Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni has acknowledged that the government “needs to get its house in order”. Picture: Phando Jikelo African News Agency (ANA)
Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni has acknowledged that the government “needs to get its house in order”. Picture: Phando Jikelo African News Agency (ANA)

Budget Speech 2020 shows ANC’s schizophrenic alliances

By William Saunderson-Meyer Time of article published Feb 29, 2020

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Charles Dickens and St Paul. Bram Fischer’s sentencing speech from the dock.

Pliny the Elder, in the original Latin. The hardy Aloe Ferox as a

metaphor to laud the resilience of the South African economy and our people.

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni has embraced with gusto the tradition of finance ministers using their Budget speeches as an opportunity to display their erudition and wit. It’s a practice that started with Trevor Manuel in 1997.

In a decade of post-apartheid

governance in which growth soared to 5% and averaged out at an annual 3.6%, the initially derided Manuel would weave his magic against a backdrop

of references to the likes of the

Senegalese protest poet David Diop and the Austrian political economist Joseph Schumpeter.

To leaven this heady intellectual mix, he introduced the popular innovation of Tips for Trevor, inviting the public to send him their bright ideas on what he should do.

Manuel’s artful display of the common touch has hit the spot with Mboweni and President Cyril Ramaphosa. Mboweni invited suggestions on Twitter and quoted several nuggets of submitted homespun wisdom.

And a fortnight ago, Ramaphosa was televised cloistered with a bevy of photogenic school kids, supposedly together writing his State of the Nation address (Sona).

Given the intellectually lightweight content of what was eventually delivered, that the president actually followed their advice is unfortunately all too possible.

In this, his second Budget speech, Mboweni draws extensively from what he refers to as “the Good Book”.

Last year, appropriately, it was David in Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the shadow of Death”. This week, it was Paul

in First Corinthians, “Do you not know that those who run in a race

all run, but only one receives the prize?”

Aside from the refreshingly politically-incorrect suggestion that in the real world there are winners and losers, Mboweni’s Budget was a gutsy contrast to Ramaphosa’s disappointingly

anodyne Sona.

These two policy-defining addresses could have been delivered by two opposing political parties, which is symptomatic of the schizophrenic nature of the ANC’s alliance with the SACP and Cosatu.

Ramaphosa’s approach in Sona was supplicatory, the tone was one of accommodation, even appeasement. In contrast, Mboweni’s tone is more practical, the emphasis on achieving

a “capable and efficient” state

apparatus.

As he put it before pulling the rug from under government employees: “Our Aloe Ferox can withstand the long dry season because it is unsentimental. It sheds dead weight to direct increasingly scarce resources to what is young and vital.”

Then, confounding predictions that he would not dare take on the

left of the party, he announced a R160billion cut over three years to the public service salary bill.

Rubbing further salt into Cosatu’s wounds of an earlier announcement that the government wants to

renegotiate its public service wage agreement, Mboweni provided some rare relief to individual taxpayers, as well as promising an unspecified future cut in the corporate tax rate.

Cosatu’s reaction has been predictable: “the battle lines are drawn”. If government dares proceed with these changes, Cosatu will “collapse” the public service and “part ways” with the government.

How a conflict between the unions and the Ramaphosa administration plays out is as important for South Africa as is that between the Ramaphosa faction and the state-capture remnants of the Zuma era.

For South Africa to avoid economic implosion, Ramaphosa has to win both battles.

How the forces stack up is still unclear. Ramaphosa’s position is weakened by the fact he is indebted to Cosatu and the SACP for his election as party leader and his survival as the country’s president.

But it is a relationship of mutual dependency. Because there is no love lost between the unionists and

communists on the one hand, and the Zuma-ites on the other, Ramaphosa is their only channel to exercising significant influence and power.

So, Cosatu and the SACP will undoubtedly huff and puff. But, one hopes, calculatedly not hard enough to bring down on everyone’s head, including their own, the roof of Ramaphosa’s rickety residence.

*Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

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