Budget Watch

Gordhan to deliver a ‘war budget’ this week

Pravin Gordhan

Wednesday’s Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has taken on the semblance of a ‘war budget’, as the governing ANC alliance became involved in an internal war.

Throughout history, wars have been fought typically for control over resources. The ‘ANC War’ of the second decade of the 21st century is no exception. In this case, the resources at stake are those of the state of South Africa. The protagonists are a powerful clique, in recent years mainly organised around President Jacob Zuma, their opponents, the forces of democracy.

The initially low-key war has been brewing for some time, ironically, around issues like the 1999 Strategic Defence Acquisition process or ‘arms deal’ and the corruption associated with it.  

A decade later, in 2009, the hostilities intensified dramatically after Mr Zuma was first elected as president of the ANC and of the country. Even then the ‘arms deal’ and ‘spy tapes’ associated with it, surfaced and its after-effects are lingering to this day in court.

Post-2009 it looked as if the Zuma forces were getting an overwhelming upper hand as their network of patronage and so-called state capture were deployed.

And then, in December 2015, they made a serious strategic mistake by firing the last man standing between them and complete control over state resources, the respected finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene.

Gordhan into the breach

For the first time the true democratic forces mounted a serious and successful push-back and Pravin Gordhan, the capable and respected ex-minister of finance, was forced into the breach. He mounted, not only a skilful fight-back to save the country’s financial credibility, but also provided a rallying point for the democratic anti-corruption forces.

His opposing ‘general’, Mr Jacob Zuma and his cohorts, launched a counter-offensive, choosing the judicial system and courts as their preferred battleground. Gordhan, however, matched them shot for shot and is increasingly looking as if he and his supporters have won the battle for the hearts and minds of the populace.

The war has reached a dangerous phase and could spill onto the streets. A coalition from civil society and ANC veterans is planning a march in support of Gordhan on 3 November when he appears in court.

On the other hand, a ‘legion’ of the Zuma forces, the ANC Youth League, has through its leader, Collen Maine, called on uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) veterans to “take up arms” and defend Zuma, saying: “We are not going to allow anybody to bring Zuma down … Now is the time to defend the revolution …Those guns that are somewhere, you must use them.”

Maine’s statement, saying one of the two must fall, also illustrates to what extent Zuma and Gordhan have become core symbols for the war.

Last week the Gordhan group seemed to have won an important psychological victory when, after a period of only isolated members of the cabinet supporting Gordhan in public, the cabinet as a whole made a statement of support. He was, although belatedly, included in the cabinet task team set up to look into the student protests.

This follows on consistent speculation about an incipient cabinet revolt in protest against Minister Gordhan being charged. There were even talks of at least eight ministers preparing to release a statement of their own.

Backdrop for MTBPS

This is the background against which Minister Gordhan has been preparing his submission, or his MTBPS, to be delivered on Wednesday to parliament.

It can be expected that elements of that will be reflected in his address to the legislature, such as a renewed commitment to combat corruption and clean up the affairs of state enterprises like South African Airways.

It might not be the final battle, but the start of the final phase of the war.

One thing is sure, South Africa’s social turmoil, driven by politics and the economy, is set to intensify, and uncertainty among investors will deepen while the outcome of the war remains unsure.

And there are clear signs that the removal of President Zuma could ignite a bloody power struggle reminiscent of what happened in the run-up to the first democratic election in 1994.

by Piet Coetzer

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