THERE is a huge outcry over the recent decision by Jacob Zuma, the President of South Africa, to reassign Nhlanhla Nene from the Finance ministry to a yet unknown strategic position. The President is being criticised from different fronts, some justifiable and others are just emotional. And that is how national decisions are sometimes influenced in South Africa.
Before Nene was appointed the Finance minister, he chaired the South African parliament’s finance committee, from which he gained experience. In October 2012, he grabbed headlines when he fell from his chair during a live television programme. There is no denying that Nene is a seasoned African National Congress (ANC) cadre and possesses vast experience on finance management. He became deputy minister of Finance in November 2008, just a month after falling from a chair in a television studio.
On May 25 2014, Nene was appointed Finance minister before he was removed on December 9 by the President, purportedly ahead of his deployment to “another strategic position”. It is this decision that has riled many and threatened to rip ANC membership apart.
There are a lot of stories being told today as to why Nene was fired, among which include his refusal to bail out South African Airways (SAA), to buy a new jet for the President and several others. Some have gone as far as stating that the President has made that decision without consulting other ministers, while others argued that Nene was the face of hope in an economically-waning country. I am not a constitutional expert, but my little understanding is that ministers serve at the pleasure of the President. The President can hire or fire without giving reasons and without consulting other ministers.
The reshuffling of the cabinet is not exclusively based on whether a minister is performing or not, but how the President wants to restructure his government. The final accountability lies with the President, which is why he exercises the powers to change his cabinet.
I have deliberately avoided discussing allegations on the refusal to bail out SAA and refusal to buy a new jet for the President because these remain unsubstantiated rumours and, therefore, immaterial. I will, therefore, dwell on the third reason that Nene was the face of hope in an economically-waning country. It was on Africa Day last year that Nene became Minister of Finance taking over from Pravin Gordan, who had stepped down as minister.
The day Nene took over office on May 25, nearly 19 months ago, the South Africa rand was trading at 10,5 against the US dollar. By the time he left office on December 9, the rand had fallen by 50% to 15 against the US dollar. We cannot solely blame Nene for the weakening South African rand. In October, most currencies have weakened against a strengthening US dollar. But this phenomenon only started a few weeks ago and, therefore, is not enough excuse to save Nene. Certainly a 50% weakening of currency in nineteen months is record breaking and calls for serious decisions. More so, considering that the Kenya shilling and the Nigerian naira also fell, but by only less than 10%, why then would the South African rand tumble like that when there is a capable Nene?
Zuma finds himself between a hard surface and a rock. Unfortunately, the choice are between reassigning Nene to allow new blood to save the economy or to keep Nene at the expense of the economy, while saving the ANC interests. He chose the latter simply because the economy has suddenly become a priority as he is no longer seeking another term in office. Zuma is at stage where he is no longer afraid of losing political friends because he does not need them anymore.
But for those in the ANC, the interests are different. They do not worry that the failure of the economy is going to be used as a weapon against them come 2019 elections, because keeping Nene is viewed by others in the party as one way of keeping the party happy. A colleague argued that Nene had the right face and ANC history to keep the membership happy. This is despite that the ANC membership is not enough to win votes unless the general public is happy.
The party is fragmented and it needs some faces to unify it and that is where Nene comes in. It does not matter whether he is good at running the economy, as long as he is there in government, some ANC members are content with that. While on the other hand, the President, who is no longer worried about future votes, perhaps thinks mending the economy must now come ahead of political patronage.
The rift between the President’s view of the situation and the ANC members’ has led to some campaigns for Zuma to step down, while others have called for the “Fees Must Fall” type of campaign. Perhaps it is time South Africans focus on real economic issues and not emotional anger in order to save the economy from falling again. Perhaps the new minister has better ideas than Nene. In addition, they can borrow ideas from across the Limpopo River on how political patronage bring down an economy.
●Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa