Finance minister Nhlanhla Nene at the Zondo state capture inquiry in Johannesburg, October 3 2018. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO
Finance minister Nhlanhla Nene at the Zondo state capture inquiry in Johannesburg, October 3 2018. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

Life, as we all know, is seldom a case of binaries.  Decisions are rarely purely one or the other.

The case of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene presents South Africans with an impossible dilemma. There were plenty of ministers in former president Jacob Zuma’s administration who were dedicated converts to the cause of state capture. There are some, not many, who were in opposition.  Nene, however, seems to present a difficult, or nuanced case of someone who might have played along to an extent, and resisted in important respects, but subsequently lied about his involvement. What does President Cyril Ramaphosa do now?

The argument in favour of firing Nene is strong. It would be different if he were a minister in a minor department with limited powers — but he is  finance minister, a post of immense responsibility and trust.  In our system, whoever holds this office is the bearer of the keys to the public purse. The government, as a whole, might decide how to spend their budgets, but it is the finance minister who determines how large those budgets should be.

The arguments against firing Nene are more diverse and complicated. There is a simple argument that if what Nene did was the standard, then half the cabinet should be shown the door.

In this sense, the finance minister acts in opposition to his or her colleagues, who will all naturally want larger budgets. Notionally and constitutionally, the cabinet and the government decide how the budget is to be spent. However, the persuasive and investigative power of the Treasury is crucial, which is why it is the finance minister, not the president, who presents the budget. It’s a lonely and difficult job. Consequently, issues of integrity weigh heavier in the case of a minister of finance.

The arguments against firing Nene are more diverse and complicated. There is a simple argument that if what Nene did was the standard, then half the cabinet should be shown the door long before he is asked to step down. Just to take one example: home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba not only met the Guptas on numerous occasions, but oversaw the granting of their citizenship, overruling his own department. By comparison, on the current evidence, Nene did not bend the rules to accommodate their interests, although there is some doubt about whether we know everything that happened.

What we do know is that on one crucial issue, Nene was rock solid. Zuma was determined to spend truly stupendous amounts of money to buy nuclear power plants from Russia. Nene stood firm, not only against Zuma but also several other ministers. It is to Nene that South Africans owe the remaining integrity of SA’s fiscal position, as diminished as it is.

There is a different argument in favour of Nene; his response to the revelations has been more honest and contrite than we have heard from any other member of cabinet. Given what we know now, it seems likely that many others were also in the Gupta circle, and they have decided to try and stay under the radar. Nene’s response has been responsible, touching and heartfelt. To get rid of him would be a terrible shame.

There is also a third way, and that is rooted not in making moral choices but from realpolitik. Ramaphosa’s problem is that as much as Nene is compromised, so is he. To accept Nene’s offer of resignation, would be, in a sense, an act of hypocrisy. Ramaphosa’s function, since getting into office, has been to try to create unity within a political party busy tearing itself apart.

If he is to perform this function effectively, laying down the law now would be morally correct but functionally difficult. It is also not in his character to be declarative and polarising. Ramaphosa’s main job between now and the election is to hold the ANC together, and deliver to the party a victory. If he can achieve that, his power within the party goes from being persuasive to being authoritative. Then the sword can be wielded with meaning.

In this sense, the arguments for and against Nene are secondary. Ramaphosa might surprise us all and start laying down the law now, but it seems more likely he will bide his time, and he may even be right to do so.