RON DERBY: Let's hear it for Tito Mboweni the iconoclast

07 April 2019 - 00:09 By Ron Derby

Since Tito Mboweni's appointment as finance minister, I've been struck by his apparently cavalier attitude to overseeing a fiscal position that is bordering on full-blown "junk" status.
He spoke quite candidly of his lack of interest in the job when it was first offered after Nhlanhla Nene fell on his sword last year.
But I am coming to think that his candid views on the future of state-owned enterprises, expressed without regard for his own political standing within his party, might be the dose of reality we need at this point.
While a finance minister is a presidential appointee, he or she should, much like the CFO of a company, be able to stand on his or her own principles.
Independence required
No taxpayer or shareholder should be comfortable with a chief bean counter who blindly follows the whims of either the party or of the CEO.
PPC shareholders, for example, will one day thank the company's CFO Tryphosa Ramano for having protected the cement producer from the whims of its CEOs.
To get back to Mboweni.
Last week, the board of the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) decided to temporarily suspend summonses to recover e-toll debt.
This was done without approval from the state or a plan B for future funding.
It was a clear overreach by the agency, a blurring of the lines of responsibility between the state and an institution under its ambit.
This has been a common thread in the collapse of governance over the past decade. Where are the boundaries, people?
Mboweni's criticism of the decision wasn't a case of a politician playing to an audience or seeking a populist stage.
The thing with populists that irritates me is that they often raise important and emotive issues but rarely consider the unintended consequences.
Boris the bully
Ask some of the leading lights of UK politics, such as the Eton-educated Boris Johnson, who are marching that country into an uncertain future.
Over the years that the e-toll drama has been with us, the ANC and virtually all other political parties have used the issue of the gantries on the most important strip of highway in the country as a populist ticket.
But no workable alternative to pay for maintenance or construction has been put forward.
Sure, it makes for great headlines that you are against tolls, but in the absence of a user-pays system very little new infrastructure will get built.
As urbanisation continues at a pace never imagined, the demand for infrastructure will rise ever higher in years to come.
About 85% of the country's national road system is funded through the fiscus, the balance through tolling.
Who will pay?
Given the state's mounting debt, there's little room for additional expenditure.
There's a strong argument to be made that the wasteful and corrupt spending of the past has contributed to this.However, even with the cleanest of books, the state would still need the private sector to help pay for road infrastructure and for energy expansion projects.Mboweni's criticism of Sanral was as refreshing as his willingness to challenge the sacred cow of state ownership of certain assets.It was not a statement that would meet general acclaim in his party.Sobriety is what SA's political theatre has been yearning for, and Mboweni is delivering it. It's been a while since we've had a finance minister who can stand firm and not feel the ground shift beneath him in the midnight hours. It's refreshing - let me remind you that between Trevor Manuel's departure in 2009 and Mboweni's arrival last year, the finance portfolio has rotated between Pravin Gordhan (twice), Nene (twice), Des van Rooyen (for one weekend) and Malusi Gigaba. Mboweni, the most reluctant of them, has seemingly found the most solid ground.• Derby, a former Business Times editor, hosts Power Business on PowerFM...

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day, Financial Mail or Rand Daily Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.