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