Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene out; David van Rooyen in; Finance Minister Van Rooyen out; Pravin Gordhan in.
The turbulence began on Thursday, December 10 2015. Over the next two days, it became a gale, then a storm. On Sunday, the “perfect storm” that was destined to happen tapered off.
It has not ended though. It continues to seethe and froth like an active volcano, waiting to erupt. It sends a message: “Anticipate me to your salvation; ignore me to your damnation.”
Blogger Sarah Freeman describes a “perfect storm” as “a convergence of forces or circumstances that work together in the worst of all possible ways in order to magnify the intensity and impact of an already negative event”.
In South Africa, though, it is now the culmination of a series of negative events that have been building up over two decades of post-1994 democracy.
At first steady and not easy to recognise in the euphoria of the first five years of freedom, the events, perhaps beginning with what came to be known as the arms deal, began to run, canter and then gallop out of control. In their momentum, they began to show signs of a system by which to generate and reproduce themselves. This system is striding towards maturity in the presidency of Jacob Zuma. It will not reach maturity yet, but may become more self-conscious.
“I have decided to remove Mr Nhlanhla Nene as minister of finance ahead of his deployment to another strategic position.” This was how President Zuma announced the axing of Minister Nene. There was a technical finality in that cold, terse statement.
If Nene had been a rogue spender of public funds, celebrations would have erupted upon such presidential decisiveness. But he was a highly respected finance minister who had demonstrated regard for the constitutional requirements expected of a public officer of his standing. The president’s curt dismissal of him proclaimed its own insufficiency.
Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe was the first to follow with a statement. In all likelihood, President Zuma knew of it and approved it.
“This is a post-Cabinet briefing,” Radebe began, in an unscheduled briefing, “and Cabinet happened on Wednesday. At the conclusion of the Cabinet meeting, there was no new finance minister and there was no way we could have predicted [what would happen].” Indeed, he went on to add: “I don’t think Cabinet had an idea that there was going to be a reshuffle, because this was the president’s prerogative.”
Radebe’s words revealed that Zuma’s Cabinet was formally ignorant of the president’s intentions. This also affirmed Zuma’s presidential prerogative to keep them ignorant.
The two “facts” together have a powerful effect. One is to get us to deduce that Radebe was himself not trusted enough by Zuma to be part of a momentous decision. We can even read his statement as a subtle protest: “I, too, am among the ignorant who have been denied important information.”
But Radebe’s statement, as technically curt as the president’s, achieved more: it endeavoured to effect a technical closure to a catastrophic event.
Does the technicality of Cabinet’s ignorance necessarily imply all in Cabinet were factually ignorant? Could there have been, among the community of the “technically ignorant”, Cabinet members who were “in the know”?
If no one in Zuma’s Cabinet was consulted by Zuma, who then did he consult? Either there are people he consulted in Cabinet who would then become “technically ignorant” within the formality of Cabinet, or he consulted people outside Cabinet. There is a third option: President Zuma arrived at his decision completely alone, without reference to any other living being. Did he?
Each of these carries dire implications for three things: the character of governance within a constitutional democracy; the nature and quality of political leadership within the democracy; and the increasingly fraught relationship between political power and capital.
Public systems are wont to be opaque, transparent or to trudge a mean in between. The combination of President Zuma’s and Minister Radebe’s respective statements gives us an insight into the nature of the governance of the South African state at this moment.
The country continues to aspire to and affirm a human rights-driven constitutional democracy. Judging from the conduct of the governing party, the ANC, which for two decades has shaped both the public and private conduct of its governing elites, this is still true. But this is being hollowed out by resourceful, even intelligent, non-transparent behaviour.
The effect of such conduct over time is to structure secrecy and duplicity into a syndicated system that lies beyond the rules of formal government and general institutional practice, while continuing to claim to be subject to such rules.
This means it is not only government (Cabinet, Parliament, the judiciary, chapter 9 institutions) that is hollowed out, but also, as an institution, the ANC itself, its tripartite alliance and its respective component parts.
Everything of value that made possible or was the outcome of a long struggle for liberation is precariously on a trajectory of decline.
As all of this is being hollowed out, only one, perhaps ascendant, reality remains: an individual leader who holds formal power and in effect works with a syndicate without public definition.
Technical closure of a controversial issue by means of an astute, terse statement such as Radebe’s may buy time, but it does not reassure the unquiet mind of an agitated public.
By definition, the quantum of impact of the dismissal of Nene put pressure on the authors of the dismissal, particularly on their capacity to retain the secret (and thus to retain their technical ignorance).
Consider the following scenario: A perception is formed in the mind of one person or group of people somewhere that Nene has to be removed.
Exactly who could have arrived at this position? Is it an individual or group inside the board of SAA? Is it interests outside of the board who are unable to control it? How do such persons inside or outside mobilise for their undeclared objectives? When they fail within the board and against an upright minister, who do they turn to?
Is it to someone known to them, and who, on the basis of past experience, has proven amenable to using the levers of the state in pursuit of objectives that, beyond not being able to stand up to the rigorous requirements of the state, are seriously injurious to the very existence and purpose of the state?
Do they go to someone known to wield the ultimate weapon: the prerogative to not have to explain himself to anyone and who, when he has used his prerogative, has drawn predictable support from individuals and institutions that have benefited from the exercise of such prerogative, not once but by habitual practice?
In the tussle between morbid secrecy and constitutional transparency in contemporary South Africa, a secret syndicate can assess the South African state and note the weakening condition of its key institutions.
The syndicate, brazen in its hand in the weakening of the state, knows how to circumvent it. One moment it is inside the state in the official capacity of its members; the next it is outside of it for personal benefit.
The syndicate shows a methodical approach to its secret task. It has targeted three critical clusters of state institutions.
The first is the cluster with the state’s instruments of control and enforcement: the police service, the defence force, crime intelligence, state intelligence and the SABC. The Marikana massacre should demonstrate what can be wrought when the state resorts to ultimate force.
The second is the cluster where the means of self-enrichment is located: public works, energy, transport, mineral resources and Treasury. These are the geese of corruption that lay the golden eggs of primitive accumulation.
The third cluster contains institutions at the heart of democracy: Parliament, the judiciary, the Independent Electoral Commission, the Public Protector and others. These institutions have the capacity to accord formal legitimacy to the syndicate.
Under way is the gradual displacement of formal lines of governance by dotted lines that meander around the geography of state institutions. If one moment the syndicate gets away with it here, the next they lose something over there because of a timely exposure or strong pushback.
Despite the syndicate’s best efforts, South Africa presents a huge and complex environment that stretches the syndicate, and slows down its capacity to centralise and consolidate itself to be the effective driver of the state.
That is why the Rand Daily Mail headline “Nene fired: Zuma’s capture of the state is now complete” is not yet accurate. Pushback forces mean we are far from total destruction. How long the uncoordinated assault continues depends on the tolerance and sense of urgency of the South African population as an informed and self-conscious citizenry.
The exercise of presidential prerogative must stand up to the test of its own rigorous rationality. Leaders may be far from the public when they agonise with their closest advisers, but they should always be with the public in their solemn commitment to making the right decisions.
The purpose of “presidential prerogative” is not to enable the president to take just any decision. Pushed to justify himself, he must be able to show, even to himself, why he needed to exercise his prerogative.
A leader of a country who seeks to exercise the prerogative to not explain himself to others is still not free from the supreme obligation to the quality of his leadership.
To this end, he must ask: Did I succeed in convincing the robust parliament that debated in my own mind?
Without this, the gathering (and there must have been one) that met not to discuss in consultation, but to plan and execute the demise of a finance minister, simulates to all intents and purposes a conspiratorial syndicate carrying no formal mandate from any formal institution outside of its own secret informality.
On what basis did the ANC, a party in government, express its respect for the president’s decision and his prerogative to keep them and his Cabinet ignorant, unless they were organisationally a “technically ignorant” part of the secrecy?
Could it be that the ANC has become so hollowed out it no longer exists as a serious formal institution, but has become part of a culture of secrecy of the kind that eats up organisations?