Pravin Gordhan

The Next Rainbow

Tim-Peake-photo-of-South-Africa-900x599

Us, photographed by Tim Peak.

“When the sun rises over South Africa this morning it will be a new country.”

In the first few minutes after Jacob Zuma’s midnight purge, the Facebook status of columnist Marianne Thamm spoke the feelings of a great many South Africans. It felt as if a Rubicon had been crossed; a temple curtain had torn.

But I would respectfully disagree with Thamm. When the sun rose over a post-Gordhan South Africa, the only thing that had changed was the nationality of the landlords.

Once, they were Dutch and British. For a while the great-grandchildren of the Dutch and British pretended that the place was independent; but soon they ran the property into the ground and needed Wall Street bankers to keep them afloat, so the Americans held the title deeds for a while. And now, South Africa is owned by a family from India and, it is safe to assume, a handful of Russian politicians and their pet oligarchs.

Yes, it’s the same old place it’s always been.

The uproar is familiar, too: that collective groan we produce whenever the predators in power let the façade slip and we see them in their natural habitat, urgently thrusting bloody snouts into the steaming guts of a still-kicking country.

This, however, seems to be a particularly frightening moment. The feeding frenzy, usually half-hidden by darkness, is happening in broad daylight. We’re being shown things we didn’t want to see, like who has power and who has almost none. As we discover that the ANC has finished its transition from a liberation movement to a political party and finally to a monarchy, the processes of democracy are starting to look like a cargo-cultish ritual performed by the faithful and delusional.

Then again, there is method to the opposition’s madness. The DA and EFF do not want Jacob Zuma removed from power immediately because the longer he is president the better they will do in 2019. Indeed, some people suspect the opposition parties have actively worked to keep Zuma in power, calling motions of no confidence or marching on Luthuli House in the full knowledge that such events force the ANC to close ranks and stand by its beleaguered boss – the surgeon deliberately leaving the cancer to spread so that he can look even more heroic when he finally tackles it.

And so here we are, in a slightly new place in the same old place. There’s a lot of anger and confusion, and crippling amounts of commentary and analysis about what happens next.

I’d also like to talk about what happens next.

I don’t mean what happens after Zuma or 2019. I don’t mean what will happen, or what is likely to happen, because I don’t have the faintest idea about any of that. Instead, I want to talk about what could happen, what should happen, what might happen if we briefly tear ourselves away from the grim present and turn our eyes to brighter horizons.

I know this sounds like the naivety of privilege, but humour me for a minute. God knows, you’ve humoured worse for the last seven years.

What if we updated Bishop Tutu’s rainbow with one representing the country we could still have?

Even if we could return to the rainbow nation idealism of the mid-1990s, we shouldn’t. Rainbowism is dead mainly because it resolutely ignored the racism and race-based inequality that saturate the foundations of this country like rising damp and which make any new building impossible until it has been dealt with.

But what if we updated Bishop Tutu’s rainbow with one representing the country we could still have if we made hard choices and had honest conversations? What if, instead of gradually accepting this sordid place as it is, we reminded ourselves of what we want and deserve?

What if red represented the blood being shed every day – by men in their war against women; by callous or desperate criminals; by systems that brutalise the bodies of the poor – and a future in which we staunched the flow?

What if orange – the colour of the soil – represented a just, intelligent and lasting solution to urgent questions about land? What is the statute of limitations on stolen property? Can land be given back to the dispossessed without threatening food security? Some say that if land is not handed out there will be a revolution, but surely if farming gets any more dangerous or difficult there will be a revolution anyway when the food runs out? Or is this a false dichotomy?

What if green stood for money and a commonly accepted belief that leaders shouldn’t steal it and that bosses should earn sensible rather than disgusting amounts of it? What if we had an honest discussion about how much corruption we’re willing to tolerate, given that corruption is the deal all peoples make with their politicians in order to have their countries run? And speaking of which, can we decide whether we want to be part of the capitalist world with its inherent corruptions or whether we want to start afresh, and if the latter can you let me know ASAP so I can start looking for a job somewhere else?

What if blue symbolised water, the stuff that we can’t live without but which we’re going to get less and less of? And what if we employed experts to manage it so that we don’t have to manage without it?

What if indigo – a colour added rather arbitrarily to the spectrum by Isaac Newton but now in danger of being dumped by scientists – demonstrated an ability to adapt to new facts rather than to cling on to traditions and beliefs for their own sake? Can we restore intellect and wisdom to public life, and educate our children for an automating world?

What if violet, made up of EFF red and DA blue, was a reminder that competing ideologies can and should keep each other in check? What if we were mature enough to find humane and sustainable solutions to hard economic problems, rather than plunging Venezuela-like to the left or goose-stepping to the right towards Trumpian gangster capitalism?

Finally, yellow: the colour of cowardice, omitted from its rightful place because fear isn’t something we want to acknowledge. But what if yellow could remind us that we’ve been cowards in the past, that we’ve avoided tough decisions and taken the path of least resistance? And what if it could remind us that we’ve also been braver than we ever imagined we could be?

Let’s be brave again. Then, maybe, the sun will rise over a truly new country.

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Published in The Times

Numb and Number

one-plus-oneWhen parliament gathers tomorrow, and the Speaker invites the minister of finance to address the House, and Brian Molefe stands up, and Jacob Zuma hisses, “Not yet, Brian!” and Pravin Gordhan politely clears his throat, South Africans won’t understand a word that comes out of his mouth.

That’s because we are astonishingly bad at maths. Every year the educational surveys confirm it: if a deity told us to go forth and multiply, we’d go fourth and divide.

Perhaps that’s inevitable in a place where so little adds up. Consider a South African story sum: “If a train leaves Johannesburg at noon on Tuesday and travels at 100km/h, what time will it arrive in Cape Town, 1400km away?”

This question is, obviously, impossible to answer. For starters, did the train stop outside Kimberley for four hours or only two hours because of cable theft? And when you say “arrive in Cape Town”, does that mean it arrived intact and under its own power or does it still count if half the train grinds to a halt near the station upside down and on fire?

Not surprisingly, many of us quickly learnt that one plus one equals migraine, and gave up on numbers before we’d reached our, er, (looks at fingers) ninth birthday.

Which is why Gordhan could recite the collected lyrics of Adele and we’d think something fiscally significant had just happened.

Sensing our anxiety around numbers, some media outlets avoided the Budget build-up entirely, preferring to focus on ANC veteran Mathews Phosa, who claimed to have had a “Damascus moment” at the State of the Nation address two weeks ago.

I’ve always found it an odd phrase: referring to yourself as St Paul, the sixth-most important person in Christendom after the Holy Trinity, the Virgin and John the Baptist, seems a peculiar way to express a humbling moment. But theology aside, I’m confused by this particular journey on the road to Damascus.

I understand how a bloke might pass the hamlet of Nkandla and not fall off his horse. But surely when you passed the smoking ruins of the village of Marikana you’d experience the tiniest suspicion that it might be time to reassess your beliefs?

Confused by these questions, other media focused instead on the revelation that currency traders had been colluding to rig the rates of the thing that controls the thing with the money and – please don’t make me go on. I didn’t understand any of it. And neither did the people who tried to get angry about it over the weekend. “It’s a disgrace, hey? Someone should go to jail for…that thing…they did…with the money…?”

the Young Lions are absolutely right

No, thanks to the maths-shaped hole in our brains we won’t have a clue what Gordhan is talking about.

But we do know a couple of things.

The first is that Gordhan is under ferocious political pressure.

Last week the ANC Youth League called for him to be fired, claiming he is blocking transformation projects. The Young Lions are, of course, absolutely right: Gordhan has consistently stood between them and their project to transform themselves into rich people.

We also know that Gordhan is facing a tax revenue shortfall of R28-billion, which is basically the entire hold of a privately owned Boeing taking off at midnight from Waterkloof headed for Dubai.

At this point the frugal reader who understands a household budget might remind Gordhan that auditor-general Kimi Makwetu found irregular expenditure of R46-billion last year. Surely, they might politely ask, the minister could simply tell the government to stop flushing billions down the toilet?

But such questions betray a naïve belief that something has gone wrong rather than to plan; that “irregular spending” is an administrative slip-up rather than the public face of a deliberate system of plunder. Because that money isn’t being flushed away into a void. Rather, it is flowing, at a rate of R87,000 every minute, into the bank accounts of “public servants”, well-connected CEOs, and the people who keep smallanyana skeletons safely locked in closets – a vast ecosystem of political filter-feeders, gorging on vast clouds of money.

Finally, we know one more thing: taxes will rise. And why wouldn’t they? If you were Tony Soprano’s financial adviser would you tell him to cut back? Hell no. You’d tell him you’ll make it work. And then you’d go out and slap an extra two points on every loan and put the screws on a few more shopkeepers.

Yes, they’ll make it work. And so will we. Will it add up? Probably not. But when has that ever stopped a South African?

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Published in The Times