PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - There he was – Warren Goldstein, South Africa’s chief rabbi – standing in St. Albans Cathedral in the center of Pretoria, flanked by well-known anti-apartheid struggle luminaries and politicians. And, during the rest of the morning, other well-known politicians and activists came into the cathedral to show their solidarity.
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Though a member of the National Religious Leaders Forum, Goldstein generally avoids local politics, sticking to Jewish religious issues and Zionism.
Yet early on Wednesday morning the chief rabbi said to people in the church: “This is a titanic fight between good and evil. We must fight corruption and state capture. This is a struggle for accountability and justice. ‘Justice, justice thou shalt pursue.'”
Why were Goldstein and many other people there – at what was called the Save South Africa campaign?
Among those sitting with Goldstein were Cheryl Carolus, a former African National Congress deputy secretary-general, and Sipho Pityana, an ANC “stalwart,” and among those who dropped in during the day included former government minister and anti-apartheid detainee, Barbara Hogan, General Bantu Holomisa of the United Democratic Movement, Congress of the People leader Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota, and ANC Gauteng chairman Paul Mashatile.
It would be classic understatement to write that all of them, as well as the people of South Africa and especially its media, politicians, and chattering classes, were in a state of huge excitement that morning – the more correct phrase would be “in a state of agitation, frenzy and anticipation."
At the North Gauteng high court, three judges, including the Gauteng Judge President Dunstan Mlambo, were about to embark on day two of considering whether four political parties should be allowed to argue against an attempt by President Jacob Zuma to ban publication of a report by the former Public Protector (PP), Thuli Madonsela.
The report dealt with so-called “state capture”: the siphoning off of massive amounts of state monies, especially from state-owned enterprises (SOEs), such as the national airline, by outsiders able to do so through their alleged “relationships” with Zuma, his son Duduzane, and various alleged “cronies” of Zuma’s, such as Minister of Traditional Affairs Des van Rooyen and Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane.
The “outsiders” were alleged to be “the Guptas,” an Indian-South African business family whose most notable members are the brothers Ajay, Atul, and Rajesh “Tony” Gupta.
The Guptas were alleged to have played a role in Zuma summarily firing the then Minister of Finance, Nhlanhla Nene, on 9 December 2015 – apparently because the minister was refusing to allow promiscuous spending, especially at the country’s SOEs, which are in dire financial shape.
Having dumped Nene, Zuma then appointed Van Rooyen as the new minister on 10 December. In one day, R150-billion ($11, 25-billion) was wiped off the value of bank shares on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and the rand plummeted to its lowest-level ever.
Such was the fury and incredulity expressed by hastily-organized business delegations and others, Zuma was forced to reverse his decision on 13 December. Former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, who held the post from 2009-14, was re-appointed. (Van Rooyen is thus often referred to in the media as “the weekend special,” a term which has sexual connotations in South Africa.)
Then, at the end of August this year, Shaun Abrahams, the new National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) – the equivalent of SA’s attorney-general – announced he would charge Gordhan with corruption, for having some years previously granted a senior colleague early retirement and then re-hiring him as a contractor.
The charges were allegedly skimpy, related to labor law (i.e. not criminal), the matter was old, and above all the matter could have been settled in quiet discussion with Gordhan. Leading business people, especially the leaders of the major investment houses and banks, and leaders of the legal fraternity again publicly pronounced themselves furious – and said that Zuma, his cronies and the Guptas were once again doing their best to get their hands on the national purse and thereby destroying the economy, already on the cusp of being downgraded to “junk status” by the world’s ratings agencies.
Besides the court case related to the PP’s report, Gordhan was also due to appear in court on Wednesday. So concerned citizens from all over South Africa – referred to as “civil society” – together with all the opposition political parties, as well as numerous ANC veterans, arranged the Save South Africa campaign.
Then, three days ago, Abrahams unaccountably dropped the charges. This only seemed to add fire to the national fury. In addition, the Economic Freedom Fighters, led by their commander-in-chief Julius Malema, had on Tuesday night announced that – police permit or not – they would be sleeping in Church Square, Pretoria city’s holy-of-holies with the statue of the late Boer leader and President of the South African Republic, Paul Kruger, at its center, and would be taking over the city on Wednesday while waiting to hear about the state capture case.
And everyone, even some of the more restrained speakers at the Save South Africa campaign, was saying that Zuma had to fall. The time had come.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday night, Zuma apparently realized from the judges’ attitude that he might become personally liable for the costs of the proposed ban, just as had happened with the case relating to the refurbishment of his private home.
By 11 A.M. on Wednesday, the crowds and the Save South Africa campaigners had gotten the news. Zuma had withdrawn his application and Judge Mlambo ruled the PP’s report had to be made public by 5 P.M.
Will Zuma fall? Many have said before that he will – and he is still there.
Madonsela’s report does not, alas, have a smoking gun. She names many names and casts many aspersions.
But she was unable to complete the report properly before her time in office ran out and her main recommendation is that a judicial commission of inquiry be established. However, she insists that the judge heading it not be appointed by the state president, as is usually the case, but by the Chief Justice.
Jeremy Gordin is a veteran journalist and newspaper publisher who wrote Zuma: A Biography, 2008, rev. 2010.