There was no indication, says the writer, in Pravin Gordhan's budget that the government had grasped the country's economic realities. Picture: Sumaya Hisham

Finance minister's medium-term budget meant very little to those it should have benefited, writes Christopher Rutledge

"Why, shortly after the evening I told you about, I discovered something. When I would leave a blind man on the sidewalk to which I had convoyed him, I used to tip my hat to him. Obviously the hat tipping wasn’t intended for him, since he couldn’t see it. To whom was it addressed? To the public. After playing my part, I would take the bow. Not bad, eh?”

These are the words of Jean-Baptiste, the key character in the Albert Camus novel The Fall, which explores the existential crises of a successful lawyer, who through three key events comes to see himself as duplicitous and hypocritical.

The realisation that his whole life has been lived in hypocrisy and denial precipitates an emotional and intellectual crisis. Jean-Batiste initially resists the realisation that he has lived selfishly. He argues with himself over prior acts of kindness, but quickly discovers that this is an argument he cannot win. He slowly realises his acts of kindness were acts of duty meant to soothe his ego and conscience.

It was this tale that came to mind as I watched Pravin Gordhan deliver the medium-term budget speech in Parliament last week.

I found myself waiting for the substance of the speech which would provide the indication that our government had finally grasped the reality that had now been staring them in the face for the longest time. But I was left wanting.

Instead, all I could see was Jean-Baptiste doffing his hat to the blind man. Like Jean-Baptiste, the minister was enacting a show in the full glare of the public attention which would not only soothe his conscience and add to his own conviction of his good deeds, but would also soothe the watching public that indeed here was a good man who acted with decorum and with the interests of the public at heart.

Rousing applause and standing ovations were testament to the desperation of the public to not only have a hero step up to the plate, but also to the public’s willingness to turn a blind eye to the hypocrisy we were about to be treated to.

Before you turn away in denial and disgust that anyone should dare question the integrity of the one minister who stands between us and “the promotion of uncontrolled looting and state capture, Zuma style” as one prominent public interest lawyer suggested to me, allow me to explain why this analogy seems appropriate under the circumstances.

The budget itself did not yield any significant indication that South Africa would be doing anything different. While it is granted that budget speeches are not really the time or place for bold new initiatives, it was nonetheless not an ordinary medium-term budget speech. It was, in many ways, a theatre in which the political elites were either going to confirm our slide into kleptocracy or present the public with a glimmer of hope for the future.

While we should be grateful that the slide to uber kleptocracy was publicly denied, the outcome of the speech was an affirmation of the continuation of the macro-economic strategies that have produced the world's most unequal country.

The difference between procedural constraints on kleptocracy and the continuation of the structural biases of the economy towards capital-intensive top-level growth or trickle-down economics, should not be lost in our desperation for a hero.

For like Jean-Baptiste, who doffed his cap for the pleasure of the public, it had no real meaning to the person it was supposed to benefit.

Inclusive growth was the minister’s watchword during his speech, but even a cursory perusal of the substance reveals merely the doffing of a hat to a blind man, a R10 as a token. A R10 increase in grants only affirms the ingrown paternalism of a government that has failed to come to grips with the true causes of the inequality that denies South Africans their right to work and which has been driven in many ways by the capture of our government by a particular western paradigm of development.

An example of the government’s failure to decolonise the economy for the benefit of the majority of South Africans can be found in the mining sector.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, in a recent address to the International Association of Refugee Law Judges, remarked that “until we get to the root cause of the problem, we will be touching on the leaves and branches for many centuries to come”. He then called on his audience to “imagine how different the situation would be in Africa if Africans enjoyed just as much benefit out of the mineral resources on their continent as other countries outside Africa do”.

The judge is not wrong when he says South Africans are denied the right to access wealth provided to foreign investors.

In Kimberley, between 500 and 1 000 informal miners are facing an attempt by large-scale miners to interdict them from accessing abandoned plots in which the informal miners eke out a living.

The irony of the application by Petra Diamonds and Ekapa Minerals is that they themselves do not have rights over 98 percent of the land they wish to keep the miners from entering. Here is a profitable operation that has produced billions of rand for foreign shareholders over the past 150 years, and which does not lose a cent in revenue from the actions of the informal miners, but which through greed wishes to prevent families from putting food on the table.

This situation is allowed to emerge through the tacit and collaborative efforts of the Department of Mineral Resources it would seem. In 2015, the then minister of mineral resources instructed the department to assist the informal miners secure legal status and access mining rights and permits. Since then, the informal miners have been trying to get the department to assist them in this regard but all that appears to have happened is that it has provided the names of the informal miners (after the department insisted they needed copies of their IDs) to Petra Diamonds so that it could bring a deficient application to have the miners interdicted. How else would Petra Diamonds have determined the names of the informal miners?

The blanket ban on artisanal mining that is enacted in the legislation of the Mining Petroleum Resources Development Act seems contrary to the UN's International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a binding treaty signed by South Africa in 1994 and ratified in 2015, which requires the government to recognise the right to work.

Article 6 states: “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognise the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts and will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right.”

The AU’s African Charter on Human and People’s Rights similarly recognises the right to work, and the South African constitution establishes a right to “choose their trade, occupation or profession freely”, subject to reasonable regulation.

In the current case, between 500 to 1 000 miners have been mining the "floors", a thin layer of tailings found not in mine dumps, but on otherwise ordinary looking ground. This mining has been going on for at least a decade. The floors are ideally suited for small-scale mining as the minerals are not deep and floors are only found in areas already environmentally damaged.

The miners live, often together with children and elders, near the sites they have mined. For the past nine months, they have been engaging with the department and the mine in an effort to regularise their current practices. The interdict was brought without any notice and jeopardises the entire regularisation process. If granted, it would abruptly destroy their livelihoods and have the effect of evicting them from their current accommodation.

Here is an example of an easily accessible solution to the interminable unemployment crises faced by our economy, but which receives short shrift from those in power, as it goes against the gospel of neo-liberal capital-intensive solutions.

So if the minster was truly interested in providing real solutions to the quagmire faced by our economy, we should expect him to do more than doff his hat in pretence of providing solutions before we elevate him to hero status.

Surely the poor and marginalised deserve more than paternalism and theatre; surely they deserve the right and opportunity to work.

* Christopher Rutledge is mining and extractives co-ordinator for ActionAid SA. Follow AASA on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. AASA is a member of ActionAid International, a global movement of people working together to further human rights and eradicate poverty