Budget 2017: Gordhan’s temporary solution to the coming tsunamis

William Saunderson-Meyer says the finance minister holds office at the pleasure of a president who loathes him


Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s budget speech this week was hailed by communist and capitalist alike. That, really, is not the good thing that it may seem. 

Economic Freedom Front leader Julius Malema literally tipped his hard-hat to Gordhan. Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi hailed it as a “very magnificent performance”. The Democratic Alliance joined all the other MPs — with the notable exception of a handful of Gordhan’s African National Congress colleagues — in giving Gordhan a standing ovation.

Given such uncommon bonhomie, a cynic might suspect the MPs of smoking something. The government had, after all, just announced the imminent legalisation of dagga, albeit for medicinal use only, at present. 

The euphoria stretched beyond Parliament. Business Leadership said Gordhan had done a “great job”. Daily Maverick enthused that his was “a new moral vision in a time of disorder” and the Financial Mail said the budget was a “political masterstroke”.

Political unanimity is an indication that the situation is dire, that our backs are pressed against the wall. It tells us how very far South Africa has ambled down Shit Street.

It is dawning on us that we are stuck in a cul-de-sac, in a grim part of shantytown. In the absence of any discernible leadership from President Jacob Zuma, hopes have become pinned on Gordhan to extricate us from the squalid labyrinth. 

These hopes are unreasonable, under the circumstances. Gordhan holds office at the pleasure of a president who loathes him. And this is a president who has made clear that he wants Treasury controlled by someone more amenable to the needs of his Gupta clan benefactors. 

Tellingly, among the cabinet ministers who remained stonily silent following Gordhan’s speech was Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Des van Rooyen. A good friend of the Guptas, “Weekend Special” Des still hankers to be finance minister, a job he had for only three days, and Zuma has indicated that he still likes him for that position. 

What Gordhan presented in Parliament was not so much a budget than a series of dykes. And while dykes can provide much needed respite, the failure on any one may mean the swamping of all who shelter behind them. 

Firstly, his programme is a political dyke to try to keep at bay those besieging the fiscus. These are the likes of Water Minister, Nomvula Mokonyane, runs a department that is R4.3bn in the red and is facing corruption and maladministration investigations by the Public Protector and the Special Investigating Unit.

Mokonyane wants Treasury’s powers curbed so that everyone can share the “cake”, she said recently. “It can’t be correct that Treasury tells us what can happen and what cannot happen.”

Sharing the “cake” is what Zuma’s new catchphrase, “radical economic transformation”, is all about. No, not about sharing the national wealth among the excluded masses. Rather, it’s about divvying up what yum-yums are on the table among the politically connected Zuma-aligned elite.

Zuma is already two-thirds of the way through his final presidential term. There is a groundswell among those not yet sated, who want to accelerate the pace of looting and, best scenario, get rid of any and all that stand in the path of pillage. 

Gordhan’s second dyke is an attempt to keep economic upheaval at bay. On the face of it, Gordhan’s budget successfully negotiates the tightrope, in that it continues to grow the massive social expenditure to which the ANC is committed, while delivering a plan that is prudent enough to satisfy investors and lenders, for the moment.

There are ominous signs, though. Government debt is R2.2trillion and is growing. Revenue collection is down by more than R30bn a year. 

And there are also two unacknowledged tsunamis on the horizon. The first is the planned implementation of the National Health Insurance programme by 2025. The second is the Zuma’s commitment to a nuclear power programme.

As envisaged by the government, the NIHI will at today’s prices cost around R720bn, according to an Institute of Race Relations’ calculation. The nuclear spend, murkily being lined up with the Russians by the Zuma inner circle, might cost a trillion rand. Or a trillion dollars. No one knows precisely, but it is certainly more than SA can afford.

It is because South Africans sense looming disaster, that there is an almost universal goodwill towards Gordhan. But to keep the barbarians at bay, Gordhan’s rearguard action has to last at least another couple of years, until there is a new and hopefully better president.

It seems unlikely that this is possible. Both the political and the economic dykes are showing cracks and Gordhan just doesn’t have enough fingers to plug them.

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