuma's future will be up for discussion during the weekend's NEC meeting.
Zuma is a political survivor. But even he won't be able to defend every front and every battlement. He is going to have to pick his battles carefully.