OPINION | Ramaphosa must ride the tiger for SA’s sake

According to the Spectator Index, being a newspaper reporter is the sixth most stressful job in the world.
Topping the list of those with stressful jobs are enlisted military personnel, firefighters and airline pilots. In SA, reporting on politics is probably more distressing than serving in the military, seeing that soldiers are, for the most part, not engaged in active combat, while journalists are constantly in the firing line. Soldiers also do not have to rake through the muck daily.
In our country, working as a PA to a handsy politician and monitoring the Eskom power grid would probably also rank quite high on the stress index.
There are some jobs that are simply not worth the trouble.
Being finance minister used to be a position of prestige and great influence. It is a massive responsibility to manage the country’s finances and requires the confidence and trust of the nation. During the Zuma administration the position of finance minister became a joke.
Former president Jacob Zuma wanted a compliant stooge, not someone mindful of their constitutional responsibilities or the onus on the National Treasury to protect public finances.
Treasury director-general Dondo Mogajane said at a media briefing ahead of the budget that his department “has been hurt over time” with the procession of people filing through the minister’s office, and that they have struggled to adjust.
This is while they withstand populist pressure and demands for more money from across the government in the context of declining tax revenue and a weakening economy.
It is a good thing, therefore, that finance minister Tito Mboweni is a maverick and can withstand the political heat. It is no secret that he did not want to return to the government and had to be talked into it by President Cyril Ramaphosa. He is not desperate to keep his job. As dreadful as the messages were in last week’s budget, Mboweni was able to carry the day because of his big personality and because he is not bothered by the pushback from labour, opposition parties and from within the ANC.
He knows there is a massive battle looming over state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and despite being previously reprimanded by ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule for saying SAA should be closed down, Mboweni is still forcing the debate about parastatals.
“Isn’t it about time the country asks the question: do we still need these enterprises? If we do, can we manage them better? If we don’t need them, what should we do?” he asked in his speech.
Speaking at the pre-budget media briefing, Mboweni said he wanted to “agitate a conversation”. He said he knew this might lead to a showdown with labour but there had to be a conversation about where to deploy scarce public resources.
In the private sector, if a business unit does not work “you shut it down”, he added.
Mboweni and his counterpart at public enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, have to bear the brunt of leading a politically explosive restructuring process at Eskom knowing they have no other options.
They are politically exposed as some people in the leadership of their own party are opposed to the dismantling of the SOE cash cows. Last week’s bizarre turn of events, where the ANC censured Gordhan and the party’s head of organising, Senzo Mchunu, for alleged comments about black professionals, and then apologised to them, is indicative of the internal strains and volatility.
But Mboweni and Gordhan appear to be ready for the fight, judging by how they buckled down last week. They are to appoint a “chief reorganisation officer” – another job bound to make the most-stressful list – who will review the operations and finances at Eskom to prepare for the unbundling of the utility. Strict conditions are being imposed on Eskom to secure the R23bn a year rescue funding, and the board is to enter into a new shareholder compact with Gordhan.
According to the Budget Review, the restructuring and turnaround process will be “unprecedented” but will involve “extensive consultation”. The journey ahead is unpredictable.
But it is not just Eskom that is teetering on the edge. Several other SOEs are running on debt and will have to be refinanced. If their loans are called in, the government would have to honour the guarantees used to keep these entities afloat.
The May election will hype the discourse around the SOEs because load-shedding is a highly emotive issue.
Meanwhile, labour is baying for a skirmish. This restructuring of the energy sector will be an immense stress test for the Ramaphosa administration. If the president and his frontline surrender to political pressure or are trampled by the fightback from the state capture network, SA’s financial and energy crisis will come to a head. They will have to ride the tiger to prevent such a catastrophe...

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