Over the past few days, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has been dogged by questions about his tenure. During the various press and public engagements, Gordhan, ever the true public servant, has consistently replied that he “serves at the pleasure of the president”. That has, however, not stopped him from tackling the issue of rising tensions with certain factions of government. A clearly frustrated Gordhan has taken several swipes at those behind the campaign to remove him from office, including scathing remarks about the selective coverage of Gupta-owned TV station ANN7.
He also questioned the motives of those behind fake Twitter accounts asking what it is exactly that these people believe Treasury is standing in the way of. “That is the question we should be asking,” he said at a post-budget breakfast, making clear reference to elements of state-capture within the governing party.
He also made it clear that slogans such as “radical transformation” should not be hijacked by individuals looking for personal enrichment. “We can’t go back to where we were last year with state capture.”
The fact that SA Revenue Service (Sars) commissioner Tom Moyane was once again glaringly absent at the budget press conference – and did not even merit a mention – highlights the breakdown of relationships between the two most important and powerful government institutions – the one that collects the money and the one that allocates its expenditure.
If either of these two institutions failed, government would collapse.
It also seems Gordhan is not having an easy time with SAA chairperson Dudu Myeni and commented during the budget press briefing that Myeni had not availed herself for a meeting the previous week. Yet, despite – or perhaps in light of – these challenges, Gordhan, deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas and director-general Lungisa Fuzile spent the week prior to the budget using platforms to educate the public about how budget decisions are made, bringing an open and transparent approach to how money is allocated, and the current funding constraints.
There has also been a strong emphasis on the depth of expertise at National Treasury.
The night before the budget address, journalists were invited to meet with senior Treasury officials for an unprecedented “networking” evening.
While it was made clear that no questions could be asked about the content of the budget, Fuzile used the opportunity to introduce the journalists to the various technocrats within the department with an emphasis on their skills and length of service.
The message was clear, this is an institution with a strong institutional memory; that they are technocrats first and foremost and not party politicians.
Yet, at the press conference, the following morning, both Fuzile and Gordhan made it clear that no matter how strong an institution may be, it can be easily torn down.
“It takes many years to build an institution, but a short time to mess it up, even an institution that you think is resilient, overnight it can be dismantled,” said Gordhan in a statement some journalists took as a reference to Sars.
He warned that society needed to be aware of the importance of sustaining good institutions that were reflective of a democratic society and not divided by sectoral interests.
“For the interests of future generations to come, there are institutions you do not mess with,” argued Gordhan, referring to both National Treasury and Sars.
Fuzile admitted that the high turnover of finance ministers had a demoralising effect, making good quality staff more susceptible to poaching, something that had already started to affect his department, while Jonas added that political noise has a direct impact on what they do and “patronage has an impact on growth and redistribution”.
Yet, the team soldiers on, taking questions from journalists and the public, mostly on service delivery – which should really be handled by ministers of the various portfolios. When a young schoolgirl asked the minister why children in the Eastern Cape had no access to school transport, she was told that it would be a simple matter of issuing a grant, if only the departments of transport and education could decide whose portfolio it fell under.
Maybe next year we should have a post-budget discussion with the ministers responsible for the delivery of services, rather than just pointing fingers at those doing their best to keep South Africa’s finances stable.