Former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene. Picture: REUTERS
Former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene. Picture: REUTERS

SA has found itself trying to deal with a change in the leadership in the finance ministry yet again this week.

Nhlanhla Nene’s testimony at the Zondo commission of inquiry, in which he admitted to multiple visits to the Gupta compound, created a new crisis for the Ramaphosa administration. Having risen to power on a commitment to weed out corruption and lead a process of renewal within the ANC, Nene’s confession and public apology was a political disaster that required Ramaphosa to shuffle his house of cards far sooner than he would have liked.

While the make-up of the cabinet has been subject to debate since February, with its motley crew of the compromised and the ineffective, Ramaphosa had at least managed to put his preferred candidates into the critical ministries. By bringing Nene back from the political exile he had been banished to by Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa had found a way to balance his political pressures and placate multiple stakeholders with the more pervasive need to build a functional cabinet. Remarkably, he evidently failed to pose the Gupta question to Nene.

While the make-up of the cabinet has been subject to debate since February, with its motley crew of the compromised and the ineffective, Ramaphosa had at least managed to put his preferred candidates into the critical ministries

The strange thing about this omission is that when Nene was dismissed from the cabinet in 2015, the theory was that the Guptas were behind the move. Naturally the corollary to that theory was that before his dismissal Nene would have had engagements with the Guptas that convinced them he was not the right person to run the National Treasury. It is therefore difficult to imagine how Ramaphosa missed the opportunity to engage on this issue prior to reinstating Nene to the cabinet.

Even more surprisingly, Nene himself evidently failed to mention this fact. Given that the essence of state capture centres on the question whether particular individuals or families enjoy greater proximity to decision-makers than is usual, the questions around Nene’s son and his approaches to the Public Investment Corporation when Nene was in the chair made his position untenable.

Nene’s testimony also raised critical issues regarding the agency of politicians. In his words, ministers in the cabinet serve at the pleasure of the president and are always on a 24-hour rather than five-year employment contract. The consequence is the lack of autonomy in decision-making that led us to the brink of a nuclear deal.

The hard truth is that on the day that Nene was fired, the entire cabinet had agreed to the nuclear deal. His objections were premised on the basis of incorrect costings and a preference for a phased-in approach rather than the full-scale implementation preferred by then-president Zuma.

As we reflect on the lost decade in the SA economy, we have to acknowledge that the decline in state capacity needs to be tackled. This decline was precipitated by the fact that the lack of job security to which politicians are subjected has rapidly crept into the civil service too. The multiple shuffles of directors-general and CEOs at state entities during the Zuma administration is a classic example.

As Ramaphosa leads a process of renewal and fixing the economy, it is critical for him to restore capacity in the state. The problem is that the precedents that have been set; suspensions and dismissals of competent civil servants who do not enjoy the support of their political principals are now well entrenched. If the ANC’s “renewal” message is to gain traction, we need to start seeing a change in these patterns.

The essence of the #ThumaMina message is that it appeals to citizens of all persuasions to raise their hands and offer to help fix the country. Removing the threat of political interference would go a long way towards the realisation of this ideal.

• Sithole (@coruscakhaya) is a chartered accountant, academic and activist.