Yearn­ing for times past? There’s a word for it

Sunday Times - - Business Opinion - Sa­man­tha Enslin-Payne Enslin-Payne is deputy ed­i­tor

Hi­raeth has been on my mind. And this week the Welsh word seemed apt for the un­ex­pected de­vel­op­ments in the fi­nance min­istry. It means, by some def­i­ni­tions, a long­ing for a place to which one can­not re­turn, such as a child­hood home. But it’s not the house that one may yearn for, it’s the tex­ture of a par­tic­u­lar time, likely when life was seem­ingly eas­ier.

Tito Mboweni has fi­nally achieved what some re­ports in the 1990s sug­gested was his ul­ti­mate am­bi­tion — to be­come fi­nance min­is­ter. In the late 1990s, Trevor Manuel was firmly en­sconced in the po­si­tion. In­stead, Mboweni was ap­pointed Re­serve Bank gov­er­nor. It was a post he held for more than 10 years.

His ap­point­ment as gov­er­nor, an­nounced in 1998, a year be­fore he took over from Chris Stals, sparked a re­ac­tionary re­sponse and a few guarded en­dorse­ments from big busi­ness. An­nounced on a Satur­day, it was on the Mon­day that the rand weak­ened by 40c to touch fresh lows at the time of R6.75 against the dol­lar.

This week, just over 20 years later, when Mboweni was named fi­nance min­is­ter, the rand firmed by more than 40c, con­firm­ing his cre­den­tials in the eyes of fi­nan­cial mar­kets and busi­ness as a cred­i­ble can­di­date for the job. That he has not been in govern­ment for many years is likely one fac­tor in his favour — there is lit­tle chance he has been tainted by con­tact with the Gup­tas.

And Mboweni is com­fort­able with mak­ing un­pop­u­lar de­ci­sions and stick­ing to them. It was un­der his watch that the mone­tary pol­icy com­mit­tee and in­fla­tion tar­get­ing were in­tro­duced, lead­ing to greater price cer­tainty and a more mea­sured ap­proach to deal­ing with in­fla­tion risks.

Too mea­sured and dog­matic, some said. Then labour wanted lower in­ter­est rates and a weaker rand to boost ex­ports and cre­ate jobs. The rand has weak­ened be­yond the lev­els it was trad­ing at when Mboweni was gov­er­nor — the jobs haven’t fol­lowed.

But it wasn’t just the unions. Both for­mer pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki and Manuel said in the 2000s that in­fla­tion tar­get­ing should not be pur­sued rigidly at the ex­pense of growth.

Mboweni held his ground. Tak­ing on the job of fi­nance min­is­ter may be­come a case of be care­ful what you wish for. It will be a gru­elling task as the na­tional bud­get is un­der in­tense pres­sure and the econ­omy is tor­pid and still reel­ing from the dam­age of state cap­ture.

In a few years, Mboweni may re­flect wist­fully on his post-Re­serve Bank years when he spent time at his farm in Lim­popo and sat on sev­eral com­pany boards. Hi­raeth.

Nh­lanhla Nene this week may also be pon­der­ing a time when he was not fi­nance min­is­ter, when he hadn’t lied or had to en­dure the pres­sure of those try­ing to force him to serve their cor­rupt in­ter­ests. Hi­raeth.

Nene will cer­tainly never wish to re­turn to this month, but he may look back on this week as one in which he owned his mis­take and took the con­se­quences. He can then re­mind him­self that he did the right thing.

In a few years Mboweni might re­flect wist­fully on his years on his farm in Lim­popo

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