When Tito Mboweni was 21 years old in 1980, he undertook to fight the apartheid regime. He initially wanted to take up arms, but, as he told David Pilling in 2019 in an interview for the Financial Times, one old sage told him he wasn’t ready and “when all the fighting is over, there will be a country to run”.
As democracy emerged, Mboweni immersed himself in the new nation as the labour minister under Nelson Mandela’s presidency and developed the post-apartheid labour laws, then as governor of the South African Reserve Bank and, outside government, as director and board member of businesses and international organisations.
In October 2018, he answered the call to serve the country again when President Cyril Ramaphosa tapped him on the shoulder.
Mboweni stepped into a mess that is reflected in the name of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector Including Organs of State.
His predecessor, Nhlanhla Nene, had resigned after he told the commission that he’d met the Gupta brothers several times, although there was no indication that he’d done anything wrong.
Since then, Mboweni has occupied the position with a combination of enthusiasm and frustration, with the occasional outburst on Twitter.
He has had to reconcile the idealism of his tweets with the reality of the bureaucratic miasma that governs South African politics. Additionally, the arcane architecture of the ANC’s preferred governance model, forever committed to fostering an alchemy between the politicians, the labour movement and business, means that too many ideas are condemned to die from the moment they are conceived.
Mboweni found himself having to deal with a national fiscus that has been gradually emptied by a combination of poor decisions, corruption and the unions — and, since March, the economic effects of Covid-19.
The great albatross of our time — how to make state enterprises succeed — continues to elude decision-makers. It is the inability to implement decisions when the trade-offs means some people will be unhappy with difficult decisions. Mboweni is hamstrung by the way the government of his party works.
In 2018, he explicitly said he would prefer that SAA be closed down. Then in a budget speech the next year, he said that all state-owned enterprises seeking assistance would have to hire chief restructuring officers as a condition of the bailouts. This didn’t happen, but he signed off on the bailouts. At the end of 2019, SAA went into business rescue. The business rescue became entangled in a war of attrition involving the rescue team, the public enterprises department and the finance ministry, whose capacity to finance the rescue was, and still is, non-existent.
Mboweni reluctantly announced in October in the medium-term budget policy statement that SAA would get money. “The responsibility of the minister of finance is to implement cabinet decisions. It is not my own private decision,” he said.
But the money comes from other departments and cutting provincial and local conditional grants. MPs attacked him for the R10.5-million allocation to the airline, but he said it was not a bailout, but part of the business rescue plan agreed to by SAA’s creditors.
Revenue has declined by R332-billion, which means that “we are no longer as rich as we thought … there are a number of things that we will have to scale down on because we simply cannot afford them”.
The finance minister didn’t give the SABC, Denel and the Post Office what they asked for.
Last month, when the ratings agencies relegated South Africa deeper into junk status, Mboweni took to Twitter to express frustration at how they were kicking South Africa when it was already on its knees.
Absent was an acknowledgement that the ratings agencies’ loss of faith has a lot to do with a government that regards commitments as fluid rather than binding.
One of the many Covid-19 problems was the R200-billion loan guarantee scheme — announced by the treasury, the central bank and the Banking Association of South Africa (Basa) — which forms part of the R500-billion economic relief package presented on 21 April but finalised only in early May.
The uptake of loans was low. The main problems were that few companies wanted to have debt (especially in a time of great uncertainty), banks didn’t ease the creditworthiness requirements and the process was slow. The scheme was revised to deal with these and other problems. But the uptake remained low, probably because of companies’ debt concerns, said Basa.
As 2020 comes to a close with an impasse at the SABC, an incomplete rescue process at SAA and staff at Denel who haven’t been paid in full for months, the country’s national moneyman can hardly regard this as his finest hour.
Instead, Mboweni, who was told that his time would come when the fight against apartheid was over, appears intent on starting his own fights, whether they be on the battlefield of Twitter or in his own kitchen — of which the less said, the better.