Malusi Gigaba. Picture: BLOOMBERG / WALDO SWIEGERS
Malusi Gigaba. Picture: BLOOMBERG / WALDO SWIEGERS

Malusi Gigaba is the kind of man who fell in love with himself at an early age and has remained faithful ever since. He clearly has an excellent tailor, an educated instinct for the cameras, and a marvellous relationship with the mirror.

Of course, narcissism is not necessarily a liability in politics. It may even be a prerequisite. Think Tony Blair; George W Bush; Vladimir Putin or Napoleon Bonaparte.

It’s a trait that is entirely forgivable, as long as it is outweighed by other qualities. Gigaba has come across as diligent, sincere and dedicated. He is smooth and articulate, and can think on his feet. His early comments after he was made finance minister suggested he had immediately grasped the importance of treasury, and was aware it required more gravitas than any other government position (including Gigaba’s previous portfolios — home affairs and public enterprises).

Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

So, he made reassuring noises about fiscal discipline and — most soothingly for the business community — interpreted the slogan of "radical economic transformation" as more about present policy and plain economic growth. The 45-year-old son of a reverend seemed genuinely concerned about restoring trust between government and business, repairing the damage done by the cabinet reshuffle, of which he was a beneficiary.

Though young, he has been a full minister for the past seven years, and has come to be regarded as a senior man in both government and the ANC — despite evident failures in his previous jobs.

But if those were the early days of his stint as finance minister, that hard-won credibility has been steadily leaking away in the past week.

Gigaba’s announcement of an unconditional R2.3bn bailout for SA Airways (SAA) represented the exact opposite of what Gigaba has been saying in his bid to stave off further credit downgrades: which is that treasury will stick to existing fiscal discipline and expenditure plans.

This payment does not help SAA’s balance sheet — the Democratic Alliance says it is losing hundreds of millions of rand a month — but only pays off a debt to a bank, thus avoiding a default. More SAA debts will mature in the next few months, and it obviously has no money to pay those off either. Gigaba will be expected (or more likely, instructed) to play Father Christmas again.

Having agreed to pay, he bristled with indignation in recent days, implying that while he couldn’t avoid the bailout, he now intends to fix things. The country is "sick and tired" of supporting the airline‚ he said, adding that "it’s been going on for far too long". Fine words.

But there is less to Malusi Gigaba than meets the eye. His memory is short. The SAA "dilemma" — huge losses, appalling governance — has been grotesquely evident for more than a decade. As public enterprises minister between 2010 and 2014, he did nothing to "resolve" it when he had ample opportunity.

His inaction frustrated Pravin Gordhan, who eventually insisted that SAA report to treasury, not Gigaba.

Now, Gigaba is making soothing noises about a new SAA board and CEO being in place by August, and bringing in aviation experts. Only, you’ve heard it before.

But what is disturbing about Gigaba is that he seems to believe everything he says. He isn’t lying — he really is outraged, and seems to have truly forgotten he was partly responsible for this mess.

Gigaba’s earnest conviction is not that of your normal devious politician. It is, however, a malady evident elsewhere in the ANC: confronted with evidence of rot, many party leaders have deluded themselves that it’s only an illusion. The trick is how you respond when reality catches up.

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