JOHANNESBURG - Tito Mboweni, the country's newest finance minister, yesterday walked into Parliament's media centre calmly as South Africa awaited his maiden Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) speech with bated breath.
He told journalists at the centre that he hoped that the African Christian Democratic Party would pray for him as he laid bare the frightening picture of the country's finances.
Mboweni then moved to deliver the MTBPS, which focused on belt-tightening, in a speech punctuated by light-hearted moments and a Bible quote.
He quoted Charles Dickens’s famous A Tale of Two Cities to describe the state of the economy.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going the other way.”
Mboweni, was once a key member of the country's erstwhile TMs, which included former president Thabo Mbeki and minister Trevor Manuel.
Mbeki also used Dickens in his State of the Nation address in February 2008 to describe the state of the country at the time. At the time, the economy averaged 3percent growth - a far cry from the current negative growth that has seen the first technical recession since the famous global financial crisis of the time.
Mboweni took the country back to realities, saying it would grow at 0.7percent this year from the projected 0.5percent in February and would recover gradually to over 2percent in 2021 as confidence returned and investment gathered pace.
He appeared to be hitting the right notes, raising alarm bells where necessary, but the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
He appeared realistic and even had some opposition parties agreeing with him on dealing with corruption and malfeasance in the public sector and the looting of VBS Mutual Bank.
Many MPs said they believed he meant what he said, as the economy was in need of being fixed.
Despite being in the job for 10 days, Mboweni seemed to grasp the issues in the National Treasury and the overall functioning of the state.
After all, he was used to such number-crunching during his tenure as the head of the SA Reserve Bank.
Mboweni said the government debt would also hit a high in the next two years, while the fiscal gap would widen even further.
He said state revenue collection would continue to underwhelm, despite some successes made in repositioning the SA Revenue Service from the disastrous episodes of its suspended boss, Tom Moyane.
“We must choose a path that stabilises and reduces the national debt,” Mboweni said. “We cannot continue to borrow at this rate. We must choose to reduce the structural deficit, especially the consistently high growth in the real public-service wage bill.”
Mboweni said the government needed to take a long-term view on turning its fortunes around, arguing that such an exercise should include the interrogation of the public sector wage bill and the involvement of the private sector in reorganising the country's loss-making parastatals.
“The government needs to take some difficult decisions to get the economy on a higher growth path and to encourage job creation,” Mboweni said.
Mboweni even had time to take shots at opposition MPs, but maintained his bleak analysis of the country's purses.
His belt-tightening message may not be the last as he will return to Parliament again next year to update the country on its prospects.
However, perhaps the picture would have brightened up a bit by then.