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Gordhan: S.Africa’s respected finance minister set for tough fight

South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has been described as the cleverest person in government.

But he will need all his wits about him if he is to survive the country’s treacherous politics and the legal system while trying to rescue the country’s moribund economy.

Calm and measured in public, but tough behind the scenes, Gordhan, 67, has earned an international reputation for fiscal prudence and for taking a firm stand against corruption.

Now he faces prosecution over alleged fraud in 2010, in a case that many analysts have dismissed as a politically-motivated attack on him by loyalists of President Jacob Zuma.

Gordhan was suddenly re-appointed by Zuma in December last year for his second stint at the treasury.

Just days previously, the president had fired finance minister Nhlanhla Nene and replaced him with an obscure lawmaker, triggering panic among investors and a sharp drop in the rand.

Gordhan’s name alone stabilised the markets, and the local currency began to recover as he stressed his intention to rein in spending, tackle graft and reduce the budget deficit.

But if the appointment pleased investors and taxpayers, it angered some Zuma associates — and over the last year he has regularly clashed with Zuma loyalists in a public tussle for control over the public coffers.

– Tax boss –

A police investigation was revived into an allegedly illegal “spy unit” that targeted politicians during Gordhan’s time as head of the tax collection department between 1999 and 2009.

On Tuesday, he was ordered to appear in court on November 2 on the related case of allegedly authorising an illegal early retirement package for a senior colleague at the department.

The court summons sent the rand tumbling.

His fate is seen as a symbol for South Africa’s future, and his arrest or sacking would convince many investors and voters that the government is heading towards fiscal chaos.

Born in the port city of Durban in 1949, Gordhan’s political life began as a pharmacy student at the University of Durban-Westville, an Indians-only institution established during white-minority rule.

There, he joined the anti-apartheid Natal Indian Congress, also becoming involved with the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party.

Throughout the 1980s, Gordhan was repeatedly arrested for his political activities.

He then played a pivotal role in the talks that steered South Africa towards its first democratic elections in 1994, before becoming a member of parliament for the newly elected ANC.

He was “probably the cleverest person in government”, political journalist Stephen Grootes wrote in his book “SA Politics Unspun”.

– ‘A principled centralist’ –

He was widely praised for overhauling the tax system, tripling the country’s tax haul from 185 billion rand ($13 billion at current rates) in 1999 to 558 billion rand in 2009.

During that time Gordhan approved a unit to investigate tax-related crime syndicates.

Press allegations that the “spy unit” illegally monitored politicians and set up a brothel were retracted, but have refused to die down.

Promoted to finance minister in 2009, Gordhan clamped down on graft and worked to improve efficiency.

“We will not tolerate corruption; we will act forcefully against wastage,” he said in his first budget address, sending a message he still repeats today.

Analyst Richard Calland called him “a principled centralist”, writing in “The Zuma Years” that Gordhan won “respect from both sides of the ANC”.

In 2014, he was appointed as minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs and he appeared to be heading for a peaceful retirement.

But after Zuma’s extraordinary sacking of two finance ministers within a week last December — and with a downgrade by ratings agencies on the horizon — Gordhan was back in the action at the most volatile of times.

Now he is heading to court for an experience that could test even his phlegmatic demeanour.