Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.  Picture: BLOOMBERG/WALDO SWIEGERS
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. Picture: BLOOMBERG/WALDO SWIEGERS

A year after President Jacob Zuma began feuding with Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan over control of the nation’s purse strings, the conflict appears to be coming to a head.

When he presents his annual budget in Parliament on Wednesday, Gordhan will seek to keep state spending in check and fend off a junk credit rating. Zuma, meanwhile, wants to spend billions of rand on new nuclear plants and embark on "radical economic transformation" to target yawning racial inequality and widespread poverty.

The two men have scrapped over the management of state companies and the South African Revenue Service (SARS) as well as a decision by the country’s biggest banks to close accounts of companies controlled by members of the Gupta family, who are in business with the president’s son. Speculation that Gordhan is on the verge of being fired has been fuelled by an announcement that the ANC will install Brian Molefe, former Eskom CEO, as an MP, easing the way for Zuma to name him to his Cabinet.

"Gordhan is under a lot of political pressure" and could be replaced in "a matter of months," said Mzukisi Qobo, an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg and co-author of The Fall of the ANC: What Next.

"The budget is a major battleground for Gordhan and the Treasury. He doesn’t want the economy to implode under his watch."

Economic conspiracy

Zuma tapped Gordhan as finance minister in December 2015 after his decision to install a little-known MP to replace the respected Nhlanhla Nene pummeled bonds and the rand and spurred ANC and business leaders to plead with him to reconsider. S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings endorsed Gordhan’s economic stewardship in December by keeping their investment-grade ratings on the nation’s debt. But they warned that political turmoil, low growth and any budget-target slippage would heighten the risk of a downgrade.

 Firing Gordhan would have "a very negative market effect", said John Ashbourne, an economist at Capital Economics in London. "To sack one respected finance minister may be regarded as a misfortune. Sacking two looks like a conspiracy against the economy."

Zuma, who’s due to step down as ANC leader in December and as president of the country in 2019, denies he is at war with his finance chief or that he intends dismissing him.

Police investigation

Yet Zuma has said a police investigation into allegations that Gordhan oversaw the establishment of an illicit investigative unit when he headed SARS, which has dragged on for more than a year, must run its course. He also rebuffed his request to fire tax chief Tom Moyane for insubordination.

And while Gordhan has asked the High Court to order that he cannot intervene in the banks’ decision to shut the accounts operated by the Gupta-controlled companies after an anti-money-laundering unit implicated them in irregular transactions, Zuma suggested the lenders may have been guilty of collusion.

The National Treasury said last week that disinformation was being circulated to discredit its leadership before the budget. Two days later, the ANC Youth League said Gordhan had failed to exercise proper oversight over more than a dozen banks accused by an antitrust regulator of having rigged foreign-currency trades, and called for him to be held accountable.

Cabinet reshuffle

Local newspapers have speculated that a Cabinet reshuffle is imminent and that Zuma may tap Molefe to replace either Gordhan or his deputy Mcebisi Jonas, who last year accused the Guptas of offering him the finance ministry post in exchange for business concessions. The family denies the allegation.

Molefe resigned as the head of state power company Eskom in November last year after the public protector indicated he may have given the Guptas preferential treatment by awarding them coal-supply contracts. Molefe, the Guptas and Eskom all deny wrongdoing.

While it was clear Molefe had been earmarked for a senior government post, Gordhan had proved his staying power and Zuma’s authority was waning as his term drew to a close, said Dirk Kotze, a politics professor at the University of SA.

"President Zuma will think more than twice before he kicks out Gordhan and replaces him with Brian Molefe," Kotze said. "There is a growing sense in the ANC that they don’t want to be seen as ridiculous and they don’t want to support people who are almost a laughing stock."

Bloomberg

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