Opinion

Gordhan and Jonas weren’t scared to speak in public — just a pity some in the audience refused to engage

Most politicians choose to speak at carefully choreographed events where there is no opportunity to interact with those whose lives they preside over

30 July 2017 - 00:02

Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas were asking for trouble on Wednesday. The former minister and deputy minister of finance participated in a seminar on state capture, white monopoly capital and radical economic transformation at the University of Johannesburg and faced hostility from some students in the audience.
You need to be a sucker for punishment to be a politician who tries to debate these issues in an open forum, particularly at a university and in the presence of TV cameras.
The ANC tried to navigate these matters at its recent national policy conference, behind closed doors, and it did not go so well. Members could not reach consensus on how to deal with them and, depending on who you speak to, there are different interpretations on the outcome of the economic policy debates.
On state capture, the ANC could not confront the source of the problem, or those in their ranks who sold their souls to the Gupta brothers. The ANC merely expressed support for the establishment of a judicial commission of inquiry, and said the law-enforcement agencies should deal with allegations of criminality.
So if the ANC is still wrestling internally with these matters, imagine trying to debate them in front of a diverse audience that includes restless students whose future could depend on how the government and society deal with these issues.
Gordhan and Jonas took on the challenge.
During their time in the finance ministry, they maintained a moderate stance on fiscal policy and aimed to control government spending.
There was opposition to this, including from within the ANC and the government, and they were blamed for restraining their colleagues from splashing out more than they already do.
It was also convenient to blame them for issues that were not even ANC or government policy — such as making funding available for free education across the board or nationalising the banks.Gordhan and Jonas were ultimately fired by President Jacob Zuma because they were impediments to his friends the Guptas, who wanted uninhibited access to the National Treasury and the powers to control the country's financial institutions.
Gordhan and Jonas have used their experience and knowledge to create greater awareness about the hijacking of the state and the dangers of allowing the Gupta contagion to spread.
But not everyone supports them. The ANC wants them to be "loyal and disciplined cadres" who sit quietly and do as they are told.
Some of their comrades resent that they are respected and trusted, and that there was public outrage at their firing.
ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe advised the media to stop reporting favourably about Gordhan as this was "hurting" him.
The Gupta proxies, who ran concerted campaigns to discredit Gordhan and Jonas as defenders of "white monopoly capital", want them banished to the political wilderness.
While former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, who was also sacrificed at the altar of the Gupta overlords, did disappear quietly, Gordhan and Jonas refuse to do so. By explaining, as they did on Wednesday, the nature and dangers of the state capture beast, they continue to mobilise resistance against it.
The success of the state capture project was not only the billions of rands that the Gupta network extracted through crooked deals, but the fact that its propaganda mission found resonance and altered the perspectives among some people.
Some people at the UJ event were convinced that Gordhan and Jonas were there to defend "white monopoly capital" and jeered at them and rebuffed what they had to say. The opportunity for robust debate was lost in the commotion.
How, then, does the country grapple with these hard issues?
While people have legitimate demands about land redistribution, for example, these are sometimes directed at the wrong people.
When the Black First Land First group disrupted a Gupta-leaks event hosted by the amaBhungane investigative journalism unit on Thursday, some of them shouted at the reporters demanding the land back.
The BLF are angry that the media has exposed them as Gupta-sponsored vigilantes, but there is no logic in demanding land from investigative journalists.
They might as well be shouting for land when they put in their order at the KFC drive-through.
The disruptions at the UJ and amaBhungane events unfortunately close the space for vibrant discussion about the state of our country. Shouting and bullying do nothing to advance the issues people might feel passionately about.
Elected representatives should be in public forums discussing these big policy issues to explain their positions and also listen to ordinary people.
However, most politicians choose to speak at carefully choreographed events under heavy security where there is no opportunity to interact with those whose lives they preside over.
And because there is no clear direction, or political will, to deal with these contentious issues, their preference is not to engage at all.
Gordhan and Jonas dared to. Others should venture out of their ivory towers and do the same.

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