SA has no record at all of any minister ever resigning on a point of principle. So the concept of a ‘resignation speech’ remains alien to our political culture

On November 13 1990, the former deputy prime minister of Great Britain, Geoffrey Howe, rocked the House of Commons in his quiet, measured and, this time, deadly way.

He fired a rhetorical missile that destroyed the leadership of his party boss and three-term British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Nine days later her party bundled her out of office.

Not a bad accomplishment for a long-time Thatcher ally whose soporific speaking style had given him the cruel nickname of “Mogadon Man” (Mogadon is a sleeping pill).

Explaining why he was resigning from a government in which he had held the great ministerial offices, Howe characterised Thatcher’s white-anting of her ministers’ negotiations in Europe with a cricketing metaphor.

“It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease,” Howe told a hushed parliament, “only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.”

South Africa has no record at all of any minister ever resigning on a point of principle. So the concept of a “resignation speech” remains alien to our political culture. More’s the pity.

But one minister we absolutely do not need to resign right now or in the foreseeable future is Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. We must hope like hell that he clings to office, despite the forces trying to remove or discredit him with far more vehemence and energy than anything the long-suffering Geoffrey Howe spoke about nearly 30 years ago.

But it must be easy for Gordhan and the other Team SA members who journeyed across the financial markets of the UK and US to save our credit rating, to fully identify with the concept of a team captain breaking their bats before sending them out to score.

Instead of Jacob Zuma and his inner cabal backing the finance minister to the hilt, he is undermined at every turn.

The weekend revelations in the Sunday Times of the infamous Guptas of Saxonwold shopping around for a new finance minister, might never be fully explained.

Don’t hold your breath on Zuma giving a clear and frank answer in Parliament about it this afternoon.
But we know that the Gupta family has succeeded in effectively appointing the ministers of mineral resources and sport. So why not go for the big one?

The term in vogue is “state capture” — but that’s a little ambiguous. After all, who has captured what for whom?
I rather think the extraordinary and dangerous goings-on here are best expressed in a phrase used to describe how the ruling Dos Santos family in nearby Angola consolidates both political and economic power under one roof.

Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, an Angola expert at Oxford University penned the phrase “The Privatisation of Power”. By this he means a model that fuses personal power and state interests in the hands of a small ruling class that brooks no dissent.

We have banned the idea of privatisation from our much needed economic recovery menu, but have indeed allowed power to be privatised. The paradox here is that it is split between two families, the Zumas and the Guptas, helped along by one of the sons of the former enjoying close business interests in the latter. And profiting mightily from his proximity to both of them.

As to tamping down on dissent, you only have to look at the targeting of Gordhan by the Hawks. This is another of the ironies at play.

I don’t know, and we will never know, what went through Zuma’s mind a few months ago when he chose Major-General Berning Ntlemeza, of all people, as the head of South Africa’s answer to the FBI. But he must have been aware at the time of the judicial pronouncement on Ntlemeza’s fitness for office.

Except on the basis that it takes a liar to find another one, the appointment was, on the face of it, irrational.

After all, Justice Elias Matojane described the head of the premier special crimes unit as “Biased and dishonest … lacks integrity and honour … and made false statements under oath.”

Only in the bizarre hall of mirrors in the Union Buildings, where virtue becomes vice and vice versa, could this be regarded as a recommendation.

But so ethically hobbled is the head of the Hawks that he will do the bidding of those who appointed him, doubtless the idea behind it all in the first place.

In refuting the claims that an émigré family in Saxonwold can bid and dismiss ministers, the name of the deputy secretary-general of the ruling ANC surfaced. Through the mists of time, way back in 1999 when ministers and MECs were held accountable for their ethical and other lapses, Jessie Duarte was investigated by a commission of inquiry appointed by her own premier in Gauteng. It found that there “were strong suspicions that she had covered up a motor car accident”. The nub of the matter was that she was allegedly driving an official car without a licence and got her official to take the rap in her place.

Mathole Motshekga used the commission findings to dismiss her as an MEC.

It might then be small comfort today to hear that she “will hand over her phone records” to prove she did not offer the finance ministry to current deputy minister Mcebisi Jonas.

In essence it amounts to a yawning credibility gap: both the Sunday Times and the Financial Times stand by their stories; the ANC and Duarte vigorously deny them. Who are you going to believe?

Finally, there was the fatal and final remark in the famous resignation speech of Geoffrey Howe. He concluded it: “The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I have wrestled for perhaps too long.”

So, as between the loyalty of the ruling party to its leader and his family interests, and their loyalty to the movement and the country, which is it going to be? Both are no longer an option.

This article first appeared in The Times