Former finance minister David van Rooyen has revealed he was as shocked as the rest of South Africa when President Jacob Zuma told him he would replace Nhlanhla Nene.
“The truth is I was a bit taken aback,” Van Rooyen told the Sunday Times in an interview this week.
“Being assigned such a position, to be a minister [of finance], is not child’s play. It is quite a serious thing – more especially for a country like South Africa. If it was a small country it would be different.”
Van Rooyen lasted only four days in his job after the public, the markets and influential politicians reacted with shock to his appointment. The rand took a major knock and billions were lost on the stock market.
Zuma was forced to reverse the appointment after meetings with business and senior ANC leaders.
Van Rooyen then swapped positions with former co-operative governance minister Pravin Gordhan.
In the interview with the Sunday Times, Van Rooyen said all he ever wanted was to be a medical doctor.
That childhood dream, however, was shattered by apartheid. “I wanted to be a medical doctor but I was black and I couldn’t get a scholarship. I did not matriculate. When I was supposed to be getting a scholarship in Grade 11, I … was told it was not possible,” said the man whose family worked as farm labourers.
The former Umkhonto weSizwe soldier, who was recently described by Zuma as the “most qualified” appointee to the finance portfolio, dismissed claims that he was an unknown backbencher when the president appointed him.
“Are you sure no one knew who I am? That is a lie.”
He downplayed the devastating consequences his four-day appointment had on the economy.
Van Rooyen suggested that his critics were historical enemies of the ANC who still did not accept that its members now run the state.
“As much as we dealt with our detractors and as much as we declared the victory of our country’s freedom in 1994, we still have them all over the place because we did not chase them away. It would be very foolish of me to expect praises.”
But how did he actually feel when, a few hours after he had gone to his home church in Ventersdorp for blessings, Zuma called him to say he would no longer be finance minister?
“As you know, all this happened at the behest of the president. The president called me and told me about the developments and asked if I am ready [for another deployment].
“In our situation as members of the ANC, we are groomed to be ready for any deployment. I am not an exception,” Van Rooyen said.
You never see me tweeting or [chatting on] WhatsApp. My task is so serious that I can’t allow myself to run a country of tweets and WhatsApps
He joked that even his job as co-operative governance minister was not secure. “Even after this interview I might be called for another deployment”.
He said he paid no attention to what commentators said about him and had little regard for those who objected to his appointment.
“You never see me tweeting or [chatting on] WhatsApp. My task is so serious that I can’t allow myself to run a country of tweets and WhatsApps. This is not a child’s-play job.”
Van Rooyen believes that his two master’s degrees – one in public development and management and the other in finance science – made him amply qualified to be the political head of the National Treasury.
He also pointed out that he was experienced as he had been ANC whip of the standing committee on finance and the whip of the economic development cluster.
Soon after the controversy broke, it emerged that Van Rooyen had appointed advisers said to have links to the Gupta family. The advisers, Mohamed Bobat and Ian Whitley, now work with him at the co-operative governance ministry.
But Van Rooyen denied any link to the Guptas. “I don’t know where the issue of the Gupta family and other people comes in. The fact of the matter is that I took myself as a typical product of someone who came out of the struggle led by the ANC.
“I do not have a personal relationship with them [the Guptas].”
He did, however, admit to having interacted with the family.
“Remember, I am a public figure. And as a public figure it means linking with all sectors of community, including the Guptas.”