Ismail Lagardien: Fiscus coup may be brewing

Ismail LagardienAt the end of last week, the South African delegation to the World Economic Forum’s annual summit in Davos, led by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, finished their work with some confidence.

As expected, South Africa’s Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, supported by some of the country’s most competent leaders, represented the interests of the country with integrity and eloquence, with insight and the vision that set many minds in and around Davos at ease.

Most reports suggest that the South African delegation did a magnificent job of convincing investors and global public policy makers that the country was stable, on a path to recovery and more inclusive expansion of the economy. Some of the participants reached these conclusions with a sense of trepidation and resignation.

The participants in the WEF’s annual pilgrimage are, quite possibly, among the most important public policy-makers and influencers of policies in the world.

There certainly is a lot to criticise about the annual gathering in the Swiss mountains. For one, very many of the powerful people who decide on the fate of the global economy are unelected and are, therefore, less accountable to citizens than they are to shareholders.

Nonetheless, it is their power, money, innovations, corporations, organisations and ideas that fire engines of the global political economy. A person like, say, Bill Gates is not a democratically elected leader, but it would be hard to deny that he is one of the world’s smartest and most influential people.

The same level of respect is held for South Africa’s current finance minister, the deputy president and almost any one of the country’s delegates. None of this seems to matter back in South Africa, though.

The more Gordhan or the deputy president or any South African leader, elected or unelected, does to promote the country abroad, the more bitter and vindictive the charges against them become at home.

For instance, while Gordhan was away and for several weeks now, attempts to discredit him have been ratcheted up. Last year they were quite overt.

Gordhan was threatened through the courts, on spurious legal charges, and quite crude attempts were made to remove him from his position. At the moment, there seems to be a much more subtle, insidious, a more dangerous and toxic process under way to discredit Gordhan – and, it should be said, anyone who attempts to support him.

He is, now, being associated with “white monopoly capital”, a portmanteau concept that contains all the evils and historical injustices that have been inflicted on South Africa over centuries. He is accused, also, of standing in the way of transformation of the Treasury.

Let’s be clear, transformation is a necessary process, but as a single act it is insufficient. We can discuss this at another time.

With respect to the new set of attempts to discredit Gordhan, they appear to be simply one of a range of tactics deployed as part of an overall strategy to control the country’s finances on behalf of a particular group of people. This group is rapidly swelling and it includes some of the more unsavoury characters in our political landscape.

What is unique, in terms of the current tactic, is the language that has been deployed, and how expedient, manipulative and final public statements have become. Gordhan, and anyone who supports him, stands in the way of a complete take-over the country’s finances.

This fight over the fiscus, over how money is spent in the country may be what defines the political battles over the coming year. I have used this phrase elsewhere, but this looming battle – what may turn out to be a fiscus coup – places the country in an instant before a shattering.

The cracks could be all over and include any or all of the tense places around the country. Either way, things could get a lot more messy and the collateral damages may be high.

A year or so ago, I dropped a line into a piece of commentary I wrote for an online publication. I made the comment that Gordhan would “be as successful, only, as his domestic allies will allow him to be” and that someone had “to watch his back”.

We seem to be back to this time about a year ago. The South African delegation to Davos did what was expected of them.

Back home, we have at least three choices. We can surrender to the coup plotters and hand over the fiscus.

We can muddle through until the next general election, continue to put out the fires of poor service delivery and hope for the best. Or we can build on the success of what they achieved at Davos, and make sure Ramaphosa and Gordhan continue to steer the country through what may remain a difficult global political economy.

Dr Ismail Lagardien is executive dean of business and economics at NMMU.

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