Activist Minister Pravin Gordhan, back in government, fights to bring South Africa back from the brink. Change has come but 'the contest is still on'

Those who -naively, it must be said- believed that the Mandela revolution after apartheid in South Africa would inaugurate a rainbow-coloured utopia have long been disappointed. During the transition years, and to some extent still, the country dealt with massive racial trauma, violence and a devastating Aids epidemic. Then it saw itself plundered by former President Jacob Zuma and his network of kleptocrats. Now, a partly captured state is challenged by persistent inequality, while populists use race (among other issues) as a rallying cry. Pravin Gordhan, activist and underground fighter, later minister, then fired (by Zuma) and back to activism, has been through it all. Now he is back in government once again as Minister of Public Enterprises. Is there a ‘new dawn’ under president Ramaphosa? “It is one’s hope that we may look back at this period with some pride.”

You chaired CODESA, the all-party negotiations that gave South Africa a new constitution after Apartheid and paved the way for the first Mandela government. Now, populists like Julius Malema, pointing at the persisting massive gap between a rich white minority and the black majority, say ‘Mandela betrayed us.’ Do they have a point? What use is political freedom if so many are still unemployed and living in shacks?

“People forget that apartheid and colonialism, after centuries of war and bloodshed, left the black majority completely dispossessed, marginalised and uprooted, with zero assets and zero access to education or opportunities. That is not the case now. Our negotiated victory opened the way for the majority to participate, to access opportunities. It is true that we have not been able to change the employment situation or to integrate (black) youth into the economy. Extraordinary methods must indeed be found to address this challenge. Radically increasing the skills of youth and disaggregating the concentration in key sections of the economy are two examples of this. But that doesn’t mean Madiba sold out. His generation lead us out of apartheid and into a democratic era.”

You have denounced those in the new elite who plunder money from the state under the guise of ‘wealth redistribution’ to ‘black people,’ pointing out that by ‘black people,’ they mean themselves. In an interview we had in 2017 you denounced the hypocrisy in sloganeering about black empowerment whilst they were looting budgets from the very structure, the state, that must do that empowering, through health, education, and other services. But this was already happening when you were a Minister, and even before that, when you were Commissioner of SARS, since 1999.

“And even before that. As soon as one -meaning the ANC, or any governing party- moves from underground and exile activism, and starts occupying governmental positions, one gets access to governmental positions, income, a better life. Then one develops networks of -let’s call them clients- who want to feed of you. You get nepotistic practices. The same things were affecting our party, the erstwhile liberation movement, the ANC, because of its new nature as the gateway to state power. SG after SG have talked about declining morality, manipulating party branches, gatekeeping, smear campaigns in leadership contests and so on. But, let’s be clear that there still is a significant number of people who continue to fight for integrity in political conduct and maintain the focus on service to the country and the poor.”

When did you personally become seriously concerned about these developments?

“Already during my time at the South African Revenue Service (SARS), from 1999, I saw state contracts manipulated to benefit friends, kickbacks, extracting money regardless of the consequences for ordinary people. We did play our part in getting laws like the Prevention of Corrupt Practices Act passed. But what we noticed was that law enforcement agencies sometimes did not act. As soon as that is noticed, as soon as those who want to engage in corrupt practices realize that the risk of them getting caught is minimal, corruption goes unchecked.”

“The state we wanted was becoming fodder to various vampires”

You started noticing impunity.

“In the beginning one sees incidents. Hey, now there is a new head of the state prosecuting agency, then there is another, then another. What is going on there? It is only afterwards that the picture emerges. At first one offers different kinds of resistance. Clearly in retrospect there was a design to achieve what today we would call state capture. The developmental state that we had wanted to build was having its resources and capability diminished. It was becoming fodder for voracious vampires.”

At the time you never realised it?

“I must have been asked this question a million times. “But didn’t you realise it?” (Thinks) “It’s like a clock. If you keep watching it, you won’t see the watch hand moving, but if you turn away and look again, ten minutes have gone.”

Can you pinpoint the moment when the penny dropped, when you said now I have to stand up and say something?

“See, even that notion of standing up and saying something... You do that if you are an activist. If you are a bureaucrat in government, you see something on your desk that is wrong and then you advise your principal that this is wrong. It was probably the nuclear stuff….(The controversial and so far still non-finalised, Zuma-propelled, plan for the purchase of five nuclear plants from Rosatom in Russia, costing an unaffordable trillion Rand, EG.) I haven’t really thought about it. But what you do is insist on due process. The normal tender regulations, the Public Finance Management Act PFMA, would be in the way of such deals. But what we started to notice is that as soon as they see you as a problem, they take the issue away from you. It was at the time of the push for the nuclear deal, mid-2015, that the attacks on Treasury started.”

“The corruption process is like a clock. If you keep watching it, you won’t see the watch hand moving, but if you turn away and look again, ten minutes have gone.”

The proponents of the nuclear deal argued that the Russians were South Africa's allies in BRICS. It was made out to be some empowering deal for the developing world. They said Treasury was neoliberal and pro-western.”

“I was not in Treasury then, I was in Local Government from 2014. But yes.”

Anti-corruption activists were elated when you were reappointed to Treasury in December 2015, when Zuma had had to give in to worldwide and business outrage. His appointment of known kleptocrat ally Des van Rooyen as Finance Minister had been a step too far. He asked you to come in, presumably so that everybody would calm down again.

“But then the harassment at SARS started. SARS was crucial, it’s where the money is. I was increasingly worried about developments there. They were now capturing SARS. There had been a smear campaign against the former executive, -lots of people who worked there during my time-. They were being kicked out, and the new commissioner, Moyane, was introducing a new organisational model that was totally unnecessary and cost about R300 million”.

During your time as SARS commissioner from 1999 to 2009 SARS grew to a world-class tax agency, praised because it collected lots of revenue for the state to provide services to citizens. Now new Zuma-appointee, Moyane, said he wanted to ‘modernise’ it. But, as the recent SARS inquiry is starting to show, the true plan was to capture the state’s ‘goose with the golden eggs’.

“At the start of my new appointment as finance minister I had met with Moyane to tell him that he should stop the new operating model, at least until he had explained to me why he thought it was necessary. But he refused to meet me after the first time, then would not even take my calls. He was openly defiant. He would answer only to the President, not to me, he said. Even when he wanted leave, he didn’t send the leave forms to the Ministry, he asked for leave from the President. It was also clear that he knew nothing about tax. He could answer 2 out of 10 questions, if that at all, about the actual business of SARS at the best of times. And that is being generous. He had no intention of even learning about the institution, other than from what he had to do at whoever’s behest. Then the Zuma supporters started to attack me in different forms but most importantly harassment by the Hawks, a police unit.”

It is interesting how the issue of competence seems to have been used by the corrupt. Zuma has promoted ministers like Bathabile Dlamini without any skills or record, with his supporters justifying such appointments with the argument ‘but look at Gordhan, he is only a pharmacist’. We have also seen the promotion of those who have certificates on paper, like Des van Rooyen, who never actually did anything impressive. Whilst you have vast organisational, management and leadership experience even from struggle days.

“It is accepted worldwide that, where people lack formal qualifications because they have been excluded and marginalized, you look at a person’s record. What experience do they have, what have they done. Nowadays that seems totally forgotten. Either we create alternative narratives that have nothing to do with qualifications, or we are back to displaying certificates. What is worse, we have also forgotten about values. Far more important than any qualifications are your commitment and your work ethic. Any employer will tell you that.”

Some say that the corrupt appoint incompetents on purpose -so they can get away easily?

“There is that, but don’t forget that corruption also needs competencies. Brian Molefe (who, according to transport provider Transnet helped loot this state structure, EG) is very skilled in public finance. Anoj Singh (who according to another inquiry did same at the state electricity company Eskom, EG); Eric Woods (who was reported to have laundered money for Zuma’s businessmen friends, the Guptas, EG) is a brilliant designer of financial structures.”

The incompetents and the wrongly competent together move out the people who have the work ethic and governance values?

“Yes. That one is key.”

You were fired, finally, by Zuma, on 31 March 2017, because you had “conspired with Western businesses to undermine black government”. You had become increasingly vocal by then.

Counts dates: "Things had gone progressively worse from the time the Hawks sent me the 27 questions in February 2016. (The questions were an attempt by Zuma-appointee, Hawks head Berning Ntlemeza, to implicate him in alleged criminal wrongdoing at SARS during his time as Commissioner, EG). In March 2017, I attended the funeral of Ahmed Kathrada (the event of the funeral of Kathrada, Mandela’s contemporary turned into a first rally of support attended by prominent ANC people -Gordhan most prominently among them- for the anti-corruption struggle, EG). I was fired on 31 March, 2017. In May 2017 I made the ‘connect the dots’ speech at Johannesburg City Hall.”

That speech famously urged the SA public to “connect the dots and see who is benefiting from state capture” and to mass mobilise against corruption. But what happened between February 2016 and March 2017? You must have sounded alarms internally for that whole year.

“That will be off the record then.”

The recording stop button is clicked. Because some individuals who turned deaf ears to state capture alerts, and even benefited, still occupy prominent positions in government and ruling party? At the crucial ANC conference of December 2017, Cyril Ramaphosa became president with a narrow leading margin of 179 votes from a total of 5000 votes.

“These 179 votes gave President Ramaphosa just enough of a threshold with which to begin to establish a new government, get rid of some of the old practices, take steps that will result in more employment, more investment, and putting things right in government. But there is still a lot to do. Fortunately we are not alone. Progressive democrats within and outside the ANC and civil society have become energised. Freedom under Law (a constitutional NGO, EG) is taking the prosecuting authority to court. OUTA, the ‘Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse,’ is getting a lot of support for its work. Institutions such as the media and the judiciary have played and are playing a key role.”

But the state is partly disabled, perhaps more broken than it ever was. The National Prosecutor’s office and SARS are shadows of former selves. The Water Affairs department is riddled with debt as well as broken pipes. Law enforcement is crippled.

“The contest is still on. The beneficiaries of state capture still have a lot of resources, and allies. They now have the money to engage batteries of lawyers and they are fighting back. But the few victories we have had and the ground gained gives encouragement to progressive forces.”

Is there a place for international support? The New Dawn has attracted worldwide attention. It seems like perhaps for the first time in Africa, the decay of a liberation movement-government could be halted in one generation?

“We need a lot of support. Because money laundering is at the heart of siphoning off our wealth, and those who are at the centre of the criminal enterprise seem to move around easily in the rest of the world (a reference to the fugitive Gupta brothers, EG.) We need more international awareness of these individuals and more censure of the institutions who help them, such as Bell Pottinger, McKinsey and KPMG. But also, the world needs to learn from this experience. State capture is not uniquely South African. Worldwide, democracy is under threat; progressives are at risk of losing ground in a world of populism and new autocrats. Inequality is increasing worldwide. As progressives we all need to find our voices again. Also on issues of migration, solidarity with people who suffer.”

You once asked what it means nowadays to be progressive.

“Being progressive is about a fundamental belief in social justice; ensuring that socially, economically and in terms of the human condition every single human being on this earth is entitled to a decent life. The massive accumulation of assets and wealth in the hands of small elites, both globally and within countries, -particularly in the case of elites that distance itself from the welfare of the majority-, is a danger to the survival of democracy. When people are desperate they resort to seek comfort in a so-called strongman. Also, “desperation politics” leads to racism, tribalism, nationalism and other chauvinistic rhetoric being used to advance opportunistic political objectives.”

Could South Africa still be a bit of an example, as an experiment to overcome the black-white, rich-poor divide?

“In 5 years from now we might be looking back on this period and say wow, we have been through very difficult times but we also found answers. From international examples but from our own creativity as well. We may look back on this period with some pride. That is one’s hope.”

This article was first published in Dutch quarterly Zuid-Afrika Spectrum.

Disclaimer: Evelyn Groenink is married to Ivan Pillay, who is an old friend and freedom struggle comrade of Gordhan and also one of the SARS executives who were fired in the run up to Zuma's takeover of the tax agency.