Tito's hidden message

Andrew Donaldson on the context to the finance minister's biblical quotation in his budget speech



THE finance minister, Tito Mboweni, is perhaps our most guileless politician. He’s certainly among the least cynical. Those, for example, who’ve come across his activities on social media have been struck by the innocent naivety and lack of malice in his frequent postings.

An undoubted romantic, Mboweni’s enthusiastic outpourings about the tropical splendours of Limpopo’s Mopani district suggest a deep, almost spiritual connection to the region and it is not unlikely that he believes fairies and unicorns dwell in the hills and valleys around Tzaneen where he was born.

This is not to suggest he is unaware of the grim realities the country faces, and though he offered no real solutions to curb overspending, his first budget as finance minister didn’t shy away from difficult truths concerning the legacy of wholesale corruption, government profligacy, insane borrowing, rent-seeking and criminal ineptitude. 

As is customary on such occasions, there was a certain amount of folksiness and pseudo-philosophical guff on Wednesday. This is a tradition carried over from the Trevor Manuel budgets, initially intended to offset middle-class moaning and leaven the blows to the bourgeois purse with a few crap jokes at their expense. 

However, now that the workers are also being bled dry, it’s not so funny anymore.

Mboweni started with a pot plant, an Aloe ferox, and a verse from the Old Testament: “For the seed shall be prosperous; the vine shall give her fruit, and the ground shall give her increase, and the heavens shall give their due; and I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things.” (Zechariah 8:12)

Any fears that a lengthy discourse on expropriation without compensation would follow soon evaporated; this was merely Mboweni, the “part-time farmer”, channeling his inner Credo Mutwa as he laid out the lesson of this, the first of three Biblical quotes in his address, and those leaning towards a form of socialist agronomy would have found some comfort here. 

Plant the seed. Water the soil. Be mindful of bad weather. Persevere despite the pests that attack the green shoots. The seed will bear fruit. But only if tended by a collective. Fail to act as a collective and the plant will surely wither and die. The people will then not be served. (And they may be forced to purchase food imported from Israel, resulting in yet more unhappiness with Woolworths.)

The problem, though, with politicians who quote chapter and verse from scripture is that they invariably overlook context. In this case, it’s instructive to consider “the remnant of this people” mentioned by Zecheriah: they were the small group of Israelites who survived slaughter by the Assyrians when they invaded Judah in the eighth century BCE. 

It’s admittedly not subtle, but such carnage could serve as a metaphor for the devastation of the fiscus by the Jacob Zuma administration; Mboweni’s budget, in other words, addressed this remnant of an economy.

Like Zuma, the Assyrians stopped at nothing when it came to the destruction of thriving infrastructures. Consider this entry from the memoirs of the emperor Ashurbanipal following a foray into what is now part of modern-day Iran: “I flattened the land of Elam to its full extent. I deprived its fields of the clamour of humans, the sound of the treading oxen, sheep and goats, and the cries of pleasant work songs.”

That, arguably, describes our present economic situation. There is, however, considerable difference between Zuma and the Assyrian tyrant: Ashurbanipal, a learned man who presided over a vast territory in the seventh century BCE, was aware that when it came to such activities it was considered best practice that only other societies be put to the sword and never one’s own. The thief in chief could never really grasp this concept.

But there were other aspects of Ashurbanipal’s reign that Zuma surely understands and may even envy. Like the fact that the emperor’s critics were brought before him to have their tongues ripped out and then, for further sport, were flayed alive. A grim thought, but one that recently occurred as I took in the British Museum’s wonderful exhibition, I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria

This, of course, in the wake of Accused Number One’s assertion in a fresh affidavit before the courts that no other person has ever been as unjustly and cruelly persecuted, and that the humiliation he has suffered at the hands of the National Prosecuting Authority is unparalleled in the history of a democratic South Africa. If not the history of the world.

This certainly was a revelation, and gives pause for thought. Conventional wisdom had suggested Zuma was impervious to such things; thanks to a teflon hide, it was said, he was unaffected by rebuke or criticism. But now he admits he is a sensitive sort, shamed and humiliated by such treatment. 

Perhaps his critics need to be more considered in their approach, and choose their words with greater care, especially if they wish to capitalise on this weakness and put in the boot. 

In this regard, a passage from the Richard Nixon obituary by the late Hunter S Thompson should prove inspirational: “I have written worse things about Nixon, many times, and the record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got the chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.”

But, speaking of museums and to get back to Mboweni, I note that the commentariat has not made much of the following paragraph, which turned up in the middle of his speech:

“Finally, the global renown of South Africa’s art and culture is an expression of our soft power and our heritage. Our public finance choices should reflect an intention to preserve and add to our cultural canon. Officials from the National Treasury and the Department of Arts and Culture will consider proposals for the development of a new national theatre, a new national museum, and also consider financial support for the National Archives, a national orchestra and ballet troupe.”

Quite a WTF moment, if we think about it. State support for the arts is certainly admirable and a generally accepted practice the world over. In our case, though, perhaps not. This has nothing to do with funding, of which there is less than none, but rather the embarrassment that we will all suffer as a result. 

The notion of a “new national theatre” unfortunately conjures up images of Dali Tambo floating about the wings in a voluminous muumuu while on stage cultural workers hector audiences into catatonia with mangled discourses on the necessity of a renewed revolutionary response to neocolonial aggression.

As for a “new national museum”, well, what would we put in it? The past is not so much contested as lost and out of our grasp, thanks to the immaturity and intellectual shut-down that now dominates public debate. 

All of this reeks of arts and culture minister Nathi Mthethwa’s lofty “nation-building” plans and his perverted wish that we all “socially cohere”. This must be resisted at all costs. 

Much like the state coffers, there is little in the ruling party’s idea of cohesion that is of any benefit whatsoever. 


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