Shaun Abrahams. Picture: ALON SKUY

Shaun Abrahams. Picture: ALON SKUY

WHAT IT MEANS: Attempts to ruin Gordhan began before his budget. He had pledged to reassert treasury’s authority.

To understand why Pravin Gordhan will have to appear in court to face a charge of fraud, you have to go back to December 2015, when President Jacob Zuma installed David Des van Rooyen as finance minister.

It was a political fumble, but a very revealing one. Suddenly his motives were laid bare. It was clear that Zuma wanted to reduce the power of treasury, the last thorn in the side of those who view the state as a short route to riches.

Treasury had stopped a plan by Dudu Myeni at SA Airways to introduce a costly lease arrangement. And, when Zuma insisted that a huge nuclear power acquisition go ahead, treasury wanted to know how it would be funded.

Zuma might have advised them: "Ask not how the nuclear programme will be funded, but how it will fund us."

But Zuma, in his haste to end the madness of fiscal discipline, overstepped. The Van Rooyen appointment was so outrageous that even the morally equivocating ANC leadership made him back down. Three days later he appointed Gordhan to the job.

He immediately regretted his decision, as Gordhan began his term of office with a pledge to reassert treasury’s authority. But Zuma had just fired, hired and then fired two finance ministers. Firing a third would look careless, even for him.

Other means had to be found to lever the increasingly annoying Gordhan — who was one day on a global road show to preach fiscal constraint, the next being fêted by business and labour — off his perch.

The first attempt to cripple Gordhan occurred on the eve of his February budget speech.

Hawks head Berning Ntlemeza’s people leaked the rheumy charge sheet. It was a sensational story. The finance minister was to answer a series of questions. If he gave the wrong answers, he would be charged.

Gordhan delivered his budget. At the heart of it stood eight "cost-containment measures" that aimed to cutgraft and reform the way the state spent its money on tenders and contracts.

Among the measures were the "mandatory use of an e-tender portal, thereby enforcing procurement transparency", and "reduced transfers for operating budgets of public entities".

And Gordhan announced the "renegotiation of government leasing contracts" and the establishment of "new contracts for banking services, ICT infrastructure and services, health technology, school building and learner support materials".

Such measures were anathema to the cronies who fed off state contracts and the loose management of its enterprises.

His budget speech done, Gordhan answered the questions through his lawyers. He was more powerful than ever. Ntlemeza wrote a brief letter to Gordhan assuring him that he faced no criminal charges and skulked back to the shadows.

The campaign against Gordhan had been spiked before it had got off the ground.

Six months passed before Ntlemeza made his next move, instructing Gordhan to present himself to the Hawks for a "warning statement".

He refused. And so Van Rooyen donned a camouflage T-shirt and demanded that Gordhan respect the law. Gordhan laughed this off too.

The two-pronged legal assault on Gordhan consisted of a main charge: the illegal establishment of a "rogue unit" within the SA Revenue Service (Sars) that was not permitted to gather intelligence.

The second was the early retirement of his deputy, Ivan Pillay. Apparently Gordhan signed off on this and then later rehired him on contract.

Gordhan’s response to this allegation was a rather convincing and detailed rebuttal. In the opinion of lawyers, there were no grounds for legal action. As Safura Abdool Karim put it: "The starting point of the problems here is that the PFMA [Public Finance Management Act] doesn’t apply to Sars. If the act is not applicable, it would be impossible for Gordhan to contravene it. However, even if the PFMA were applicable, contravening it is not a criminal offence, so this allegation fails on the law alone."

Still more pressure was needed. And so prosecutions head Shaun Abrahams called his press conference and announced his assault on Gordhan. The main charge was a nonstarter, and so Abrahams held the nation in his thrall as he announced that the minister of finance would be prosecuted for fraud over Pillay’s retirement, a human resources matter with no standing in law, according to critics.

As news of the charges broke, Gordhan was addressing a meeting on the introduction of transparent tendering hosted by Gauteng premier David Makhura. He was given a standing ovation by the audience.