Revelations that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) will charge finance minister Pravin Gordhan for "fraud" over a piffling R1.1m "early retirement" deal for a staff member in 2009 suggests to all the world that President Jacob Zuma has no idea how frail the economy is. Or, more distressingly, he couldn’t care less.
All along Zuma has stuck to the script that the NPA is an "independent entity" under lawyer Shaun Abrahams over which he has no control.
Well, that’s how it should be. Only nobody believes that’s how it really is — especially after Abrahams’ contortions to overturn the April constitutional court ruling that effectively ordered that Zuma face 783 counts of corruption.
Gordhan was charged 15 days before he was set to give his medium-term budget, and days after returning from New York, where he reassured US investors (combined wealth: US$2trillion) that rumours of his arrest were simply "political mischief".
In all, 28 of SA’s CEOs went to New York with Gordhan to show the ratings agencies that SA is far from a junk-status nation. One of them, the JSE’s Nicky Newton-King, says the trip was a rollicking success, with Gordhan particularly "on song".
"We were asked a lot about our noisy democracy. The investors wanted to know what plans are under way to deliver real tangible growth, and they also wanted comfort about the hands on the tiller," she says.
Few of them asked about the Hawks probe into Gordhan, assuming it had run aground.
This notion was rudely rubbed out in Pretoria on Tuesday. Ultimately, it took Abrahams, a man whose childhood nickname was "Pikkewyntjie" (Penguin), an hour to single-handedly tip the scales towards a downgrade. The rand plunged 3.4% against the dollar; bond yields rocketed; bank stocks shed R46bn.
Pretty much nobody believed that Zuma wasn’t the hidden hand pulling Abrahams’ strings.
"Who are the Hawks really serving?" Gordhan asked. It was a question on everyone’s lips.
So if, as some think, the NPA is doing Zuma’s bidding, is it because the president doesn’t grasp the economic impact?
Newton-King, who sits on the "downgrade-buster" group that meets regularly with Zuma and Gordhan, rejects this view.
"I disagree. He definitely understands the economic significance. He also recognises that all the political noise we had at the beginning of the year was undesirable," she says.
Well, if you’re antsy about "political noise", you’d best invest in some earplugs.
On Tuesday, scepticism hung heavily in the NPA’s conference room as Abrahams announced the Gordhan decision. Tensions bubbled over when Bloomberg asked about the "strong stench of political interference".
Abrahams lost it: "What if this decision was made by a judge? What if this decision was made by the public protector [Thuli Madonsela]? Would your reaction have been the same? The days of disrespecting decisions by the NPA are over."
The answer to his question, obviously, is "no". But there’s good reason: neither Madonsela nor SA’s courts have soured their own reputations by acting as overt shills for Zuma.
At one stage Abrahams said: "Not all conduct that is unlawful must be subject to a prosecution." Sure, only the small stuff. The really big stuff, say 783 corruption charges, can slide.
If, as Newton-King says, Zuma grasps the implications, there are two scenarios: either he really has no influence over the NPA (unlikely at best), or he simply doesn’t care.
Asked if last week’s New York trip had done enough to thwart a downgrade, Newton-King said it was touch-and-go. "It’s finely balanced. There are enough positive things for them to take account of, but whether the ... political noise will influence them, I can’t say."
In the 60 minutes it took Abrahams to announce his decision to charge Gordhan on a technicality, the odds of that happening shortened radically.