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Wed Mar 29 05:16:59 SAST 2017

The Big Read: The numbers leave us number

Tom Eaton | 2017-02-21 08:06:41.0
GO FIGURE: We live in a country where very little adds up
Image by: GETTY I M AG E S / ISTO C K P H OTO

When parliament gathers tomorrow, and the Speaker invites the minister of finance to address the House, and Brian Molefe stands up, and Jacob Zuma hisses, "Not yet, Brian!" and Pravin Gordhan politely clears his throat, South Africans won't understand a word that comes out of his mouth.

That's because we are astonishingly bad at maths. Every year the educational surveys confirm it: if a deity told us to go forth and multiply, we'd go fourth and divide.

Perhaps that's inevitable in a place where so little adds up. Consider a South African story sum: "If a train leaves Johannesburg at noon on Tuesday and travels at 100km/h, what time will it arrive in Cape Town, 1400km away?"

This question is, obviously, impossible to answer. For starters, did the train stop outside Kimberley for four hours or only two hours because of cable theft? And when you say "arrive in Cape Town", does that mean it arrived intact and under its own power or does it still count if half the train grinds to a halt near the station upside down and on fire?

Not surprisingly, many of us quickly learnt that one plus one equals migraine, and gave up on numbers before we'd reached our, er, (looks at fingers) ninth birthday.

Which is why Gordhan could recite the collected lyrics of Adele and we'd think something fiscally significant had just happened.

Sensing our anxiety around numbers, some media outlets avoided the Budget build-up entirely, preferring to focus on ANC veteran Mathews Phosa, who claimed to have had a "Damascus moment" at the State of the Nation address two weeks ago.

I've always found it an odd phrase: referring to yourself as St Paul, the sixth-most important person in Christendom after the Holy Trinity, the Virgin and John the Baptist, seems a peculiar way to express a humbling moment. But theology aside, I'm confused by this particular journey on the road to Damascus.

I understand how a bloke might pass the hamlet of Nkandla and not fall off his horse. But surely when you passed the smoking ruins of the village of Marikana you'd experience the tiniest suspicion that it might be time to reassess your beliefs?

Confused by these questions, other media focused instead on the revelation that currency traders had been colluding to rig the rates of the thing that controls the thing with the money and - please don't make me go on. I didn't understand any of it. And neither did the people who tried to get angry about it over the weekend. "It's a disgrace, hey? Someone should go to jail for. that thing . they did. with the money.?"

No, thanks to the maths-shaped hole in our brains we won't have a clue what Gordhan is talking about.

But we do know a couple of things.

The first is that Gordhan is under ferocious political pressure.

Last week the ANC Youth League called for him to be fired, claiming he is blocking transformation projects. The Young Lions are, of course, absolutely right: Gordhan has consistently stood between them and their project to transform themselves into rich people.

We also know that Gordhan is facing a tax revenue shortfall of R28-billion, which is basically the entire hold of a privately owned Boeing taking off at midnight from Waterkloof headed for Dubai.

At this point the frugal reader who understands a household budget might remind Gordhan that auditor-general Kimi Makwetu found irregular expenditure of R46-billion last year. Surely, they might politely ask, the minister could simply tell the government to stop flushing billions down the toilet?

But such questions betray a naïve belief that something has gone wrong rather than to plan; that "irregular spending" is an administrative slip-up rather than the public face of a deliberate system of plunder. Because that money isn't being flushed away into a void. Rather, it is flowing, at a rate of R87,000 every minute, into the bank accounts of "public servants", well-connected CEOs, and the people who keep smallanyana skeletons safely locked in closets - a vast ecosystem of political filter-feeders, gorging on vast clouds of money.

Finally, we know one more thing: taxes will rise. And why wouldn't they? If you were Tony Soprano's financial adviser would you tell him to cut back? Hell no. You'd tell him you'll make it work. And then you'd go out and slap an extra two points on every loan and put the screws on a few more shopkeepers.

Yes, they'll make it work. And so will we. Will it add up? Probably not. But when has that ever stopped a South African?

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