Mayhem is the only word that can describe Sunday’s shock reversal of the appointment of almost-minister of finance Desmond van Rooyen. Markets will undoubtedly welcome the move to a well-known and trusted minister of finance and the Rand already jumped for joy in the minutes following President Zuma’s announcement. As much as the nomination of Pravin Gordhan is to be welcomed, it poses a number of serious questions about President Zuma’s fitness for office.
In his statement the President writes that he has “received many representations to reconsider my decision. As a democratic government, we emphasise the importance of listening to the people and to respond to their views”, and without doubt the President will have had many representations to reconsider his decision. All he had to do was open any given South African newspaper, or read a random story on South Africa in any international newspaper. The voices were loud, clear, and unison: the dismissal of finance minister Nene was a colossal mistake. But if the President indeed cared about public opinion, as he declares in his statement, he would reverse a number of other positions as well, starting with the luxury upgrades to his private home in Nkandla or his fancy VIP jet.
The next couple of days might unveil the deeper reasons and power shifts within the ANC that lead to this shocking plot twist. But even at this early stage four points can safely be concluded.
First, and foremost, the President has lost control of his administration. Either he was ill advised before his announcement, assuming he asked anyone for advise at all. In this case he chose his advisers miserably. Or he simply ignored the advise of those around him, in which case he holds them in so low esteem that he would go against their advise on a key issue like the Treasury. Or he is easily swayed by public opinion and rectified his mistake as soon as the public outcry reached the Union Buildings. Any of the three cases is bad and shows a lack of leadership.
Second, the President has lost control of his party and will be a lame duck from now on. Usually the term “lame duck” refers to a President in the last year of his presidency. Some commentators said US President Barack Obama was a lame duck, at least until he managed to engineer a path-breaking nuclear deal with Iran and helped put together the historic Paris Agreement on climate change last week. And while President Obama shows that not all outgoing presidents need to be lame ducks, President Zuma shows that you can become a lame duck even with plenty of time on your presidential watch. The back and forth on the key Cabinet position leaves Zuma a toothless tiger. His second-sharpest weapon as President, the nomination and redeployment of Cabinet members was taken away, leaving him with only his sharpest weapon: helping his cronies to gain positions of power within government and at parastatals such as SAA and Eskom. But if his sharpest weapon were enough to keep his party in check, Desmond van Rooyen would still be the minister of finance on Monday.
Third, the Government put the South African economy in a most vulnerable position. With our glaring current account deficit, we strongly depend on the goodwill of international investors. Without their capital flows our currency plummets, the price of imports, including oil, goes up, the risk of inflation increases, and the Reserve Bank is forced to raise interest rates, curtailing lackluster economic growth even further. We have seen all this in the past couple of months already. The other side of the coin is the fiscal side. With the increase in government debt, South Africa depends on favorable ratings and benevolent investors. Neither the current account deficit nor the increasing public debt levels are necessarily bad. But if debt levels are growing because of wasteful government spending, including subsidizing incompetent management of state-owned entities and using social grants as an easy way to buy votes in rural areas, investors start getting very cautious. And this, sadly, is the path our economy is currently on.
Fourth, the removal of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene was an attack on one of South Africa’s foremost institutions. It is unlikely that Sunday’s reversal means the attack has been stopped. The ludicrous ‘project spiderweb’ documents circulating the Internet, the farce that was Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s disciplinary hearing, and the many small and large attacks on the public protector, Thuli Madonsela, speak a very clear and nasty language.
The #ZumaMustFall movement is now gathering momentum and the first marches are already organized. An online petition quickly gathered more than 100,000 votes and it is very unlikely that the re-installment of Pravin Gordhan will put the minds of South Africans at ease.
Neither should it, because it is nothing but a red herring. What this week has shown is that President Jacob Zuma is no longer fit for office. He has shown that he lacks a number of important ingredients a President needs to have in order lead a country: Good judgment, foresight, and economic finesse. Many of these shortcomings were known for years. What this week has added, however, is another key ingredient a President needs: Power.
President Zuma has shown himself to the door. Now he is standing there, unsure what to do next. It is time for South Africans to come together and give an old man a helping hand to safely make it across.