When President Jacob Zuma fired former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene he did it under the cover of darkness, without the support of the African National Congress (ANC) leadership and without anybody seeing it come.
It's proving much more difficult to do the same to Pravin Gordhan, the current minister of finance, who was summarily and dramatically summoned from London by Zuma on Monday after he arrived there to lead an international post-budget roadshow.
Rumours were rife on Tuesday about Gordhan's future -– but until Zuma makes an announcement (his spokesperson has not answered his telephone since Monday), we simply don't know. And watching ANN7 doesn't count.
But here is what we do know:
1. Gordhan is still very much the minister of finance
Sources say he went straight to Luthuli House after his plane landed at 9:50am on Tuesday, where he presumably met Gwede Mantashe, the ANC's secretary general. We don't know what was said, but we do know he went back to National Treasury's headquarters in Pretoria and, according to sources, spoke to staff and attended to official engagements in his diary. There has been no word from Zuma, except statements about his programme and some (other) executive appointments.
2. Gordhan displayed a quiet and dignified show of strength
The most extraordinary part of the day, however, was when Gordhan and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, walked the 100m or so from Treasury's headquarters on Church Square across Madiba Road in Pretoria to the High Court, where his application challenging the Guptas was being heard. He sat quietly at the back of the courtroom, spoke to journalists and said yes, indeed, he still runs the economy. Jonas was by his side and his spokesperson Yolisa Tyantsi hovered around. If Mantashe told him he was going to be fired, it would have happened, the presidency would have fired off a statement as soon as Gordhan left Mantashe sixth-floor office. That statement never went out.
3. Fake news -- especially now -- is a real thing
ANN7, the Guptas' news channel (DStv 405) was clear in their afternoon's coverage that Gordhan's exit was imminent, citing "sources" saying that the ANC's top six leadership agreed with Zuma that Gordhan had to go. There were also reports elsewhere -– propagated by the exponents of Paid Twitter -– that Gordhan resigned. There was absolutely no indication that the top six agreed with Zuma (if that was what he shared with the ANC leadership) and Gordhan's appearance at the High Court might even have been designed to show the middle-finger to ANN7. Dodgy WhatsApp messages, disinformation, half-truths and lies abound.
4. Zuma is hurt -- and dangerous
The president has suffered a number of body blows in recent weeks. On Tuesday it was allegedly and very quietly decided that Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa will lead the government delegation to ANC stalwart Ahmed Kathrada's funeral –- a painful concession. His recent populist stand on land was rejected by the ANC's national executive committee, and before that the judiciary rebuked his executive in the social grants and Berning Ntlemeza judgments. And that's in the last 10 days. Besides those repudiations, the parliamentary caucus were engaging in a minor revolt, the Financial Intelligence Centre Amendment Bill was basically left intact and his deployee at the South African Revenue Service, Tom Moyane, has been found out. He is a president under pressure, which makes him dangerous and irrational.
5. The president can make changes to his Cabinet, but there will be repercussions
There is recognition and respect among alliance partners for the head of state's prerogative to make appointments to the executive -– but that does not happen in a political vacuum. Solly Mapaila, the South African Communist Party's (SACP) first deputy general secretary said the presidential prerogative does not give Zuma a license to destroy, but a license to build. If Gordhan is removed, it would prove he is trying to destroy, Mapaila added, saying the SACP would react strongly if Gordhan was sent packing. Sources around Ramaphosa in the alliance and Treasury, however, are unsure how to challenge Zuma once he has done his worst.