Why did Zuma pick a provincial politician as mines minister?

Why did Zuma pick a provincial politician as mines minister?

Mosebenzi Zwane apparently has some ethical challenges, knows nothing about mining or oil and gas, but it’s all washed away by his fast friendship with the Guptas

As the monarch sings in the musical The King and I, it is a “puzzlement”.

Whatever your thoughts about the state of our economy and the challenges of governance right now, there is one incontestable truth.

Mining, long the bedrock of this country’s wealth and, even in its current decline, still the biggest single ticket item of our exports, is in deep crisis.

There is rare unanimity among the “usual suspects” — from the government to the barons of the industry and the fractious trade unions — around this issue.

Commodity prices are crashing to new lows; in July Lonmin announced it would cut 6 000 jobs; 7 000 jobs will be lost in the closure of the Amplats Rustenburg shafts.  Anglo will cut one-third of its global workforce, and demand from China has slowed alarmingly.

At its July lekgotla, the ANC announced that rising unemployment is “a terrible danger for South Africa”. At least in its description it got that right, though it ducked the harder question of whether the policy choices it has made in mining and the missed opportunities in amending legislation and creating certainty were not factors in aggravation.

Back in the 1980s, when a young Cyril Ramaphosa was cutting his teeth as general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, there were more than 500 000 direct jobs in mining. Today there are fewer than 140 000. And that’s before the next round of retrenchments kicks in.

Murky BEE deals, a stalled amendment process for the controversial Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act and continuing uncertainty about the future of oil and gas exploration offshore are other characteristics of the Ministry of Mineral Resources. This is the government department which has huge say and sway over our underperforming mineral treasure trove, estimated to be worth more than $2.5-trillion.

So, as the King of Siam once sang, the first puzzlement is why change the man at the top of this ministry in the midst of a full- blown crisis? No explanation has been provided for the change of ministerial horses in the middle of a raging river of problems.

You would need to have been out of the country or comatose these past few days not to have noticed the controversy kicked up when last week Jacob Zuma sidelined the incumbent, Ngoako Ramatlhodi.

It has been correctly noted that the president has no need to give explanations for his cabinet choices. That’s just as well, since his latest manoeuvre is frankly inexplicable.

If Ramatlhodi, as certain reports suggest, had fallen from grace with mining lioness Bridgette Radebe, the deputy president’s sister-in-law and the spouse of senior minister Jeff Radebe, then that might provide an explanation of sorts. Unsatisfactory, but explicable.

But with a mining industry on its knees and falling fast, surely if the president can do what he likes with ministerial musical chairs, he has a duty to create confidence and certainty at a time of economic emergency?

Apparently not. If Zuma had been elbowed into moving Ramatlhodi to satisfy factional or family interests, he could have made a switch without capsizing investor and worker confidence even further. For example, sitting in the cabinet is the former president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Senzeni Zokwana. He even meets, and then some, the current ideological domination of the SACP Communist Party, serving as its chairman. But he, at least, knows a thing or two about the sector and doubtless could have been spared from his current role as minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries.

What about the current Deputy Minister of Mineral Resources, my old friend Godfrey Oliphant?  He has faithfully served in Parliament for the past 20 years and is also a communist in good standing. He’s been in the department since 2010 and has a lifetime’s experience, before entering politics, as a shop steward on the De Beers mines.

Both these men would not need on-the-job training or have to get up to speed on the key issues and the complexity of the current thickets of legislation and regulation. And then in less than two weeks Operation Phakisa is meant to kick life back into the beleaguered industry.

But they were both passed over.

I will not elaborate on the most obvious point: when you are in a deep hole and confidence has evaporated, best to call in outside experts.

That’s precisely what the former prime minister of Britain, Gordon Brown, did when his country faced its moment of national economic peril in September 2008, its biggest economic crisis since the 1930s. The story of how Brown faced the situation of one bank, HBOS, on the edge of bankruptcy, but with assets larger than Britain’s GDP, is rivetingly told by Cape Town-based writer Ivan Fallon.

In his new book, Black Horse Ride: The Inside Story of Lloyds and the Banking Crisis, Fallon provides a revealing detail on the weekend the crisis struck:

“Peter Mandelson returned to government, brought back from Brussels by Gordon Brown who had been his sworn enemy only months before. Another new figure also joined the government that weekend. Brown appointed Paul Myners, a City veteran and former chairman of Marks and Spencer as his “City Minister” or more officially as Financial Services Secretary, a new role in government and a reflection of how seriously Brown was taking the financial crisis.”

Meanwhile, back here on the planet South Africa, with our own mining crisis, Zuma chose neither an insider with knowledge nor an outside expert to inspire confidence or continuity. From the obscurity of Warden in the Free State, he plucked a provincial politician, Mosebenzi Zwane. He apparently has some ethical challenges, knows nothing about mining or oil and gas, but it’s all washed away by his fast friendship with the Guptas.

It was no puzzlement that Britain got out of the financial crisis in an enhanced position. But it will be no puzzlement here, after the latest ministerial upheaval that our economic story will end far less happily.

This article first appeared in The Times

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