South Africa: Zuma Playing 'Russian Roulette' With Economy, Says Maimane

Pravin Gordhan
South Africa's Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan during a press conference in Sandton, near Johannesburg, March 14. Gordhan has been summoned by the country's elite police unit in what has been interpreted as a power struggle with President Jacob Zuma. Siphiwe Sibeko/File Photo/Reuters

South African opposition leader Mmusi Maimane has told Newsweek that Jacob Zuma is "playing Russian roulette" with the country's economy as an ongoing row between the Treasury and South Africa's elite police unit threatens to blow up.

The police unit—known as the Hawks—has ordered Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan to attend its offices Thursday to give a "warning statement." The request was in relation to allegations that Gordhan oversaw the creation of a rogue spy unit during his time as head of the country's tax agency, the South African Revenue Service (SARS), between 1999 and 2009.

In a statement issued by the Treasury Wednesday, Gordhan said that he did not intend to present himself to the Hawks and rejected the allegations as "wholly unfounded." The Hawks also accused Gordhan of approving the early retirement of a deputy commissioner, Ivan Pillay, with SARS allegedly paying an early retirement penalty allegedly in contravention of employment law, before later rehiring the same person.

The row has been interpreted in South Africa as part of a political tug-of-war between Zuma and Gordhan, who was appointed for his second term as finance minister in December 2015 after Zuma fired the previous incumbent Nhlanhla Nene and replaced him with the inexperienced David van Rooyen, who lasted less than a week in post. Gordhan has opposed Zuma on key issues, including plans backed by the president to build several nuclear power stations via Russian companies at a cost of around $60 billion, according to the BBC .

Maimane, the leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA)—which seized control of key urban areas from the African National Congress (ANC) in recent local government elections—says that the pursuit of Gordhan is further evidence that the ANC "has long forgotten about the principle of governing for the people" and is focused exclusively on what Maimane calls "Project Zuma or Zuma Inc."

"Since the firing of Nhlanhla Nene in December, it was always about Zuma's ability to capture the Treasury, the last institution that he can't get ahold of with ease," says Maimane, in an interview with Newsweek Thursday. "He's now pursued the firing of Pravin Gordhan using whatever means possible… It's a very dangerous [situation]."

South Africa's economy is already on a precipice—it contracted by 1.2 percent in the first quarter of 2016, and the country will technically be in recession if it continues to contract when figures are next announced in September. The South African rand fell by nearly 3 percent when reports emerged Tuesday that Gordhan would be summoned to report to the Hawks before partially rebounding.

Mmusi Maimane
South Africa's opposition leader Mmusi Maimane speaks during a media briefing in Sandton, August 17. Maimane has accused President Zuma of being "dangerous" for the country's economy. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Maimane says that the nuclear power stations and other projects are "simply outside South Africa's financial reserves" and that Zuma's alleged attempt to capture the Treasury must be stopped. "We've got to be adamant in making sure that the whole prosecution [of Gordhan] doesn't succeed, otherwise it will create more problems for South Africa," says Maimane.

For his part, Zuma has publicly denied that the Hawks's pursuit of Gordhan is politically motivated. "President Jacob Zuma wishes to express his full support and confidence in the minister of finance and emphasizes the fact that the minister has not been found guilty of any wrongdoing," said a statement issued by the presidency Thursday. It added that Zuma "does not have powers to stop any investigations" and called speculation linking the case to the government "false and misleading."

The row between Gordhan and the Hawks has been bubbling for several months. In documents released along with the Treasury statement Wednesday, Gordhan explained that he had already responded to the Hawks's questions regarding his time at SARS and that he had been assured by the head of the unit, General Berning Ntlemeza, that he was not a suspect in the investigation. "I have a job to do in a difficult economic environment and serve South Africa as best I can. Let me do my job," Gordhan concluded in the Treasury statement.

It comes at a difficult time for the ANC, which suffered its worst election result since the end of apartheid in 1994 in a national vote held on August 3. Despite taking more than 50 percent of the vote, the ANC yielded control of areas including the economic hub Johannesburg, the administrative capital Pretoria and the symbolic Nelson Mandela Bay, with the DA profiting from the ruling party's losses in many areas.

The case against Gordhan has raised the ire of civil society and legal experts including human rights lawyer George Bizos—who fought against apartheid and defended Nelson Mandela—said Thursday that he was "concerned about the future of justice and law in South Africa."

The issue has been dubbed #SarsWars on social media, with South Africans flocking to the defense of Gordhan.