On Thursday the Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan delivered his budget vote address having stood his ground against physical intimidation by EFF MPs. ‘We survived apartheid. We will survive this fascist populism,’ he said. And the point was made: The political noise of a populist agenda would not be allowed to overshadow the rebuilding of South Africa after the wreckage of State Capture.
EFF MP Sam Matiase rose to describe Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan as a “constitutional delinquent” in relation to a report by Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, the EFF’s newest bestie, even as it’s being interdicted and taken on review.
“The minister before us must respect the remedial action. He rendered himself a constitutional delinquent. We cannot listen to him.”
Although presiding officer Mmatlala Boroto dismissed the point of order, saying it was a point of debate, the EFF, which had loaded the benches in the E249 parliamentary venue, persisted. Said EFF MP Ntokozo Hlonyane:
“This man is not going to speak today. And it’s not going to happen. And we’ll not leave the House”.
And then Matiase got up from his seat to cross the floor of the House to stand near Gordhan at the speaker’s podium in what was an unprecedented, and fundamentally unparliamentary, act of physical aggression and intimidation.
With the previous “constitutional delinquent” so labelled by the EFF — former president Jacob Zuma — these tactics were tried and tested. The Constitutional Court had found Zuma had violated his oath of office in the Nkandla saga, and the series of scandals that rocked the Zuma administration over the years also saw a depletion of the national purse and an entrenched slowdown of economic growth.
But Gordhan is a different kind of politician. As public enterprises minister, he’s closed the taps that fed State Capture and other types of corrupt enrichment. And despite ideological differences, the minister is broadly supported across the body politic.
The EFF playbook wants to alter that. And so EFF chief whip Floyd Shivambu, in his finance Budget debate contribution later on Thursday, started by congratulating his MPs for “courageous action against Mr Rogue Unit (Gordhan)”. Pointing out how EFF action against Zuma led to his removal as president, Shivambu also claimed credit for former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene falling on his sword over meeting the Guptas.
“We want to tell Mr Rogue Unit he will not be a minister for a long time…”
Shivambu’s commentary came after political parties united across political faultlines in the wake of the earlier intimidatory fracas — and made a united call for the referral to a disciplinary inquiry for this “grossest violation” of parliamentary conduct of physically threatening a member of Parliament by surrounding the speaker’s podium. That was needed, said DA chief whip John Steenhuisen, to “clean this stain on the floor of this House”.
ANC MP Bhekizizwe Hadebe agreed, as did IFP chief whip Narend Singh, and the National Freedom Party. It was a rare display of unity in an often-fractious institution.
Then Gordhan took up from where he had been interrupted some 10 minutes earlier, ad libbing:
“What you’ve witnessed is a defence of State Capture. The question that needs to be asked… What do they have to hide? Intimidation of this kind is not going to intimidate me from fighting the good fight.”
He could not have known it would come to this unprecedented intimidation at Parliament by MPs against another MP when at a media briefing some 100 minutes earlier Gordhan cautioned:
“Exposing the fight back, exposing the proponents of this fight back, is extremely important.”
The ministerial speech itself was, well, aspirational to a time when state-owned entities (SOEs) such as Eskom, SAA and Denel (the arms manufacturer on Thursday acknowledged it had not paid over employees’ pension contributions in June when it also could not pay full salaries) would be full participants in a growing economy, rather than siphoning off tens of billions of rands.
The work of putting details of recovery, of better governance structures, is not really headline-catching. But there was this takeaway: About 3,000 forensic reports relating to SOEs have identified about R600-million that is recoverable, and the department “is collaborating with law enforcement authorities to ensure criminal actions are reported and that civil recoveries are undertaken”.
The hint at the “special paper” from Gordhan in his Budget vote speech followed confirmation earlier in July from Finance director-general Dondo Mogajane that the Eskom Special Appropriation Bill would be accompanied by an explanatory memorandum.
It was left to Finance Minister Tito Mboweni to flesh out details in his Budget vote debate.
The Eskom Special Appropriation Bill for further — but as yet unquantified — funding for the debt-ridden power utility would be tabled in Parliament on 23 July 2019. And there would also be a Green Paper, a preliminary government proposal to spark debate and lead to a firm policy proposal in a White Paper, on how SOEs must conduct themselves.
“Government is working on stabilising Eskom,” said Mboweni in a rather brief statement delivered in a tone that indicated he’d rather not be there. “Once the annual Appropriation Bill (that gives effect to the Budget) becomes law, additional financial support would be made available to SAA, SABC and Denel from the contingency reserves,” said the finance minister in reference to the R6-billion in that fund. “It cannot be a blank cheque. We really and truly cannot go on like this.”
And that was about it in terms of tangible announcements from the National Treasury Budget vote debate on Thursday evening.
But across three economic ministerial Budget debates during the day, an initial formation towards a united front seemed to emerge.
As Gordhan in a pre-Budget vote debate briefing talked about the importance of “reducing the cost of doing business and living”, including the cost of electricity, Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe closed his energy Budget vote debate by, again, pointing out that if electricity prices are too high, sales drop — and that means less income for Eskom.
The government had to be aware of this, said Mantashe, who earlier indicated it wasn’t about one form of energy or another, but a sustainable and diverse mix from coal, nuclear, gas and wind to solar. “The department is not a lobby group for any particular energy. It is a regulator and a department. It is important we play this role.”
It’s a reference to the hot behind-the-scenes, and more public, lobbying that has unfolded, particularly over a proposed multibillion-rand green fund that arose in some circles of the presidential Eskom sustainability task team. The proposal was rejected, Daily Maverick reported, as recently as at June’s Cabinet lekgotla.
The lobbying has continued and analysts such as Intellidex’s Capital Markets Research head Peter Attard Montalto point out how this is creating “a misleading impression where the centre of gravity currently is”, and also on the way forward.
Mantashe pledged the integrated resource plan (IRP), the medium-term plan for South Africa’s power supply, would be gazetted in September. Discussions in the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) are at an advanced stage. It’s part of what the minister called “stable and predictable policy that will lead to investment”.
The test of all of this, from energy, Eskom, other SOEs, private-public investments to fiscal discipline, is the actual delivery. And, if Mboweni had his way, a much closer correlation of policy and action between an increasingly urban population, the tertiary services sector that contributes 60% of the economy, and much-improved educational outcomes.