OPINION | Mboweni brings hope we can turn the corner
February is always full of political action in SA. Last year was extraordinary: a postponed state of the nation speech, a president ejected by the governing party, a new president and a major cabinet reshuffle all in one short month. The month’s chaos was a fitting epitaph to the 10 years of purposelessness of the Zuma years.
Last year’s budget was delivered by a discredited, ill-at-ease pretender to the position who knew that he was about to be kicked out of the office he did not deserve. The man tried to be woke, quoting musician and urban poet Kendrick Lamar: “We gonna be alright!”
We were not alright and his assurance was more than hollow. He hiked VAT to plug the hole in the country’s finances created by his comrades’ rampant corruption in government departments and state-owned enterprises. The VAT hike stays with us through this year, meaning that we all, particularly the poor, continue to pay for the Zuma administration’s misrule of the past 10 years.
This year’s political events followed a more traditional route: a dignified state of the nation speech delivered by a president who is taken seriously, then followed by a finance minister (Tito Mboweni) whose little finger commands more respect than Gigaba’s entire body.
The Sona, as Mboweni pointed out in his budget speech last week, gave us a road map to the future. Mboweni’s job, in the shadow of the Zuma administration’s total wrecking of the economy, was to tell us where the money was coming from.
There is much to criticise in Mboweni’s budget and many commentators have done so eloquently. Yet to my mind there is much to praise, and much to be hopeful about in this budget despite the tough and bitter news it conveyed.
First, this budget was delivered by a team whose commitment to the growth and development of this country and its people cannot be doubted. This may seem an odd point to make because one expects that that is why people would be in public service, right?
Well, the past 10 years have aptly demonstrated that this is not actually the truth. The minister who delivered last year’s speech hovers over the disembowelment of our state-owned enterprises and their sell -off to the Gupta family. In essence, what defines the Mboweni team – as the minister made clear when he alluded to his oath of office – is country above narrow political interests.
Of course, it’s been a year since Cyril Ramaphosa became president and he cannot dine out forever on having removed Zuma. That was just the first battle in the war to turn the country around.
The state-owned enterprises is where the corruption feeding frenzy took place. From Eskom to Denel to so many other entities, one finds the fingerprints of the Zuma-Gupta-Bosasa corruption enterprise. It was more than refreshing that this finance minister started asking tough questions about the running of these companies and unveiled a new process that may lead to the privatisation of some of these entities.
Let’s be honest: why does Eskom currently exist? For the past 10 years it has existed to line the pockets of elites and their corrupt friends and families. The energy industry needs opening up, the monopoly of Eskom needs to be reduced and people need to get service. Romantic ideas of government alone delivering such a service are a hangover from the past – or an attempt to continue looting. Mboweni’s speech also confronted the elephant in the room: the bloated civil service and the need to trim. That process has begun.
It won’t endear him to Cosatu. Yet he won’t mind. They called him names in the 1990s when he shepherded the Labour Relations Act through parliament.
They’ll call him names now.
Mboweni extended meaningful financial muscle to the rejuvenation of the SA Revenue Services and to the National Prosecuting Authority.
Remember how the Scorpions, ruthlessly destroyed by the Zuma ANC in 2008 after its Polokwane conference, were able to send ANC luminaries such as Tony Yengeni to prison? A culture of accountability was being fostered. With the disbandment of the Scorpions and the installation of the Hawks (can anyone mention a single political bigwig that they and their hapless leader Berning Ntlemeza sent to jail?) the state capture project was complete. In plain terms, had the Scorpions been alive then the rampant corruption of the past 10 years would have been nipped in the bud. Hopefully the financial support to rebuild not just SARS and the NPA, coupled with the appointment of new leaders at these institutions, will help the rebuilding of SA.
The criticism of Mboweni and Ramaphosa are not misplaced, of course. Why are they both not turning to the minister of home affairs and asking him why tourists are still struggling to come to SA due to Malusi Gigaba’s nonsensical visa rules? This is an easy win, yet it still hasn’t been dealt with.
Corporates complain that skilled migrants can’t get work visas for SA. Why? We need them, yet we make it difficult for them to come and work here. This is where the Ramaphosa effect fails: lots of talk, lethargic action.
Yet, in all, there is hope.
There is a new resolve in government. It won’t be easy. Ramaphosa’s comrades in the Zuma faction of the ANC, are clearly and openly working to undermine him.
The trade unions have chosen to protect their jobs. The battles ahead will be bloody. Yet from this month’s Sona and budget speech there is a glimmer of hope that we can turn the corner...