There was a moment on Saturday afternoon, just before he stepped from behind a screen onto the sun-drenched stage, when axed finance minister Pravin Gordhan looked at the packed Johannesburg City Hall and took a deep breath.
He was called to the front at the memorial for struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada amidst rapturous applause and weaved his way to the lectern from his front-row seat between Derek Hanekom, the dismissed minister of tourism, and Graca Machel, the social activist and late Nelson Mandela’s wife.
Gordhan — who has delivered many difficult Budget speeches, fronted up to countless sceptical press conferences and navigated hundreds of cynical investors’ meetings — seemed to pause for a moment. He has been a politician for many years and has evolved into one of our most efficient and respected technocrats, keeping his nose clean and National Treasury out of the spotlight.
That has now changed, and for a brief moment, standing on a stage in front of hundreds of angry people, hostile to the head of state and demanding a rousing call to arms, he looked out of place and uncertain, his eyes big and thinning eyebrows twitching.
He filled his lungs, his eyes narrowing. He stepped forward and took the microphone, looking at Barbara Hogan, the widow of Ahmed Kathrada, for whom the memorial service was being held, and he cut loose.
“This is still our African National Congress (ANC)!” he said to massive cheers and spoke about how “petty and spiteful” the presidency was in postponing the Kathrada funeral.
He told the audience that there is no doubt as to what the country’s problems are and who is causing them.
He was open about his battle against sponsored state capture, he named companies and insurgents and he blew the lid off efforts to manipulate and capture whole sectors of the economy to the benefit of a few.
He challenged his dismissal, saying: “When three senior party officials, the deputy president, the secretary-general and the treasurer-general, say in the space of 24 hours they don’t know where this decision was made, we have a problem. And if anyone is thinking of taking us to a disciplinary committee: we’ll ask these same questions at the next meeting of the national executive committee (NEC).”
But more importantly Gordhan — until days earlier in charge of National Treasury, bestriding international halls of finance and power — went back to his roots and urged those present to “come out, organise, be part of something”.
“We are a society with a history of mass-organising and mass-mobilisation. This other channel (the Guptas’ ANN7) was saying last night I was encouraging mass-mobilisation… yes, I unashamedly am!” he said to the loudest cheers of the afternoon.
“Many of my comrades in the NEC and government will say the same thing if they had the chance. Not for their own sake, but because we believe the people shall govern.”
Going back to his roots
Gordhan was regarded as one of the most efficient organisers during the struggle, and the former finance minister seemed to relish the prospects of getting back to his roots. He implored the gathering — to which he referred as “fellow patriots” — to take the debate to “every household, workplace, university and village” and said now is the time “to act together”.
It was surreal to see Gordhan, who in the public consciousness only ever talks about fiscal discipline, procurement processes, deficits and surpluses, being so fiery and political.
“Don’t now go home and say ‘what a nice meeting this was’. Work in your own lives and in your own humble way to bring about change and help create a more resilient democracy. I will say to activists in the alliance, particularly, that now is the time to unite and fight against the weaknesses in our movement and to do everything possible so that the values of Mandela, Sisulu, Tambo and Kathrada are restored to our movement,” he said.
Hanekom cheered him on at every inflection point in his address. His predecessor and friend Trevor Manuel laughed when he called the so-called intelligence report – which President Jacob Zuma used to justify his removal – as “unintelligent intelligence”.
Former colleagues Ebrahim Patel (minister of economic development) and health minister Aaron Motsoaledi’s mere presence was telling enough.
But spotted amongst the crowd there were others, too, whose decision to attend says a lot about the fracture in the governing party and the battle between the constitutionalists and rent-seekers in government.
Willie Hofmeyr, who has been a lone voice of reason in the National Prosecuting Authority, which charged Gordhan for corruption last year, was standing to one side, alone. There were a number of Treasury staffers, past and present, who seemingly wants to be part of a form of resistance.
Mathole Motshekga, senior ANC Member of Parliament and husband of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga was there too, as was Joe Phaahla, deputy minister of health, and Gerhard Koornhof, ANC MP and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s parliamentary counsellor.
Business Leadership SA’s Bonang Mohale was there along with Cass Coovadia from the Banking Association.
Fired Minister of Public Service and Administration Ngoako Ramatlhodi sat next to former minister and ambassador Zola Skweyiya. They were joined by former ambassador Barbara Masekela and Valli Moosa, a minister in the Mandela Cabinet.
The symbolism in the hall was rich and textured: an ANC event in the best traditions of the United Democratic Front (UDF), admonishing a president gone rogue. On stage the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC in Gauteng didn’t mince their words: the SACP’s Solly Mapaila saying Zuma must go and the ANC’s Brian Hlongwa later saying the electorate has warned the party.
But Gordhan, who has become the face of the resistance movement, who commands a network of loyal, underground former staffers and is the only senior ANC member that has actively challenged the Guptas, was the centrepiece.
State-owned weapons manufacturer Denel is compromised, he explained, calling its insistence to go into business with the Guptas’ VR Laser — and going so far as to sue Treasury — as an example of state capture.
He also cited the “mismanagement” of the energy sector — where Tina Joemat-Pettersson was in charge until the Cabinet reshuffle — as an area which we should be worried about.
And he asked why Bathabile Dlamini, the minister of social development, isn’t “adult” about why she did “favours” for narrow interests in the social grants debacle.
He was mobbed afterwards, and the security arranged by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation had their hands full to ward off well-wishers.
When the crowds subsided, in one of the disused ball-rooms next to the vast old hall – where Allan Boesak once called for the formation of the UDF and F.W. de Klerk later implored white voters to stay away from the Conservative Party – Gordhan and Patel met alone and behind closed doors.
They stood together, and spoke for exactly three minutes and ten seconds, with Patel taking a document out of a manila envelope and showing it to Gordhan.
After they finished their conversation, Patel put the document away they shook hands, Gordhan taking Patel by the elbow, and they went their separate ways. Patel back to the executive, and Gordhan back to grass roots.
For Gordhan, it seems the change of path from talented public official to civic leader is only just begun.
Source: Huffington post