Opinion

A finance minister who can say the things the president cannot - and they need to be said

24 February 2019 - 00:06


President Cyril Ramaphosa should always have his arm around Tito Mboweni, make sure he's got a copious supply of his favourite cigars and ensure that - for some respite from the stress of the job - he repairs to Limpopo from time to time to tend to his small orchard of avos.
Should Mboweni so wish, he should be at liberty to enjoy regular sojourns in a squeaky-clean Rwanda where - legend has it - he enjoys the title of honorary mayor of Kigali. Ramaphosa should have him wrapped in cotton wool. Mboweni is critical to his political fortunes.
There was no good news in Mboweni's budget speech this week. Our finances are in a shambles. Borrowing R1.2bn a day just to stay afloat is not just scary, it's a disaster. No magician could make that sound palatable. The ANC has done an eminently good job of digging us into a hole. And, oddly, we expect it to get us out of it.
Mboweni is not only useful to Ramaphosa as the man in charge of the public purse - although that's important. There's a dearth of plain speaking in this country. Our politics is full of humbug. Mboweni, who can be irascible at times and doesn't mind the odd scrap, will hopefully help to puncture the grandstanding.
He has walked into something of a minefield, but he comes to the job probably better prepared for it than any of his predecessors. He copped a lot of abuse from certain right-wing quarters when he was appointed by former president Nelson Mandela to succeed Chris Stals as governor of the SA Reserve Bank. Until his appointment, the management of the country's resources - the National Treasury, the Bank, etcetera - was almost seen as hallowed ground that was still the preserve of holdovers from the old apartheid order.
Although it won two-thirds of the vote, the ANC chose to leave management of the economy in the hands of its adversaries partly to appease domestic and international capital. Mboweni's appointment to the Bank was therefore seen by some as more than the thin end of the wedge. Horror of horrors, the economy - the country's jewel - was falling into the hands of the dreaded kommuniste.
But Mboweni didn't pull the temple down; instead, he became something of a convert.
As labour minister in Mandela's first cabinet he was the architect of SA's much-maligned labour laws, which some believe have given too much power to the workers. It is doubtful that, given the experience he's had since, especially in management, he would again devise a system that deems workers almost untouchable. His familiarity with labour issues should, however, stand him in good stead in what are likely to be difficult negotiations with unions.
Mboweni also sits on the ANC's national executive committee - Pravin Gordhan, for instance, didn't - which in itself can be a pain with people having easy access to him, but he's right at the centre of the organisation's power and influence, and is able to understand the lie of the land and anticipate events. He's also conversant with the different - even divergent - economic views in the organisation, having been deputy head of its economic policy department.
Mboweni also, unlike his predecessors, has had a detour into business - and it shows. He speaks easily and comfortably about the role of business in society, especially in the creation of jobs.
Trevor Manuel - who's become the yardstick as far as finance ministers are concerned - grew into the job and became probably the country's finest because he had the wholehearted support of first Mandela and then Thabo Mbeki. The party, including his cabinet colleagues, knew that the leader was behind him and was therefore unlikely to disregard or disobey his decisions.
Gordhan did enjoy a semblance of presidential support during his first tour of duty as finance minister under Jacob Zuma. When he held the job for the second time, Zuma set the dogs on him. Even cabinet colleagues illiterate on economic issues, such as Bathabile Dlamini and Nomvula Mokonyane, took it upon themselves to publicly criticise his decisions. They were in fact merely verbalising the president's views.
Malusi Gigaba was meant to be a lapdog, and he played the role unfailingly.
Mboweni obviously has Ramaphosa's support, but he probably doesn't need it. He doesn't even need his job, which is where his strength lies. He can speak his mind. Which is not too much of a problem because there's not too much daylight between the two men's views. He can say things Ramaphosa won't say but which need to be said, especially now that there's fierce contestation about the ideological direction of the party.
Instead of Ramaphosa dipping his own toe in the water, Mboweni can do so for him. A few months ago he wondered aloud why the government thought it wise to run an airline, the troublesome SAA. Ramaphosa didn't make any attempt to correct him. Silence is consent.
Mboweni has used strong language against the ANC decision to nationalise the Reserve Bank. In his presentation this week, he took a swipe at the Road Accident Fund, and was forceful about the drastic measures that need to be taken at Eskom: "Pouring money directly into Eskom in its current form is like pouring water into a sieve." Pretty graphic language. The private sector, he said, was the key engine for job creation - which must have come as a surprise to some of his comrades.
His "post-Soviet" world view won't sit well with some in his party, but he won't mind that one bit.

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