Threat to institutions still there
In January 2017 I suggested, in this column, that a takeover of the National Treasury was brewing (“Fiscus coup may be brewing”, January 24).
I could not then, and remain unable to, explain the details of the claim.
What I will say is that the public, in general, may not be aware of how close SA came to collapse during the final years of the Jacob Zuma presidency.
This would not be the same as the anticipated bankruptcy of the mid-1980s that was referred to by former finance minister Barend du Plessis, as recorded in Herman Gilliomee’s The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Supreme Test of Power.
It was also different from the precipice on which the country stood in the years before South Africans went to the polls in 1994.
During the 1980s the apartheid state was on its knees politically, ideologically, militarily and economically.
While the apartheid state had never quite had the moral authority globally, except perhaps for a few holdouts in the West, the 1980s saw the almost complete loss of respectability, credibility and even a semblance of authority at home – other than what could be meted out through the barrel of a gun.
During the run-up to the 1994 election the country faced a civil war as the apartheid government helped foment violence in killing fields across the country.
The Inkathagate scandal, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed the extent of this, and of other efforts to discredit people who opposed apartheid.
In the early 1990s, the civil war, such as it may have been, was evident mainly in violent clashes between the ANC and Inkatha.
One thing that remains clear was the role of the apartheid state, which the Baltimore Sun described succinctly in 1991 in the following way:
“While the government was preparing to negotiate the nation’s future with the then outlawed African National Congress, it was also subsidising the rival Inkatha movement. The $700,000 in subsidies to which law and order minister Adriaan Vlok admits is the smoking gun of South Africa’s biggest scandal.” Back to the future.
The collapse that SA faced during the last years of Zuma’s presidency was different because it occurred during the democratic era.
Things were supposed to be better.
It was also different because we can assume that Zuma governed by consent of the majority of governed.
Only after his departure did a more complete picture emerge of how far Zuma and his loyalists had pushed the country.
Having almost completely taken over most organs of state and the public sector, Zuma’s people had three key institutions in their sights: the National Treasury, the SA Reserve Bank and Sars.
What is becoming clearer is that a takeover of the Treasury was the second part of a move to completely raid the state’s finances.
The Reserve Bank and Sars were the other targets.
The takeover of Sars was a first step, the National Treasury was the second and the Reserve Bank third, although it was not meant to be sequential. The takeover was meant to proceed simultaneously, so to speak.
The Reserve Bank remains clean, uncaptured and, for what it’s worth, out of the clutches of nativism and populism. The leadership team led by Lesetja Kganyago is what holds the bank together.
Describing the governor of the Reserve Bank, the Banking Association of South African said, “Kganyago has shown that rare trait among civil servants these days – courage and a willingness to fight for the integrity of the institution he represents ... He is a beacon of strength and stability in government. We need more of this, in our central bank, National Treasury and right across the public sector.”
The Treasury is battling serious headwinds.
The EFF, Numsa and a smattering of social movements and intellectuals would, themselves, take over the Treasury – if only to soothe their ideological sensibilities.
They might not raid the fiscus, perhaps not as flagrantly as Zuma and his people, but they would certainly turn the Treasury into something other than what it is, or has been for the past 10 to 15 years.
During the presidencies of Nelson Mandela and of Thabo Mbeki the three institutions became highly professional, sophisticated with state of the art practices, technology and oversight.
The country’s revenue collection service, budgetary process and financial management were lauded as world-leading.
The people responsible for creating these institutions were respected and invited to serve on the boards of some of the world’s most important global institutions.
Then came the calamitous rise of nativists, populists.
Here we are, then, having barely survived a catastrophic collapse. We have to keep thinking that all will be well, if we can only make it past the next election.