Mboweni draws the big, bad wolf to the door

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the Finance Minister's budget speech challenge to the unions


It was a speech with a pedigree. It found room for Charles Dickens, St Paul and Afrikaner renegade Bram Fischer’s final words from the dock. 

It contained Pliny the Elder, in the original Latin, to laud a vibrant and ever-renewing continent. And as an extended botanical metaphor to explain the innate resilience of the South African economy and our people, there was that hardy plant, the Aloe Ferox.

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, who delivered a world record 13 budgets between 1997 and 2009, and who could wax eloquent in several African languages, including isiZulu, isiXhosa, seTswana, seSotho, and Afrikaans. 

In a decade of post-apartheid governance — during which growth soared to 5% and averaged out at 3.6% per annum — 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 clearly hit the spot with both Mboweni and President Cyril Ramaphosa. Mboweni, too, invited the public to tweet him advice and quoted several nuggets of homespun wisdom in his speech.

Similarly, a fortnight ago, Ramaphosa was televised cloistered with a bevy of photogenic school kids, supposedly working together on his State of the Nation Address. That the president actually followed their advice is unfortunately only too likely, given the intellectually lightweight content of the SONA that he eventually produced. 

In this, his second Budget speech, Mboweni again draws extensively from what he likes to refer 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? Run in such a way that you may win!”

Aside from the refreshingly politically-incorrect suggestion that in the real world there are inevitably both winners and losers, Mboweni’s Budget was a gutsy contrast to Ramaphosa’s disappointingly anodyne SONA. Indeed, the contrast is so marked that one wonders whether Mboweni is being deployed as the presidential lightning rod — to test the limits of what is possible but dispensable if the ire it draws from the unions and communists in the alliance becomes unbearable.

Alternatively, if you are optimistic, you might conclude that it’s part of a clever double-act, a calculated advance by stealth, with Ramaphosa laying down the smokescreen and Mboweni driving the tank. By that analysis, the Ramaphosa administration, although still skittish, is growing in confidence that it can prevail against the president’s powerful foes within the party's national executive.

There’s room for either interpretation. So different in style are these two policy-defining addresses, the SONA and the Budget, they could have been delivered by opposing political parties, which is symptomatic of the schizophrenic nature of the African National Congress’ alliance with the SA Communist Party  and the Congress of SA Trade Unions. 

Ramaphosa’s approach in SONA 2020 was supplicatory, the tone one of accommodation, even appeasement. Seemingly forgetting that this is his fourth SONA — the first was in 2018 and because of the general election, there were two in 2019 — Ramaphosa said, “In my first two addresses to the nation I spoke at length about the necessity of social compacting … [the need] for collaboration and consensus. Achieving consensus and building social compacts … is the very essence of who we are.”

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, in order to direct increasingly scarce resources to what is young and vital.”

Then, confounding commentators’ predictions that he would not dare take on the left of the party and no doubt pleasing the rating agencies, he took the first step to shedding that “dead weight”. There would be, he announced, a R160bn cut over three years to the public service salary bill, which has risen 40% in real terms over the past dozen years. 

Mboweni then proceeded to rub further salt into Cosatu wounds of a recent government announcement that it wants to renegotiate the lavish public service wage agreement of last year. Rather than cosseting those in protected employment, he provided some rare, albeit modest, relief to individual taxpayers, as well as promising an unspecified future cut in the corporate tax rate.

Cosatu’s reaction has been predictable. It says the “feeble and inflammatory” Budget means that “the battle lines are drawn.”  

The government’s “continuous attacks” on public servants are “silly and tiresome”, with “little recognition” given to their working conditions, like being “overworked and underpaid”. If the government dares proceed with these changes, Cosatu will “collapse” the public service and “part ways” with the government.

How such a conflict between the unions and the Ramaphosa administration would play out is as important for SA as is the one already raging between the Ramaphosa faction and the radical state-capture remnants of the Zuma era. For SA to avoid economic implosion, Ramaphosa has to win both battles.

How the forces stack up on each side is still unclear. Ramaphosa’s position is weakened by the fact that he is indebted to Cosatu and the SACP for his election as party leader and for his survival as SA’s president. But the unions, too, have been weakened, in their case by years of economic attrition.

It is also, fortunately, 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 the only viable channel for Cosatu and the SACP to exercise significant influence and power.

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.

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