Godongwana does good

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the quiet perseverance of our finance minister


Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana is unobtrusive and boring, the quintessential grey man of politics.

That’s not a criticism. Finance ministers universally too often strive to be sparklingly witty, engagingly flamboyant. Such behaviour might be a deep-seated response to their colleagues generally resenting them, much in the way that feckless adolescents resenting their parents for not readily doling out large dollops of cash on demand.

A BusinessLIVE editorial on Godongwana’s Wednesday Budget statement expressed relief that there were still “good and sober technocrats” like him in the Treasury. Despite the “walls closing in on four sides” he somehow managed to find some wriggle room and “to stretch a metaphor, pulled a rabbit out of a hat that ought never to have been in our wardrobe”. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The Democratic Alliance nit-picked that there was “nothing bold” in his speech and damned the “irresponsible” bail-outs for Eskom, SA Post Office, South African Airways and the Land Bank. But most business reaction was along the lines of the assessment by Economics Professor Raymond Parsons of the North-West University Business School that the Budget was “surprise-free, pragmatic, and credible”.

The stock, bond and currency markets all agreed, registering a nice uptick. Well, for the moment. At least until the next below-the-waterline hole is discovered in the creaking, swaying, snapping infrastructure of the good ship South Africa.

Of course, as is true of virtually every person in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet, Godongwana is not untainted by corruption allegations. In 2005, a three-person judicial inquiry implicated him and several other ANC leaders in financial irregularities in the Eastern Cape administration. It led to Godongwana being fired as the provincial minister of Economic Affairs but he was vindicated, sort of, when the High Court set the report aside on a technicality in 2009.

He was immediately snapped up by President Jacob Zuma, serving as deputy minister of Economic Development and then of Public Enterprises, until his resignation in 2012 upon the publication of allegations linking him to an investment company that had managed to disappear R100 million of trade union funds. No charges were ever brought.

In 2019 he was appointed by Ramaphosa to chair the board of the Development Bank. Barely a year later, the parliamentary Public Accounts oversight committee launched an investigation into allegations by United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa that Godongwana was using his position at the Development Bank to channel funds to companies in which he held a stake. The Bank, somewhat ambiguously, defended Godongwana as having an “unparalleled” record working in public institutions. 

The parliamentary investigation is ongoing but like every investigation into ANC corruption, is almost guaranteed to peter out to nothing. Any faint whiff of impropriety that may cloy to Godongwana was not enough to deter Ramaphosa from appointing him as Tito Mboweni’s successor in August 2021. 

Why would it? Godongwana’s resumé of corruption claims and being fired; corruption claims and resigning; and corruption claims and being promoted, follow a now well-established arc for ANC luminaries. 

And, let’s be realistic, what options does the president have, given the sluggish motility of what talent remains in the ANC gene puddle? At least, on the evidence of his MSc from the University of London and his ability to remain ahead of the National Prosecuting Authority, he is no fool. 

Certainly, in Ramaphosa’s lurid circus of clowns, cowboys, and bearded ladies, Godongwana is something of an anomaly. The invisible man does his job with steady perseverance, without drama and affectation.

Maybe best of all, there's no lecturing in his Budget speeches. This is a nation sick to the back teeth of being told by parasitic politicians — cocooned in free, uninterrupted power supplies and protected by blue-light brigades — that our thundering cascade of disasters is actually a blessing in disguise. A heaven-sent opportunity to buff up our national character and to prove our mettle.

“Resilient” and its variations have become popular words in the ANC lexicon.  As the country sinks deeper and deeper into the dwang, such rallying cries — Churchillian in intent but unfortunately not in effect— have become more frequent and more lyrical. 

At this year’s SONA, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that despite us being in an “existential crisis”, all would be okay because we’re a nation “defined by hope and resilience” and our “spirit of determination”. We merely need, as a nation, “to stay the course”. 

At last year’s SONA, he told us that although “engaged in a battle for the soul of this country”, all would be okay because — as that state-designated sage President Thabo Mbeki put it — “trying times need courage and resilience”. “Our strength as a people,” Cyril ended with a flourish, “is not tested during the best of times.” In other words, embrace the pain, suckers.

In 2020 and 2021, Ramaphosa and his then Finance Minister Tito Mboweni both dug deep in four successive speeches to be inspirational. It became the political equivalent of duelling banjos — in this case duelling botanicals — as each tried to outdo the other in boosting the morale of South Africans with homilies involving indigenous plants.

There was Ramaphosa, wielding our national flower, “the hardy Protea”, both at a SONA and an international investors conference. The Protea, he said, not only survives the fiercest blaze but literally depends on it in order to release its seed and germinate. This was how South Africa would “phoenix-like” resurrect itself and rise from the ashes of its troubles.

Then there was Mboweni, who opted for “the hardy Aloe Ferox”, which could survive even while “the tempest is raging”. As would South Africans.

In another Budget speech, he simpered ingratiatingly that although the “storm is not over” the country would overcome because “Mr President, you are the wise farmer, caring for this Aloe Ferox”. 

While all this flummery is enough to make a hyena puke, there’s a kernel of truth here. Ask any South African to define the undefinable — the most salient characteristics of an unusually diverse conglomeration of peoples — and I’d wager that they’re likely to come up with phrases that indicate traits like mental toughness, determination, a can-do approach and, yes, resilience.

Our national motto is not the ! ke e: /xarra //ke, Khoisan for “diverse people unite”, which appears on the coat-of-arms. In our hearts, it has for centuries by necessity been ’n boer maak ’n plan. Loosely translated, that’s Afrikaans for “whatever the damn problem, a farmer can improvise a solution”.

Probably not many South Africans would mention the Protea or the Aloe Ferox specifically.  Except possibly that the latter plant — large, spiky, and bitter but detoxifying — as an appropriate suppository to the rear ends of pretentious ANC politicians. Now that would improve the national morale no end.

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