WEF Africa 2017 was a story of foreign investors, growth and grey business suits. It also held the tale of two finance ministers. Rarely have the economic politics of the host nation loomed so large over one conference.
The reshuffling of steady-as-she-goes Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan for young, untested, Malusi Gigaba prompted a downgrade to junk status for South Africa and reverberated throughout the conference in Durban.
“I am young, I have energy for days,” says the younger of the two as he strides confidently down the walkway. Forty-five-year-old Gigaba almost shines when you look at him, like has been varnished. He has his skinny suits made for him – for about $1,600 a pop – by Johannesburg designer Linda Makhanya and wears snazzy glasses. He may have a long way to go to become the greatest finance minister South Africa ever had, but is certainly the most snappily dressed from day one.
Gigaba, fresh from an investment roadshow to New York, Washington and Boston, faces another long haul to drag South Africa clear of damaging junk status and economic decay that will drive capital away from the country.
“He is a bright guy, give him a chance,” says Maria Ramos, the CEO of Barclays Africa.
The man himself bridles at the suggestion that he is too inexperienced for the job. He says, with 13 years under his belt, he is one of the most experienced in cabinet who served in the economic cluster when public enterprises minister.
“I think as soon as he can be on top of the numbers and speak the language of the numbers he will be able to work with a very good team at Treasury,” says Lesetja Kganyago, the Governor of the South African Reserve Bank.
It is Gigaba’s difficult job to stave off another downgrade by the ratings agencies, which could come in a matter of weeks, restore confidence, promote investment and create what he calls inclusive growth – fashionable buzz words in cabinet right now – at a time when any kind of growth would be welcome.
“You need to change the patterns or structures of ownership, of the South African economy, so that black people don’t become only employees and get limited to being a middle class, but you create asset owners,” he says.
Nationalization – a word that sends foreign investors running for the hills – is off the table for now.
“You don’t nationalize shrinking economic sectors in a shrinking economy. We are not talking about that. The ANC itself, as the ruling party, has been clear on that; South Africa is a mixed economy.”
With corruption allegations swirling around government, the new minister’s public position on it could be seen as comforting.
“If we allow corruption to become rampant it actually creates a trust deficit between the public representatives as well as the public. And it makes it difficult for us when we have to take tough decisions to earn loyalty and support from the public. And so I am committed in doing everything that we have to do and can to fight corruption and ensure that we are running a clean country.”
Also at WEF Africa was the more soberly dressed Gordhan who looked a little down and had every right to be. He had worked tirelessly for 14 months to put the economy back on to an even keel before being dragged back from an investment roadshow in London to be reshuffled ruthlessly; he found out he had been fired in the newspapers.
“What has happened has happened we can’t mourn over those things. There could have been a more dignified way in which some of those ways could have been done and it was not just me, many colleagues were part of this process as well and if we begin to lose our sense of dignity and decorum that is not a very good sign,” he says.
It did not rob him of all hope.
“We have had assurances that the policy framework that the government has adopted will remain in place. The world of course is still an uncertain place and whilst there were still green shoots in our economy and globally there is an element of uncertainty that come in either of geo-politics on the one hand or domestic politics and economics on the other hand as well. I am not apprehensive, I am hopeful but hope must be based on some real actions that are taken,” says Gordhan.
“We have to all focus our attention on our best to get the country going, not in the interest of a few individuals, but in the interest of the 50 million people we are here to serve.”
Gordhan had a rough ride as finance minister after climbing back into the saddle in December 2015 following a clumsy reshuffle that saw three finance ministers in four days. He spent most of his second stint in the shadow of the sack or trumped up charges in court.
Even outside cabinet he was under unfriendly fire. Hotheads from the ANC youth league heckled him at a memorial service – yes, I said memorial service – for party stalwart Ahmed Kathrada in Durban. Catcalls from youths for a man who spent the best part of a year in solitary confinement for their freedom to do so.
“I think if you lack a sense of history, if the younger people are not educated about the past and don’t wish to be educated. Thirdly if you practice the politics of renting a crowd you will end up with that sort of denigratory behavior and you have to just forgive them for their ignorance,” says Gordhan before giving a warning.
“Many of us have said that if you carry on at the current rate then the ANC will lose the 2019 elections and we don’t want that to happen.”
A dignified political epitaph for a man likely to end nearly half a century of fighting the good fight by quitting politics. He says he will discuss this with his family and surely they’ve had enough by now.
As for Gigaba; people can often become what the times demand. Many expect him to do what he is told, but maybe the unexpected power bestowed upon him could see him make landmark decisions for the good of the economy with insight as sharp as his tailored suits. If only.