Why Nene should have resigned before he was axed | Fin24

Why Nene should have resigned before he was axed

Dec 10 2015 09:02
Mills Soko

Johannesburg - It has been a terrible year for the South African economy. South Africa’s poor economic performance is partly a product of external factors.

However, it is also largely a consequence of domestic factors that have been compounded by poor political leadership.

The incompetence of the Zuma administration has taken a heavy toll on the local economy. And, without a clear plan to resolve our economic troubles, they are likely to get worse. 

There is only one public institution that can prevent SA from experiencing a complete economic catastrophe – the National Treasury.

Yet this is the institution that has been subjected to the most intense political pressure in recent months.

And, as the saga of South African Airways (SAA) under the appalling leadership of Dudu Myeni has shown, it is also an institution that has not enjoyed protection from the country’s political leadership, notably President Jacob Zuma.

It is common cause that one of the reasons former minister of finance Trevor Manuel was a successful custodian of South African public finances had to do with the fact that he enjoyed the protection of his boss, Thabo Mbeki.

Mbeki used his political and constitutional powers to shield the National Treasury from undue political influence.

Manuel, together with his predecessors Derek Keys and Chris Liebenberg, also benefitted from political protection from former president Nelson Mandela.

Judging by the contemptuous manner in which Myeni has dealt with the National Treasury, Zuma has thrown finance minister Nhlanhla Nene to the wolves.

Nene is involved in a battle he will never win. He is a superb public servant but he lacks political clout within the ANC and has the misfortune of having to continuously fend off economically illiterate and rapacious political predators.

He has correctly stood up to Myeni: no self-respecting finance minister should countenance the kind of flagrant abuse of public funds that has become the norm at SAA.

But in confronting Myeni he is also challenging powerful political interests that back her.

Without Zuma’s backing, Nene will eventually lose the fight to contain the financial bleeding and governance chaos at SAA.

SAA is a major headache for the National Treasury, but it pales into insignificance when compared with the proposed nuclear build programme, whose affordability Nene says “needs to be thoroughly debated”. ?

Given the precarious state of the country’s public finances, coupled with growing political pressure on the National Treasury to spend money it does not have, Nene’s already invidious position will become increasingly unbearable.

As the 2016 local government elections approach, the clamour for more spending to appease a restive electorate will grow.

Although Nene knows that the current path of government profligacy will result in disastrous economic consequences, he is politically vulnerable.

The political forces ranged against the National Treasury are very powerful and, without the protection of the country’s head of state, Nene and his officials will ultimately succumb to political pressure in the same ways as other public institutions, such as the South African Revenue Service (Sars) and the National Prosecuting Authority, did.

Given the toxic political milieu in which he is operating, Nene faces the prospect of becoming the first post-apartheid finance minister to be forced out of office.

If that did happen, he would join a string of public officials who were discarded for either failing to toe the line, or for being seen as a stumbling block to the machinations of those with undefined political agendas.

There’s only one way in which Nene can avert damage to his stellar political career. He must jump before he is pushed.

He must resign on his terms not only to preserve his professional integrity, but also to draw public attention to the atrocious conditions he and his officials have had to do their jobs.

The financial markets would not take kindly to such a move, but they will recover in time.

Such a move would also lead to Nene’s political isolation, but it would also hopefully focus the ANC’s attention on the grave threats facing our country’s most prized public institution.

Nene is an educated and capable politician and he would thrive in the private sector.

* This article went to print for the 17 December 2015 edition of finweek, as President Jacob Zuma made the announcement of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene's redeployment. 

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