Mosebenzi Zwane. Picture: AFP PHOTO/RODGER BOSCH
Mosebenzi Zwane. Picture: AFP PHOTO/RODGER BOSCH

EVEN by the standards of SA’s modern day weirdness, the past week has been a humdinger. My tweet of the week was by Karin Morrow who pleaded, "Can we please get through another day without looking like a fictitious country in a Sasha Baron Cohen movie"?

Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane issued a statement, purporting to be a Cabinet resolution, calling for a judicial inquiry into SA’s banking system, following the decision by SA’s banks to withdraw banking facilities from the Gupta family.

The inquiry would look into the mandate of the banking ombudsman. It would review the Financial Intelligence Centre Act and the Prevention of Combating of Corrupt Activities Act, and investigate whether the banks, financial institutions and the Reserve Bank complied fully with these pieces of legislation.

The responsibility for issuing banking licences would be transferred from the Bank to the finance ministry, and banking compliance to the security cluster.

The statement includes little gems of contradictory absurdity that make you wonder who has been smoking their socks and why. For example: "Cabinet resolves to reconsider SA’s clearing bank provisions to allow for new banking licences to be issued and in so doing, to create a free market economy". So now suddenly, issuing a banking licence offends against the hallowed principle of a free market economy, which the ANC government has always passionately embraced.

So, issuing gambling licences and licences to operate a cellphone company, to name just two, are also going to be scrapped?

On the face of it, the resolution gave the impression that the entire Cabinet supported the wholesale revision of SA’s banking system because of its refusal to give the president’s bag-men an account.

This was bizarre enough, but the events that followed, within the space of 24 hours, were even more strange. President Jacob Zuma immediately threw his mining minister under the bus, saying Zwane’s statement was issued in his personal capacity and did not reflect Cabinet’s view. "He does not speak on behalf of Cabinet and the contents of his statement do not reflect the position or views of Cabinet, the Presidency or government," spokesman Bongani Ngqulunga said.

There is a seeming contradiction in this process. Why would Zuma distance himself from a statement that was constructed precisely to support his family’s business interests?

Zwane is now in the odd position of being able to claim with justification he has been singled out for doing precisely what the president implicitly — or explicitly — asked him to do.

The key to Zuma’s problem lies in the fact that Zuma’s son, Duduzane, is a shareholder in Oakbay Investments. Taking action against the banks in this context constitutes a legal problem for the president in terms of the Executive Members’ Ethics Act. The act was established in terms of Section 96 of the Constitution, and requires Parliament to construct a code of ethics. The act, passed in 1998, prohibits Cabinet members, deputy ministers and MECs from "exposing themselves to any situation involving the risk of a conflict between their official responsibilities and their private interests", and "using their position or any information entrusted to them, to enrich themselves or improperly benefit any other person". These are pretty widely constructed laws, and they were deliberately framed in this way.

Oh, those heady days when SA wanted to do everything "by the book". Remember them?

The body that would be obliged to investigate this conflict would be none other than the public protector. In issuing the statement, Zwane inadvertently exposed Zuma to another investigation by the public protector. That he really cannot afford politically. Hence, Zuma was obliged to throw his obliging minister under said bus.

Zuma’s history as an intelligence officer has clearly taught him two important Machiavellian lessons in manoeuvring within an organisation: take responsibility for nothing, and leave your fingerprints nowhere. It’s amazing how decisions in support of Zuma’s interests seem inevitably to be taken by supplicants.

Everybody knows, for example, that Zuma favours the decision to keep South African Airways chairwoman Dudu Myeni in office because the two have a special relationship. But he has never made this clear himself. Magically, it just seems to happen behind the scenes, as it did last week. In fact, getting explicit presidential support, as Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan did recently, is now becoming a leading indicator of not having presidential support.

But there is one place where Zuma’s invisible hand cannot be hidden: making Cabinet appointments. Constitutionally these are his decisions and his alone. And the Cabinet is beginning to resemble not the party, not the alliance, but his own decision-making, and they are decisions from which he cannot hide.

Zuma’s biggest problem now is that the people he appoints, and fires, have political consequences. They have consequences for the country too, obviously, but everyone appointed from now on will be a "Zuma appointment", or the opposite.

His own lack of popularity will henceforth infect not only himself, but his appointments. They will hang around his neck like an albatross, and he will likewise hang around theirs.