New Finance Minister Malusi Gigabi loves fashion shows and dressing up. Two cabinet posts back, he arrived at the opening of parliament impersonating an SAA pilot.
I thought at the time – given that he was the minister responsible for the disastrously mismanaged national carrier – there was something deeply symbolic in a politician pretending to be a skilled professional.
It reminded me of Leonardo DiCaprio’s splendid performance in the 2002 Steven Spielberg blockbuster Catch Me If You Can. Readers might recall that the actor portrayed US con man Frank Abagnale, who for years successfully pulled off confidence tricks worth millions of dollars by, among other cons, impersonating a Pan American Airways pilot.
Now that Gigaba has been handed over the keys of the National Treasury, courtesy of President Jacob Zuma’s midnight massacre of his own cabinet colleagues, the mind boggles as to which outfit the fashionista politician will wear to the next parliamentary opening. Scrooge or The Maharaja of Saxonwold; perhaps as the Cheshire Cat. Endless possibilities.
Unless, of course, Zuma is ousted before then. In that event, Gigaba will join the pantheon occupied by the Des van Rooyens of this world, with an exceedingly short Treasury shelf life.
Gigaba might or might not prove to be a con man at the Treasury, and he might defy his calamitous role at Home Affairs where he nearly capsized our tourism industry by refusing to listen to key local stakeholders. It was a case, then, of arrogance and attitude trumping humility and expertise.
Of course, in the complexity of national finances and the rough and tumble of volatile foreign exchange markets, such an approach will spell personal ruin and national insolvency.
After all, foreigners hold more than 36% of rand-denominated bonds – or 36% of our R2-trillion national debt. And for all Gigaba’s glib pronouncements on “radical economic transformation” he will find the larder rather bare as he works his wonders.
When he inspects the current depleted national books he will discover that 65% of the current budget is consumed by just three items: paying the debt costs; the 17 million social grants; and the army of three million public servants, including employees in state enterprises. In the event that he does not stave off another credit downgrade, the debt servicing costs will go through the roof, and the currency will disappear through the floor.
But what of the man who tried to keep the wolf from the door, both in the form of the credit agencies abroad and the looters and state capturers here at home?
It is tempting to say that nothing became Pravin Gordhan’s high office so much as his leaving of it. Indeed, his splendidly defiant speech at Saturday’s memorial service for Ahmed Kathrada underlined both his bravery and resoluteness. He also – quite alarmingly – advised South Africa that in the 23rd year of our democracy his own government had seen fit to tap his telephone and that a conference he addressed in London caused alarm bells to ring in Moscow on the nuclear deal. His refusal to offer a blank cheque on this unaffordable item of state capture probably sealed his fate.
But Gordhan’s stance against corruption and against a president who in the arch phrase of Kathrada’s widow, Barbara Hogan, has “gone rogue”, was not just a last-minute, farewell gesture. It defined his entire record of exemplary and incorruptible public service.
Gordhan and I are ideological opposites. But he nailed it on Saturday when he said: “It doesn’t matter the colour of your T-shirt, it only matters that you are a democrat.”
VI Lenin, appropriately since the South African Communist Party was front and centre of the Kathrada memorial, was much quoted on the weekend. His pithy observation that “there are decades when nothing happens and then weeks when decades happen” has never been truer as either Zuma or the country reach some sort of grisly end game.
Gordhan and the SACP, which wants the president removed from his office, will also make Leninists of even the unlikeliest recruits to the communist creed. After all, it was Lenin who understood that ideology without organisation was futile. It was Gordhan who made the weekend clarion call to “mobilise and organise”.
But whatever long-suffering South Africans think of the swirl of the current national drama (or soap opera), one thing is clear. My old parliamentary sparring partner, Tito Mboweni, broke his silence via Twitter on Sunday from India. He wrote: “News from home is sad, depressing, exhausting.” But then he added: “But this will energise many. We cannot go on like this.”
Never truer words from the former SA Reserve Bank boss.
But how it ends, in large measure, depends on the mood and temperature in the ANC, particularly inside its parliamentary caucus. The ANC MPs, or the 50 or so of them needed to sustain a combined opposition motion of no confidence in Zuma, will be determinative.
Zuma, it is now clear, has no regard for national interest, financial solvency, or the welfare of anyone bar the closed crony circle he inhabits – or which captured him years ago and is now demanding due payment.
But even if, in the judgment of City Press in its Sunday editorial, Zuma is “a semi-literate buffoon”, his own idea of leadership – though proven calamitous in its execution – was to follow the prescripts, protocols and policies of his once-beloved ANC.
Indeed, a fading edition of Time magazine captured his approach way back on August 8 2007. He was quoted as defining his leadership as “if the majority say ‘Zuma do this’, I will do it”.
But we already know that his cabinet reshuffle was not a decision of his ANC circle. It was drawn up, in the words of the party’s secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, “somewhere else”. Or, as Gordhan implored South Africa: “Join the dots.”
And here the dottiest move of all points north from Luthuli House to Saxonwold.
Zuma did the same on his recent announcement on abolishing the property clause, which features neither in current nor in a draft on future ANC policy.
So our national nightmare reaches its resolution – one way or another. “We cannot go on like this.”
Across the oceans in the equally beleaguered Donald Trump White House, which even after just 75 days seems unsustainable, and like our own seems captured by Moscow, Roger Cohen in the weekend New York Times defined the choice.
He found in the Saul Bellow classic Humboldt’s Gift a perfect fit between a rampaging president and his opponents: “While timorous knowledge stands considering, audacious ignorance hath done the deed.”
Back in South Africa, Zuma “hath done the deed”.
How his party and his country responds, either joining the resolute defiance represented by Gordhan or by acquiescing with timidity, will determine our future.
It is as simple, and as complex, as that.
• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London. @TonyLeonSA