Encounters with the country’s finance ministers in the past 25 years

Enoch Godongwana makes his maiden budget speech as the new Minister of Finance. Photograph: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency(ANA)

Enoch Godongwana makes his maiden budget speech as the new Minister of Finance. Photograph: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Nov 15, 2021


Since May 2014 South Africa has had seven finance ministers, which means that their average time in office is barely one year.

As a journalist we get to interact with them at least twice a year, namely at the February Budget and the October Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS).

There are other occasions as well, such as when they launch a new series of bank notes such as the Mandela series or a new savings product such as the RSA retail savings bond. What follows is my personal impression of the finance ministers I interacted with.

Enoch Godongwana (appointed August 5, 2021)

The November 11 MTBPS was my first interaction with him and he set his marker with two firsts, namely he was the first finance minister to be seated before the journalists were led into the media centre at Parliament. Secondly, he was also the first finance minister to wear a hat to the meeting, although he did not wear it during the briefing.

Enoch Godongwana

What came across very forcefully was that he was committed to implementing economic structural reforms that would lift South Africa’s growth rate back to above 5 percent per year, which is what it was in the mid-2000s. To achieve that he had the buy-in of his Cabinet colleagues, but some vested interests may set hurdles such as legal challenges to the auction of the radio spectrum.

My sense and sincere hope are that by the time he presents the February 2024 Budget he will be able to report significant progress on the six priority areas mentioned in the MTBPS, namely electricity, transportation, tourism, water, telecommunications and infrastructure.

Tito Mboweni (appointed October 9, 2018)

I have known Mboweni since 1993 and he is the friendliest finance minister I have met. I was at his Inauguration Party at Gallagher Estate in 1999 when he was appointed as South African Reserve Bank governor and I had frequent interaction with him at his media briefings. He did not know the term “politically correct” and would frequently speak his mind on subjects where other politicians feared to go.

Tito Mboweni

It thus came as no surprise that he tackled the public service wage bill in his maiden MTBPS, a mere fortnight after he was appointed. He said he fought with Treasury officials to retain certain phrases and of which they disapproved as they would ruffle too many feathers, so he told the media briefing that the speech he would give that afternoon was in fact the ninth version.

In the foreword to the October 2018 MTBPS, he said the following:

“The South African economy is at a crossroads. The central challenges we confront as a nation are to raise economic growth and reduce unemployment. Over the longer term, we require reforms to change the structure of our economy, raise productivity, increase competition, and reduce the cost of doing business. We also need to find a way to sustainably manage government’s wage bill, which consumes about 35 percent of public resources.”

Nhlanhla Nene (appointed twice: February 27, 2018 and May 25, 2014)

Like Pravin Gordhan, Nene was appointed twice. Unlike Gordhan he was fired for resisting “State Capture” in his first term of office, while Gordhan was fired for the same “offence” in his second term of office.

Nhlanhla Nene

I first met Nene at the International Monetary Fund’s “Africa Rising” conference in Maputo, Mozambique and he endured a baptism of fire as international journalists swarmed around him and wanted to get to know him better. He handled this media frenzy with aplomb and in his Budget and MTBPS presentations he always spoke in measured tones and with conviction.

That calm exterior allowed him to confront and resist the architects of “State Capture” and ultimately cost him his job in December 2015. He then went on “gardening leave”, but his fortitude was rewarded when he was appointed to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first Cabinet in February 2018.

Malusi Gigaba (appointed March 31, 2017)

Gigaba was appointed after Pravin Gordhan had been fired. He did not really have a chance to show his mettle, as he lasted less than a year as finance minister. In that time, he presented one MTBPS and one Budget.

My impression of him was that he was a very smart dresser and intelligent.

Malusi Gigaba

The occasion that stands out for me was that at one of the media briefings, which are under embargo, he was told that the African National Congress’s internal communications unit were tweeting his comments while he was talking. He was flustered at first, as this had never happened before, but when he was told they has been told to stop tweeting, he continued his briefing in a very professional manner.

Pravin Gordhan (appointed May 11, 2009 and December, 13, 2015)

Gordhan in my mind was the president’s “Fireman”, in other words if there was a difficult department that needed his attention and could be sorted out like he did with the South African Revenue Service (Sars), the Gordhan was your “go-to” man. That was why he has also served as minister responsible for local government and for public enterprises.

Pravin Gordhan

Although his academic background was that of pharmaceuticals, he knew what economic medicine South Africa needed, but “State Capture” was unfortunately a cancer that ate away at the economic body. If Medupi had completed its first unit in April 2011 and Kusile its first unit in March 2012 as Eskom planned to do in 2009, then he would not have had to repeatedly say at his numerous MTBPS and Budgets, why economic growth and therefore revenue had not met the previous forecast.

His supreme role as fireman came in December 2015 when he was appointed to fight the fires caused by the firing of Nhlanhla Nene and the appointment of backbencher “Four Day Mishap” David van Rooyen as finance minister. In his media briefing in Pretoria, he said president Jacob Zuma had appointed him to right the ship after the rand had capsized. It was his subsequent firing in March 2017 that resulted in the international credit ratings downgrading South Africa’s sovereign bonds to “junk” or sub-investment grade status.

Trevor Manuel (appointed April 4, 1996)

Manuel was South Africa’s longest-serving finance minister at 157 months and oversaw South Africa’s longest period of economic upswing at 99 months. As any finance minister will tell you, achieving that success is not the work of one person, but rather a team, so Manuel was fortunate that he was part of the “TM Triumvirate” of Thabo Mbeki as president, Tito Mboweni as South African Reserve Bank governor and himself as finance minister.

The innovations / measures I most remember Manuel for was the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) economic strategy of 1996, the introduction of the three- year horizon MTBPS and the Public Finance Management Act, that was supposed to put an end to corruption.

It is a measure of his stature among his peers that he was often called upon to host international events and he remains the benchmark against which his successors are measured.

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites