The Sunday Tribune, 27 November 2018
Dean Jon Foster-Pedley is the dean of Henley Business School SA. This is the oration he delivered before Pravin Gordhan was capped on Thursday night by the international dean of the University of Reading’s Henley Business School Professor John Board.
Pravin Jamnadas Gordhan is without a doubt the epitome of what this country would like its leaders and its citizens to be.
He is a man who grew up as Sol Plaatje once inimitably termed it, “a stranger in the land of his birth”.
Attending school at the then all-boys Sastri College, Gordhan would work in his family’s clothing store in Durban’s Prince Edward St on Saturdays, securing a place at the University of Durban Westville to qualify as a pharmacist after graduating with a B Pharm degree in 1973.
He was disgusted not just by the injustice of apartheid South Africa, but any injustice. He joined both the ANC and the South African communist Party, both banned organisations, and led student protests against a tyrannical rector.
As a pharmacist at Durban’s King Edward hospital, he would dispense drugs and discuss organised resistance with Mac Maharaj. The same hospital would fire him in 1981 – while he was being detained without trial – but nothing could deter him.
He was part and parcel of the foundation of the United Democratic Front a couple of years later during the dark and scary days of apartheid repression and successive states of emergency, but also working underground at the same time.
He would be detained three times, once for 160 days in 1981 –the year the hospital fired him – when the beard he wore was physically ripped from his face by his torturers.
He was a key member of uMkhonto we Sizwe’s four-year long Operation Vula, set up as counter-measure should the negotiations between Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk towards a peaceful transition fail. He would be arrested along with other struggle luminaries like Maharaj and the future head of the SANDF Siphiwe Nyanda.
Gordhan would play a key role in Codesa, the unprecedented negotiations to transfer power from a racial minority to the majority. He co-chaired the Transitional Executive Council which prepared South Africa for its watershed 1994 elections.
Afterwards, he would serve in parliament as an MP, chairing the Constitutional Committee of the Constituent Assembly, the midwife of our much-lauded and well tested constitution. But it was really only in 1996 that his career would evolve into what he has become best known for and indeed for what he has paid the highest price for – the elevation of the South African Revenue Services into one of the finest revenue collection agencies in the world.
Appointed deputy commissioner in March 1998 and commissioner in November the following year, he created an organisation that was not just a benchmark for civil service excellence, it would be the greatest scourge of those hell bent on enriching themselves in the kleptocracy that would be forever known as state capture.
A decade after becoming commissioner, Gordhan would be elevated to cabinet as minister of finance, able to use the monies his former agency was so successfully collecting to build a new nation. Alas it was not to be, as the state capture project shifted gear, so too was Gordhan moved, moved to the Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs ministry and then, with great haste back to Finance a year later after Jacob Zuma made his first midnight reshuffle with Des’ Weekend Special’ Van Rooyen to the horror of the international finance markets.
Gordhan took up the appointment with his usual grace and dedication, surviving for the next 16 months in a pressure cooker of a portfolio made unbearable by the perpetual sniping attacks and ambushes of the Hawks and the National Prosecuting Authority.
Not only did he have to an unprecedented level of increasingly vicious ad hominem attacks, he also had to deal with a new SARS commissioner – a man specifically appointed by the president to debase the once proud service to ensure that the kleptocrats could never be held to account and to finally square the circle by ensuring the emasculation of the last of the state agencies who could pose a possible threat to their liberty.
Gordhan never wavered. In March 2017, he was fired because he could not be suborned, he could not be beaten into submission.
He did not disappear into obscurity to lick his wounds and regroup, instead he threw himself wholeheartedly into openly fighting the people who had prostituted the organisation he had given his life for.
He was a beacon for others who might have felt the same but were too timid to speak out. He led protests, just as he had as a school pupil and as a university student. He mobilised. He spoke to whoever would listen about the perils of corruption and just how deep its roots extended.
But he didn’t just speak of corruption, he spoke of its hand maid too, the collusion of the corporate sector.
By February the following year, he was back – serving a new president with a new dawn – this time tasked with cleaning up the pillaged State-Owned Enterprises, the once rich looting grounds of the capturers.
His name, Pravin, is of Sanskrit origin, it means knowledgeable, skilful and proficient. He is well named indeed but he is far more than that; he is honourable, he is principled, he is a true patriot.
He has fought wars against oppression and injustice, his courage has never been in question. His hardest battles have been against foes he never imagined; former comrades who would accuse him of turning against his own principles; his bitterest skirmishes against enemies he was never able to see, lurking in the twilight of the digital sphere, plotting and scheming to discredit and hurt him in way possible.
He has survived to have the satisfaction of seeing the “SARS Rogue Unit” narrative, perhaps one of the most tragic episodes in South African media history wholly discredited and disowned. He has lived to see his own and his loyal colleagues’ reputations restored, but still his work remains unfinished.
For Gordhan, the level of success he enjoys is measurable by the decibel level of the brickbats thrown against him. The anguished clamour is rising again, the trolls are hard at work trying their best to shift the narrative, as Gordhan methodically goes about turning off the taps into what were once teeming pools of rent seeking and brazen theft.
For us at Henley Business School Africa, he is the personification of active corporate citizenship. His courage inspires us, his unshakeable moral compass and sense of purpose are a beacon to all of us.