A year ago, Mboweni posted an image of a sieve on Twitter. Just an empty sieve and no accompanying text to provide context. Was he about to share a culinary secret, one which needed a sieve to drain a tin of one of his favourite ingredients, Lucky Star pilchards?
A colleague wondered if he’d gone nuts, but in time the context became clear. Mboweni was bemoaning the fact that our state enterprises seem to think that public money should be endlessly poured into them even though they are as financially sound as a sieve.
We have had fewer recipes from Mboweni and he’s made quite the production out of the decision to discontinue his Twitter presence. At 2am, before he was to table the medium-term policy budget statement (MTBPS), he tweeted that he had come to “the conclusion that Twitter is no longer about its original purpose: ie, to create a networked society. It is now an abusive platform.”
The country was in for a shock the next day; the MTBPS showed how alarmingly quickly our fiscal position was unravelling. Without interventions, public debt would balloon within just three years from R3-trillion to R4.5-trillion. It would have been useful to know what measures government had put in place to fix the problem, but the MTBPS was a work in progress, a to-do list rather than an implementable action plan.
Mboweni is not a team player. He is a maverick. He chooses irreverence over conformity. He is certainly not a chorister.
His press conference in the budget lock-up ahead of delivering the February budget had Mboweni in the starring role, his presentation all over the place as he entertained and talked to the journalists who’d come to assess the economic state of the nation. The contrast between the minister — “governor number eight and governor number 10” in his description — and Lesetja Kganyago, the governor of the South African Reserve Bank, who was seated alongside him, couldn’t have been starker.
Kganyago, who appeared to be climbing up the wall in exasperation at Mboweni’s wandering perambulation, in a few sharp points quickly articulated the seriousness of the situation and where the fix lay — with government which was responsible for policy-making.
Mboweni seemed detached, making light of the serious, rather than using his time to communicate the gravity of the situation.
But his opposition equivalent, the Democratic Alliance’s Geordian Hill-Lewis, says the finance minister has a clear idea of how serious our fiscal position is and of what needs to be done. “He has not shied away from this, so kudos to him for this,” he says.
But Hill-Lewis says — as is well-known — the fiscal position has become much worse on Mboweni’s watch, on key metrics such as the debt-to-gross domestic product ratio. The minister is operating in a constrained political environment, but it is he who presents the budget and has to take responsibility for it.
“He has one job, to stabilise the national debt and bring it down, and he has not being doing this,” Hill-Lewis says.
Analyst Ralph Mathekga sees Mboweni’s political isolation to define the treasury under his leadership, saying it is a stress test for political configuration. “If you cannot get treasury right, this is a symptom of an administration which is not politically coherent. Poor thing, he is a lone ranger.”
Mboweni did look like a lone ranger when, out of the blue from the perspective of the ruling alliance, in late August he tabled his economic transformation document, which set out reforms aimed at injecting growth into a moribund economy. His plan invited comment, but had not been circulated within the ruling alliance structures, provoking howls of protest, especially on procedure, but also on content.
Some specific revisions — scrapping the minimum wage, then just 10 months old, and doing away with the extension of wage agreements through the industrial council system to non-parties — were always going to run into serious headwind from unions (Big Labour, as Mboweni called them) and perhaps were included as negotiating fodder to be withdrawn while the rest of the plan remained more or less intact.
The plan went through various relevant structures, including the ANC’s national executive committee, emerging with most of the mooted reforms in place. While it had been labelled as neoliberal by the left, it was the job of ANC secretary general and resident don, Ace Magashule, to read some of its content after signing off on it, sprouting the supposed neoliberalism with the fervour of an acolyte.
Mboweni’s reform document, with input from more than 700 respondents, was published in October at the same time as the MTBPS, so it is too early to say what effect the document is having and whether the reforms are being implemented by the relevant departments, but we can get an overall take on how the Ramaphoria reform project, as it has been dubbed, is going.