Preparing a budget is a lonely task that requires the finance minister to fend off numerous demands from his cabinet colleagues. For Pravin Gordhan, it is likely to have been even lonelier, given a lack of support from the president
SA’s finance minister will have spent the past three months, particularly the three weeks leading up to this week’s budget presentation, fending off the demands of his colleagues. These countless consultations, formal and informal, can be very lonely for the man who controls a budget exceeding R1 trillion.
The task has likely been made lonelier by the lack of political support from the current president, says a former finance minister, who spoke to the Financial Mail a few months ago on condition of anonymity.
Every member of President Jacob Zuma’s bloated cabinet feels his or her projects deserve to be prioritised over others. “In my time as finance minister I sat in cabinet meetings in the three months before budget fending off my colleagues,” says the former minister.
He says he had to attend formal budget preparation meetings at treasury and at the various offices of his colleagues. “If we funded everything we were presented with, the budget would [have] come up to R7 trillion. And when my comrades pressed their points, they’d look at the president and plead with him for the funding of their projects.”
According to the Open Budget Index, SA’s budgeting process is the third most transparent in the world.
The process begins almost immediately after the budget speech is delivered. It is an intensely consultative process, with two key committees — one of ministers and one of technocrats — engaging with the numbers for months on end. The budget is also endorsed by cabinet once the process has concluded.
The finance minister will on many occasions be forced to sit the technocrats down, in front of their ministers, to go through each department’s budget and see if existing funds can be moved to priority projects.
“Once we’d done this, having pointed out to my counterpart that, in effect, he did have funds available for his latest project, I’d excuse myself and leave the meeting,” says the former minister. “By this time the minister would be scolding his officials for not telling him they’d always had the money.”
However, when departments demand money, they are not always nice.
Finance minister Pravin Gordhan has been finding this out the hard way. In the past two weeks, the loud calls for funding have escaped the relative comfort of a cabinet lekgotla or boardroom.
Populist but ineffective ministers, such as Nomvula Mokonyane at water affairs, and their acolytes have labelled Gordhan an enemy of “radical economic transformation” for not dishing enough money their way. The ANC Youth League has even called for his dismissal, accusing Gordhan of protecting what it calls the interests of white monopoly capital.
But these noisemakers take their cue from their senior leaders. This year, no less a person than the president himself led the charge against Gordhan’s treasury. Business Day reported in January that Zuma had told a closed session at the ANC lekgotla that treasury was standing in the way of radical economic transformation by refusing to fund certain projects. The ANC denied its president had made these comments.
You could be forgiven for thinking the ANC is referring to a minister from an opposition party, never mind one implementing its own mandate. Not for them such constraints as the Public Finance Management Act, which limits expenditure to projects that can be properly funded after being convincingly costed. For this section of government, priorities mean nothing. “The president just sits there and lets them have a go at you,” the former finance minister says. “The only time he intervenes is to instruct me [as finance minister]: ‘Find the money!’ ”
Zuma, he says, has no sense of money — or that it is finite. “He will fund every project, if you allow him to, without knowing where the money comes from.”