In December 2015, when then president Jacob Zuma appointed Des Van Rooyen as finance minister in an extraordinary weekend, the world of politics and business headed for a tense showdown. The appointment created anxiety in the business world not only over Van Rooyen’s suitability as an individual, but also over what his appointment was meant to achieve.

The country’s energy crisis — a matter dating back to 2008 — had led to suggestions that nuclear power was the solution. The problem, according to the National Treasury, was that the country simply could not afford it. The man tasked with delivering that message to a president and cabinet members who did not wish to hear it was incumbent finance minister Nhlanhla Nene — the man Van Rooyen was to replace...

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