Hypocrite-in-chief lectures populace on tax morality
FW de Klerk once said: "Australia's greatest problem is that it has no great problem - nobody can say that about South Africa."
While South Africa in the past few days was busy living up to Lenin's aphorism that "there are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen", I found myself far away, Down Under.
From Tasmania, I witnessed an update of the De Klerk reference. While South Africa was removing one president and installing another, the Australian media oxygen was consumed with the antics of its sexually incontinent deputy prime minister.
Barnaby Joyce, a rum character who, like De Klerk once did, heads a "family values" National Party, was under huge pressure to resign due to impregnating a staffer while still married, and in fact has since quit as deputy prime minister.Hypocrisy, defined by Pieter-Dirk Uys as the Vaseline that greases all politics, is apparently universal.
On Wednesday, I barely had time to rub away the jet lag before watching with wonder as our own hypocrite-in-chief, Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba, delivered his maiden budget.
Whatever his other shortcomings, Gigaba is nothing other than finely tailored, but the desperation budget he delivered was composed entirely of a hair shirt.
It took him an hour and a half to deliver, but on the social media platforms of which our finance minister is a devotee, it was summed up in one meme, replete with a grinning Gigaba: "We stole your money, now you must pay us back."Other words confronting Gigaba were thrust in his face by opposition chief whip John Steenhuisen, quoting Judge Neil Tuchten of the High Court in Pretoria.
In an unedifying legal fight with the Oppenheimer family over rights to a private jet terminal, Gigaba had emerged as the chief defender of the Gupta family interests - the ex-Saxonwold émigrés' hired hand at home affairs, no matter how magically on budget day he transformed himself into the enemy of state capture.
As the judgment revealed, the minister, who demanded savage penalties from the taxpayer for the state plunder in which he was a leading light, is a perjurious liar.
Impossible, then, for him to demand tax morality from his now overburdened citizenry, exactly what his bad news budget requires.
But demand it he did, on payment day for the profligacy, theft and populist promises of the Zuma era.
As commentator Eusebius McKaiser said, with considerable understatement: "Gigaba is the wrong person to ask taxpayers to dig deep again to plug the giant hole (around R100-billion at one estimate) created by the state capture nightmare in which he has been a major character."
Because the background noise surrounding Gigaba is so intense, it is easy to lose sight of one essential takeaway from this week's budget: it was almost free of ideology.
Grand plans for "radical economic transformation" and the grab-bag of populist grandstanding were mostly absent, other than free university education for students - which is unaffordable in view of so many other social ills requiring rectification.Gigaba might be a poster child for state capture, but on Wednesday, at least, he allowed himself to be captured by the National Treasury mandarins, who have to push back against the decade of near-zero growth and state plunder for which Zuma will be chiefly remembered.
From right field of the commentariat another criticism hit Gigaba. Ethics aside, their complaint was Gigaba's inability to plot a course to decent growth and pilot some real plans for structural economic reforms.
They forget that ANC policy is unfriendly terrain for crucially needed labour market reform and other pro-growth measures. But if President Cyril Ramaphosa rids himself of the state capturers, including Gigaba, his promised "new dawn" will be, at least, not a false sighting.
• Leon is a former leader of the opposition and a former ambassador to Argentina