Cape Town - It was easy to understand why Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi, who is leading the campaign to ban the advertising of alcohol, would lead the clapping after Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan announced, “no public funds to be used to purchase alcohol”.
Much more difficult to understand was why Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Tina Joemat-Pettersson, who ran up a R1.6 million hotel bill in the year or so following her appointment, enthusiastically clapped when Gordhan announced: “Ministers awaiting allocation of houses will be accommodated in rented apartments not hotels.”
If it were to have a name, the “rented apartments” restriction would probably be called the Joemat-Pettersson rule. Or perhaps the Sicelo Shiceka rule?
So there we all were; it was about 2.43pm on a lovely spring day in Cape Town and Gordhan was going through the usual motions of a medium-term budget policy statement. There had been some polite clapping and a few derisory “yah, yahs” from the opposition benches, but in general the mood in the National Assembly was subdued.
The mood is always subdued during the medium-term budget policy statement. It’s as though nobody is quite sure what to make of this occasion; it hasn’t got the edginess that comes with the annual Budget, where figures are tossed out with a decisiveness that makes you fear your take-home pay has just got a little smaller; or that you’ll be paying a little more for your favourite tipple or even that smoking is becoming as dangerous to your financial as physical health.
The subdued medium-term budget policy statement mood extends to the sparsely populated gallery where “subdued grey” is the colour of choice. There is none of the flamboyance that accompanies the Budget; no big hats, no bright colours. And then it was 2.45pm. It was as though the main act had just made its appearance on centre stage at a Rihanna concert. You could feel the electricity in the room as everybody sat up and paid attention.
Gordhan had warned them early on. In the preamble to his speech he had explained that the budget statement outlined the government’s various intentions with regard to such matters as public spending, implementation of the National Development Plan, sustainable levels of government debt, creating a climate for investment and supporting black entrepreneurs.
When he had mentioned “cutting waste and extravagance in government” you could tell nobody took it too seriously; it was another one of those motherhood-and-apple-pie statements that the minister is required to make just to remind us “they” do take it seriously.
Forty minutes later, Gordhan made what might rank as among the most significant budget – albeit medium-term budget policy statement – statements ever made. The speaker had to call for silence several times. No-one paid much attention; the background murmuring continued until Gordhan’s speech ended.
The cost cutting and clampdown on abuses involve measures relating to cars, overseas and local travel, housing, the use of consultant services, catering and advertising. The use of government credit cards is being terminated with immediate affect.
The proposal to yet again review the cost implications of the “current Pretoria-Cape Town arrangement” was met with a steely silence from the DA benches and enthusiastic clapping from the ANC.
The measures might not amount to much in terms of actual rands saved, although they probably will, but Gordhan’s 25 cost-saving measures are hugely significant. Indeed these are not his measures, as he stressed on several occasions, these measures were devised by the cabinet.
The measures represent a vigorous attempt to reintroduce that old-fashioned notion of “public servant”. In implementing them, the cabinet is attempting to address the perception that a job in Parliament or the government represents a shortcut to an easy and comfortable life.
Some among the opposition benches and in the media dismissed the moves as token populist gestures designed to address growing criticisms of government.
No doubt there is an element of electioneering and an attempt to address the steadily increasing cost of personnel in government but, as almost everybody knows by now, Gordhan doesn’t “do populist gestures”.
The moves outlined yesterday not only go to the heart of the “little luxuries” that have been heaped upon our elected politicians and government officials and that are now taken for granted, they also provide a stick with which to measure and, where necessary, beat those who continue to feed off the government gravy train. It might be that the truly cynical will continue to “work the system” but they are likely to be a minority and life has just become extremely difficult for them.
With the exception of the oversight of the use of consultants these are all easy-to-measure restrictions – no credit cards, no hotel accommodation, business class only for ministers, the numbers of officials travelling with ministers to be limited, etc.
Afterwards, in the blinding sunshine outside the National Assembly, various government officials were contemplating their new more austere life and the prospect that this might be their last trip to Cape Town for some time. Few seemed troubled – as long as the new rules are applied effectively and even-handedly.
Gordhan is to the government what Pope Francis has become to the Catholic Church. A man determined to get the institution back on track without the frills and pomp that have come to characterise it and that threaten its very existence.
The recently appointed Chinese government also looks to be taking excess and corruption seriously, although that might just be politicking. But could it be that we are seeing the beginning of a global move to make moderation fashionable in the 21st century? And what are the chances of the corporate world following this lead?
Perhaps if the cabinet does succeed in the implementation of its new cost-cutting and anti-extravagance measures the corporate sector will follow up with a commitment to reduce the gap between highest paid and lowest paid to a humane level.
Gordhan has raised the possibility taxpayers may believe they’re getting good value for their tax rands. At the same time, pension fund members and savers might fear they are not getting good value from their investments after allowance is made for the costs and extravagance of the investment community and corporate sector. - Business Report