Bud­get 2016

Gord­han thank­ing his pre­de­ces­sor and ANC MPs erupt­ing into ap­plause were acts of sol­i­dar­ity with a col­league and a

CityPress - - Voices And Careers - Fe­rial Haf­fa­jee voices@ city­press. co. za

It was only 30 sec­onds long, but it marked the sem­i­nal mo­ment of this year’s bud­get speech. An hour and 18 min­utes into this speech, Fi­nance Min­is­ter Pravin Gord­han ap­proached the end of a hard slog pre­sent­ing the na­tional rev­enue and spend­ing plan. He thanked his team. And then he thanked his pre­de­ces­sor, Nh­lanhla Nene. And then Par­lia­ment’s Na­tional As­sem­bly clapped for a solid 30 sec­onds. On. And on. And on. The op­po­si­tion benches joined the ANC benches, who started hes­i­tantly at first, but then joined to hon­our the work of the stu­dious fi­nance min­is­ter who was so un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously axed in De­cem­ber.

The man who had chopped him, Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma, sat hunched over, eyes low­ered. He did not clap. Politi­cians and of­fi­cials say the round of ring­ing ap­plause was as much a mo­ment to hon­our Nene as it was a sig­nal to Zuma that the House, in­clud­ing his own benches, did not ap­prove of what had hap­pened.

That mo­ment sets up a co­nun­drum for the men and women who slogged night and day to res­cue the econ­omy. First, some back­ground. The date of Nene’s ax­ing, 9/12, as they call it, was a slap in the face to South Africa’s crack team from the fi­nance depart­ment, Trea­sury and the SA Rev­enue Ser­vice. It felt, said one, like a “coup”. An­other called it “an at­tack”.

If the im­posed in­cum­bent, Des van Rooyen, had not been made to quit four days af­ter be­ing ap­pointed, th­ese of­fi­cials would prob­a­bly all have been gone by now. Highly skilled, proud of what they do and quite nerdish in their at­ten­tion to de­tail, this is a civil ser­vice elite made up of brain-box for­mer ac­tivists. They could work any­where. This team worked from De­cem­ber, when Gord­han re­turned, to put to­gether an un­prece­dented pro­gramme of shut­tle diplo­macy with busi­ness, civil so­ci­ety and trade unions to cre­ate a united front.

And this work in­formed the bud­get. On Wed­nes­day, it was un­veiled by four clever bald men in dark suits: Gord­han, Trea­sury di­rec­tor-gen­eral Lungisa Fuzile, Deputy Fi­nance Min­is­ter Mce­bisi Jonas and Re­serve Bank gov­er­nor Le­setja Kganyago.

We live at such a fu­ri­ous political pace that the im­pact of their work is not suf­fi­ciently de­tailed: look care­fully, and it is akin to the best goal save you have ever wit­nessed.

The mar­kets may not have liked the bud­get, pun­ish­ing it with a whack to the rand and the stock ex­change, which lost ground, but it re­mains a feat. The thumbs down was that growth has been re­vised down­wards to 0.9% and there’s a higher than usual bud­get deficit. In ad­di­tion, ex­tra­ne­ous fac­tors af­fected it. Brazil was down­graded to junk sta­tus on Wed­nes­day, and we live in the same emerg­ing mar­ket bas­ket.

Still, the bud­get is re­mark­able for be­ing nei­ther the paean to aus­ter­ity that some had pre­dicted nor did Gord­han take the easy route of turn­ing him­self into a Robin Hood, as he could so eas­ily have done to claim a sim­ple fis­cal win.

Mar­ket com­men­ta­tors on Thurs­day posted the un­usual cri­tique that taxes on the wealthy and busi­ness had not gone up. Nei­ther did value-added tax rise as so­cial jus­tice cam­paign­ers had feared, while the grant purse, now paid to 16.4 mil­lion South Africans, will grow at the rate of in­fla­tion. Higher education and, specif­i­cally, the Na­tional Stu­dent Fi­nan­cial Aid Scheme led by Sizwe Nx­as­ana, is get­ting a fat injection for sup­port to stave off grow­ing cam­pus re­sis­tance.

The sav­ings are be­ing made through a hir­ing freeze where ex­pen­sive posts will have to be jus­ti­fied – Busi­ness Day re­ported that a head­count de­cline of about 20 000 is ex­pected be­cause of this. It is min­i­mal pain on a civil ser­vice staff com­ple­ment of 1.2 mil­lion. Gord­han pre­dicts the bud­get deficit will nar­row from 3.9% this year to 2.4% over the medium term.

But the ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated bud­get got no lap of hon­our. Af­ter­wards, I asked many peo­ple why. The ad­jec­tive I heard most of­ten was that it was a “missed op­por­tu­nity”; oth­ers de­scribed it as “thin on de­tail”; a banker who had been in on the most ur­gent talks to save South Africa from the dol­drums was said to be so an­gry he couldn’t speak. Why? The bud­get had not been “bold”. What were they look­ing for?

This is where we go back to the man hunched in his seat, smoul­der­ing, as Par­lia­ment stood to hon­our Nene.

Gord­han went as far as he could with­out Zuma’s ex­plicit sup­port on more de­fined ac­tion.

I’m sure, for ex­am­ple, that Gord­han would have liked to an­nounce a new board for SAA on Wed­nes­day as a sym­bol of in­tent on strug­gling state-owned com­pa­nies so in the red that govern­ment is guar­an­teed to be up to its eye­balls in their debts. But Gord­han’s hands are tied be­cause two air­line di­rec­tors also sit on the ad­vi­sory board of the Ja­cob G Zuma Foun­da­tion, the pres­i­dent’s char­ity, and are very close to him.

The fi­nance min­is­ter would also have liked, by now, to have waved good­bye to tax com­mis­sioner Tom Moy­ane, with whom he is en­gaged in a low-at­tri­tion war.

On Thurs­day, re­ports said the Hawks wanted to ques­tion Gord­han on a file the com­mis­sioner de­vel­oped on an al­leged rogue spy unit at the rev­enue ser­vice. This saga is bad for rev­enue col­lec­tion, which is down – but not so badly that it can­not be re­stored. But the fi­nance min­is­ter is check­mated be­cause Moy­ane is a pres­i­den­tial ap­pointee. Zuma is also in too weak a political po­si­tion to push through the much deeper re­form of the pub­lic ser­vice that is now nec­es­sary.

Know­ing our pres­i­dent, he would have ex­pe­ri­enced the sus­tained ap­plause for Nene from his own benches as an act of dis­loy­alty that made him an­gry and ner­vous. By the next morn­ing, the ANC cau­cus was al­ready be­ing grilled on its loy­alty, es­pe­cially as MPs were vol­u­ble about the U-turns on the Nkandla de­fence in the Con­sti­tu­tional Court that they had found out about in live tele­vi­sion broad­casts of the hear­ing into whether the pres­i­dent should pay back some of the pub­lic money spent on ren­o­va­tions to his es­tate, and on whether he had vi­o­lated his oath of of­fice.

On Mon­day, the pres­i­dent’s anger at the events fol­low­ing 9/12 were made vis­i­ble when he told the newly minted mem­bers of the Pres­i­den­tial Press Corps that Van Rooyen had been the most qual­i­fied of the three fi­nance min­is­ters he has ap­pointed.

I had thought this an off-the-cuff and ill-con­sid­ered re­mark ahead of the bud­get, made to as­suage Van Rooyen, who has been turfed about rather aw­fully – but peo­ple with a keen knowl­edge of Zuma’s style say that this was a smack­down of those who had ve­toed the pres­i­dent’s ac­tions in Trea­sury in mak­ing Van Rooyen’s ap­point­ment – he does not like what has hap­pened.

It was as much a mes­sage as that round of ap­plause near­ing the 80th minute of the tabling of one of South Africa’s tough­est post-apartheid bud­gets.

While a gar­gan­tuan ef­fort had gone into cre­at­ing an im­age of na­tional unity and the ex­is­tence of a so­cial compact at this defin­ing mo­ment, what we also saw play out pub­licly for the first time this week was a low-in­ten­sity war.

Nh­lanhla Nene

Ja­cob Zuma

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.