Any time South African President Jacob Zuma is involved in something, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that corruption will somehow be involved as well. That’s particularly true in relation to the tension between him and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. This tension has recently manifested itself through a fractious battle, often via proxies, over decades-old happenings in the South African Revenue Service (SARS), an institution of which Gordhan used to be the head.
The attack upon Gordhan is largely motivated by concerns that he has the power and willingness to cut off some of Zuma’s corrupt lines of patronage. So far, nothing new: Zuma has a history of going after anyone who he perceives as threatening the network of graft which he’s woven. What’s particularly noteworthy this time, though, is that he’s facing some difficulty getting Gordhan out of his way—and that difficulty might hint at some hope for anticorruption advocates.
Before examining why Zuma is somewhat limited in his ability to disempower Gordhan, it may be useful to have some background on the man now in the president’s cross-hairs. Gordhan served as Finance Minister from 2009 to 2014, before being moved to a different ministry. Then, last December, Zuma fired Gordhan’s replacement, a “respected technocrat” popular among investors. The decision may have been a result of said technocrat’s resistance to spending plans by Zuma and his allies. Zuma promptly filled the position with a little-known member of parliament, one commentators speculated would be easier to control. That decision sparked a crisis of confidence that saw South Africa’s currency plummet and spurred fears about intensifying the problems of unemployment and slow growth. In an attempt to save South Africa’s economy, Zuma bowed to foreign and domestic pressure and brought back Gordhan to the Finance Ministry. Gordhan’s early moves managed to stop total economic disaster, but South Africa’s financial situation remains precarious. Still, his promise to reform state-owned enterprises and “combat…predatory behavior and corruption” threatened to disrupt many of the patronage and enrichment schemes common under Zuma.
Conveniently, just as Gordhan made this announcement, the Hawks, a governmental directorate charged with targeting corruption, decided to revive an inquiry into a special SARS subunit that supposedly operated during Gordhan’s time at SARS. The investigation centers on allegations that the SARS subunit covertly gathered national security intelligence (which would have been unlawful) by spying on Jacob Zuma and other political figures. The Hawks, however, are widely viewed as closely controlled by the Minister of Police, and hence by the President—raising plausible suspicions that this investigation is actually a way to weaken Gordhan in order to minimize the ability of the Finance Ministry to interfere with Zuma’s nepotism and corruption.
As mentioned, Gordhan has already outlined plans to take on corruption in state-owned enterprises. Moreover, even if Gordhan was never able to follow through with that promise, merely by holding the Finance Ministry, he keeps it from falling into a more corrupt circle of influence—namely, that of the Guptas, a rich family whose close ties with Zuma have allowed them undue influence and power for years, and who lately seem to have been angling to increase their control of various government posts. The Guptas nearly took control of the Finance Ministry last year: When Gordhan’s little-known predecessor arrived to replace the respected Finance Minister Zuma had fired, he was accompanied by two advisors paid by the Gupta family. The aforementioned economic crisis put an end to that particular gambit by the family to lay claim to the position. However, if the investigation into Gordhan’s purported connection to the SARS subunit causes a decline in his popularity, or distracts him enough or causes enough uncertainty about his future that the economy suffers, Zuma will have an excuse to replace Gordhan. Sure, much of the public will see right through that excuse, but Zuma may believe that all he needs is a colorable justification to ensure that his political party, the African National Congress (ANC), won’t totally reject his acts—and since Zuma won’t be able to run for re-election, he’s protected from any immediate need to respond to public pressure.
So those are the reasons Zuma wants to remove or disempower Gordhan and the reasons his success in doing so would be bad for anticorruption efforts. Why, then, hasn’t he just fired Gordhan yet, or moved Gordhan away to another ministry position as he did before? Why does he feel the need for any sort of justification at all? The answer hinges on a combination of economics and politics. The economic shock that occurred after Zuma fired that technocratic Finance Minister back in December was so infamous that it became known as “9/12” (since South Africa dates are structured as day/month). The more the South African public feels that attempts by Zuma and his allies to discredit Gordhan and replace him with someone more compliant place the country’s economy at risk, the more the popularity of Zuma, and through him the ANC, will decline.
Zuma has so far had little problem throwing fellow ANC members under the bus when it comes to corruption scandals, and the ANC still recently re-endorsed him. However, the country’s economic problems seem poised to affect the long-dominant ANC’s popularity in a way that corruption scandals alone never have: For the first time, the ANC faces the real risk of losing control of important cities like Johannesburg. None of this is to say that turmoil at the Finance Ministry alone is responsible for the economic difficulties, or that previous instances of government corruption, like misused funds or contracts garnered with graft, did not also have an economic cost; rather, the immediate economic impact of “9/12” (which would likely be duplicated if Gordhan were removed and replaced with a less-qualified crony), and the fact that an ailing economy cannot afford to take a further hit for any reason, makes the Gordhan spat more politically potent.
Further, the obvious entwining of the economy and corruption fits neatly into the narrative put forward by the on-the-rise Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a young political party defining itself through a kind of radical, militant socialism. The more the fight to bring down Gordhan plays into the idea of crony capitalism, the more the EFF is likely to benefit—and the more they’ll keep these issues at the forefront. Even if you don’t believe the EFF itself would reduce corruption if it won power (or if one has other concerns about the party), the threat it creates for the ANC could have a salutary effect: the ANC is likely to remain the top national party for a while yet, but greater electoral pressure could force it to do some house-cleaning in the post-Zuma era—and perhaps, partially, even before then.
Of course, this entire matter would look quite different if the investigation into Gordhan seemed merited; if Gordhan really had engaged in misbehavior himself, some people might be less worried about any political machinations attempting to punish him. However, the newspaper that originally kicked off the whole “rogue spy unit” melee in 2014 has withdrawn its stories connecting Gordhan to the affair and apologized. Further, the Hawks seem to be legally overstepping their bounds in the current investigation. As a result, it seems clear that the attempt to minimize Gordhan’s power stems from a concern on the part of Zuma and his allies that Gordhan is an obstacle to the sort of nepotism and illicit personal enrichment that characterizes their approach towards governance. For corruption-watchers, it’s worth keeping an eye on this particular battle—if Zuma truly has been constrained (and the result of a court case discussed earlier on this blog, and which will be returned to in a future post, provides further evidence he might be), even a little bit, it could indicate something important about South Africa’s future.