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Good ship SA compass less on choppy seas

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The South African government’s executive power, as in the cabinet, finds itself in choppy seas without a compass and the captain of the ship fighting a massive headache.

This is the scary picture that emerge at closer scrutiny of a, seemingly routine, statement of a cabinet meeting last week.

It was the first cabinet meeting since President Jacob Zuma’s controversial midnight cabinet reshuffle on the second last day of March – one of the biggest single reshuffles in almost a decade, which saw no less than 20 changes.

At the time, the reshuffle was punted, by the Presidency, as one “to improve efficiency and effectiveness.”

But, it took just short of a full month before the new, more “efficiency and effective” cabinet had its first meeting, while the custom and good practice have it that cabinet meetings mostly happens on a weekly basis.

There has been no cabinet indaba or professional team building meeting since the massive reshuffle to ensure a focused team approach, communicating integrated messages.

And, it comes at a time where on many critical fronts for the wellbeing of the economy and social stability there are desperate calls for policy certainty.

These calls come in the face of a heap of uncertainties on many critical fronts, to which the reshuffle itself contributed in no small way. This is especially true on the front of fiscal-, monetary- and related fronts since the most controversial aspect of the reshuffle was the firing of Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, replaced with relatively unknown Malusi Gigaba and Sfiso Buthelezi.

Substance of first statement

The first statement by the, what amounts to a new cabinet, does seem to have taken note of the concerns about financial policy uncertainties and focused on that subject. It claimed that Minister Gigaba’s interaction with investors and the global finance community has shown that government would stick to the course of fiscal discipline and consolidation charted by Gigaba’s predecessor.

“These engagements underscored that government’s policy orientation towards prudent fiscal discipline and stringent fiscal consolidation as, highlighted in the 2017 National Budget, will remain unchanged,” Communications Minister Ayanda Dlodlo said.

But, guess what? The new minister of finance was not even present at this first cabinet meeting since he replaced Mr Gordhan. And, according to minister Dlodlo no reference was made to the sweeping reshuffle, except to “welcome new ministers.”

If Gigaba will be sticking to the policies, as claimed, it again raises the question: Why the heck was the internationally respected and rusted Gordhan fired in the first instance?

In the wake of the internal ANC crisis, because Mr Zuma did not, as is the custom in the party and its governing alliance, consult with party leadership and alliance partners, it also strengthens the widely-held perceptions and suspicions that the reshuffle has little to do with national interest and “efficiency and effectiveness” but, everything with Mr Zuma’s political headaches caused by his personal affairs and interests.

Gigaba’s credibility

The new minister’s credibility and his claim that he will stay the “Gordhan-line” is also very suspect in the light of who he has appointed as his economic advisor in his new position.

He namely, appointed one Chris Malikane, a controversial economics professor from the University of the Witwatersrand. Malikane holds views on the ideal structure of the economy, that is diagonally opposed to those held by Gordhan and, what Minister Gigaba has now claimed to be his own.

Prof Malikane was barely in his new position when a blueprint for the economy, which he tabled, surfaced in public. In the blueprint he puts banks, insurance companies and mines in the line of fire for radical economic transformation, earmarking them for nationalisation.

The comments came at a time that Minister Gigaba was about to depart on an international road show aimed at restoring confidence in South Africa as an investment destination after local business leaders have already opted out of accompanying him on the trip – something that became custom during Gordhan’s time in the ministry.

Malikane said he had penned the article in his capacity as an academic and activist, but added: "I'm not going to change my view. I'm not going to be shy about expressing those views."

In the meantime, the National Treasury distanced itself from Malikane’s views, saying nationalisation of banks is not government policy.

Gigaba has since said that Malikane has ”been reined in and told to keep quiet,” and he appeared alongside the minister at meetings during the investor’s roadshow. However, Malikane has subsequently denied that he was told to “keep quiet.”

On broader front

On a broader political front, as the battles between the ANC’s internal factions and alliance partners intensify, the picture becomes even more confusing and some of the developments have far reaching implications.

In one instance, the president has submitted a sworn statement to the Constitutional Court (CC) claiming that members of the parties national working committee has apologised to him for criticising his cabinet reshuffle. These particular members of the committee, including deputy president Ciryl Ramaphosa and ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, however, have deny they ever apologised.

The implication of this is that President Zuma, under oath, lied to the CC and one can foresee that Mr Zuma might once again, like often in the past, become the target of attempts to lay criminal charges against him.

Under these circumstance, it is nay impossible to read in which direction the good ship South Africa is heading but, that in especially the short to medium term, it will arrive at a pleasant destination, looks very unlikely.

by Piet Coetzer

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