Pravin Gordhan, formerly the commissioner of the SA Revenue Service and twice minister of finance, now the Minister of Public Enterprises, has been systematically demonised as corrupt, incompetent and the main reason for Eskom’s descent into dysfunction.
His demonisation has been driven mainly, although not exclusively, by remnants of the state capture project inside government and the ANC, finding common cause with those ejected from the state and parastatals, with many in the orbit of Julius Malema’s EFF.
It has been driven by his own “comrades” in Cabinet and the party, who grew fat off the criminal project of the previous government and by the normalisation of disgraced figures like Matshela Koko.
A big driver of this demonisation project has been racism, with elements in the ANC, EFF and outside official structures referencing his Indian heritage as a way to attack him and his line manager, President Cyril Ramaphosa, with his second name becoming a way to denigrate and mock him.
Remember Malema and the EFF’s assault on Gordhan outside the Zondo commission in October 2018, and the way in which the party has targeted Indians and specifically those working at National Treasury, the state capture project’s grand prize.
Another way in which the groundswell against Gordhan was engineered was through fake news.
Discredited former Eskom executives Matshela Koko (the guy who lied on Carte Blanche) and cryin’ Brian Molefe have pushed a specific narrative on social media about Eskom’s woes, while whitewashing their own complicity in the utiliy’s imminent collapse.
Koko has even been given a platform as an “independent energy expert” in the media, while he must still answer for the range of allegations about corruption and mismanagement.
The EFF have also played a major part in attempts to discredit Gordhan.
They have roped in a very willing Public Protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, to launch a series of investigations against him, while claiming that Gordhan has been spiriting money out of the country into a bank account in Canada, a charge made without proof and roundly disproven, but swallowed nonetheless as the whole truth in many quarters.
But it has been the entrenched, metastasizing and multi-headed hydra of state capture that has been Gordhan’s biggest undoing. The fightback against the reforms, driven largely by Gordhan, has been aggressive and vindictive. The “deep captured state” has been relentless in its resistance, and nowhere more so than in Eskom, with its layer upon layer of managers.
There is no doubt that more could have been done to right-size and repair Eskom.
It’s been a year since the restructuring of the company was first mooted and more than a year since Gordhan and government capitulated to Eskom unions and gave employees an inflation-linked salary increase.
And there’s also no doubt that Ramaphosa’s limp-wristed leadership has weakened Gordhan’s position inside the party.
But there’s also no doubt that Eskom has over the years been run into the ground, with the elaborate networks of patronage that flourished under the leadership of former president Jacob Zuma and his public enterprises minister Malusi Gigaba fighting to stay alive, fighting against reforms and fighting to retain access to state resources.
Inside Eskom there are middle and senior managers who remain loyal to the capture project. They obstruct and sabotage and they obfuscate and stall. And this is replicated elsewhere in the state.
If Gordhan is (or was ever going) to succeed he must break with party dogma and stigma and do whatever is needed to stabilise and save Eskom, including breaking up and selling the company to private investors.
That has been Gordhan’s challenge. To navigate the criminal environment that state and party has become while simultaneously trying to import a semblance of good governance and control in a gargantuan state-owned company where corruption and excess have been hardwired into the grid.
And it seems that even for Gordhan, who built SARS and defended National Treasury to the last, it is an impossible task.
The assault on Gordhan seems to be working.