In 1986, a young hothead returned to Khutsong near Carletonville on the West Rand after he was expelled from Bethel High School near Ventersdorp for political activities.
He may have been a short, skinny youth, but he made a big impact on his return home.
He was enrolled at the local Badirile High School and immediately set about spreading the message of liberation politics.
He also convened night meetings at which umrabulo (political discussions) took place.
Over time, the school drew the attention of the SA Defence Force and police as they routinely surrounded it, closed off all entrances and exits and went from class to class searching for “troublemakers” like Des van Rooyen.
Frustrated at not finding their targets, they resorted to beating up, arresting and torturing any suspicious-looking pupils.
Van Rooyen played a role in turning the township from one dominated by the Azanian Student Movement to gradual control by the United Democratic Front. He was undoubtedly a leader and there were fears that police would kill him if they found him.
There were many urban legends about him. One was that apartheid troops would swarm into his family home looking for him. On their way into the yard, they would meet a skinny boy on his way out and ask him about Des’ whereabouts.
Aware that they did not know what he looked like, he would tell them Des was inside the house and would escape.
Van Rooyen was a Scarlet Pimpernel, admired by comrades and faceless to the police. But after the introduction of the state of emergency in 1986, he was eventually found and detained without trial for a year. He went into exile in the 1980s, returned as an Umkhonto weSizwe soldier and joined the integrated SA National Defence Force in the early 1990s.
After a few years he resigned and became active in the municipality, serving as a ward councillor. After serving in several portfolios, which included being a finance member of the mayoral committee, he became mayor after the ANC got rid of the incumbent, Ellen Mabile, in 2003.
In the build-up to the 2006 local government elections, national government decided to change local government boundaries and remove the Merafong municipality from Gauteng and incorporate it into North West.
The decision was implemented by government minister Sydney Mufamadi, but required the buy-in of the local leadership.
Van Rooyen later insisted he had opposed the decision, but his actions suggested he supported the move to North West. He tried to rationalise the move with the community, but residents turned against him and other ANC leaders who were seen as sellouts.
He was chased out of the township, his family home was burnt and dismantled. Now there is an empty stand where the house once stood.
When national government, supported by the local ANC, stood firm and refused to reverse the decision, residents became more violent, burning more homes and government structures such as the local library and municipal offices.
My younger sister, then a novice in politics, was close to Van Rooyen. She was caught up in the furore and our family home was set on fire.
Halfway through his term in 2009, the ANC redeployed Van Rooyen to Parliament because he had lost credibility in Merafong.
The ANC also felt he had paid the price in defence of the party and deserved support.
My concern about Van Rooyen is that because he was able to turn against his own people to enforce an unpopular ANC decision, we have reason to worry about his independence and his malleability.
Can we trust him with our finances?
He allowed the township to burn and people’s lives to be destroyed as he remained loyal to the party cause.
He placed his career in the ANC ahead of the people he was supposed to serve.
For the few months that Merafong fell under North West, he was rewarded with a position as chairperson of the SA Local Government Association in North West.
He went on to become an MP and has now landed the plum post of finance minister.
I go along with the theory that the only reason President Jacob Zuma overlooked all 80 members of the national executive committee and the serving deputy finance minister, and went for an obscure MP for such a crucial position, was to exercise control over him.
With no political clout and backing of key alliance structures, except the Umkhonto weSizwe Veterans’ Association, our new finance minister is unlikely to stand his ground and will remain eternally grateful to Zuma.
Will he have the gumption to say no to businesspeople who have close links to the president? Not if it will cost him his job.
Van Rooyen exudes confidence and will grow into the job, but with no backbone and few principles, he could harm the country with decisions that are meant to appease Zuma.
Throughout this week I have sensed people’s palpable anger, disappointment and deep concern that the president could disrespect us in this way with this appointment.
Van Rooyen has joined the president in laughing at us.