Opinion

Pravin the pragmatist

Richard Calland

The new finance minister's common-sense tone has introduced a subtle shift in power relations within government.

The more it changes, the more it stays the same. That old cliché poked one in the eye as one watched Pravin Gordhan on Tuesday: from the insistent tone and measured argument in favour of low inflation to the purple tie and immaculate grey suit and the smattering of isiZulu, it could have been Trevor Manuel at the podium in the National Assembly.

Like Manuel in his early years, Gordhan struggled with the tele-prompter. Those devices can be invaluable—enabling the speaker to address his or her audience directly, looking them in the eye, especially advantageous from the perspective of television—but they can also be confounding.

Thabo Mbeki hated them, preferring to look down to read his speech from paper. Perhaps he was more comfortable avoiding the eyes of his audience.

To work well, a perfect rapport between the speaker and the operator of the teleprompter is necessary. The latter must move the script, which scrolls down on two see-through Perspex panes to the right and left of the speaker at exactly the right pace. Too fast and the speaker is left breathlessly behind. Too slow—which was more often the case on Tuesday—and he has to stutter to a halt, waiting for the next word or phrase to appear.

And the speaker must be equitable in his use of the two screens to sustain the effect that he is not reading from a script but miraculously summoning every word from his memory and turning from one part of his audience to the other as he does so.

Our new minister of finance favoured the screen to his right about 80:20, which is understandable, given that the ANC benches are on the right of the podium. Only occasionally did he turn to his left to read and speak towards the assembled ranks of the Democratic Alliance and other opposition parties.

So, more practice, please, Pravin.

But why am I dwelling on these cosmetics? Was there so little substance on which to comment? Well, yes and no. On one level the medium-term budget policy statement was not so much a disappointment as a bit of an anticlimax. It was the most important moment since the election and the appointment of a new administration in April. It was the occasion when, if there were to be any big shifts in policy and strategy, they were to be announced.

But those expecting or fearing a “lurch to the left” were always misplaced in their analysis. It is not that Gordhan has succumbed to any fiscal conservatism, but that he, too, more or less, believes in the overall strategy that has driven government policy in the past years: monetary stability and low inflation (because high inflation hurts the poor more than the rest of us); reforms in governance to encourage inward investment (because if the environment is unattractive, there are plenty of other places where the money can go); expand the tax base and extract all you can from it (to maximise revenue and because the current narrow base is unsustainable); spend what you have properly and efficiently and honestly (because wastage and corruption undermine social delivery).

Gordhan commended, if not by name, his predecessor’s prudence in maintaining a budget surplus, which has softened the blow of the current recession and sharp decline in revenue. And he congratulated the exiting governor of the Reserve Bank, Tito Mboweni, for building up a large dollar reserve fund to help prevent the rand from strengthening too much, thus undermining exports and jobs.
This was not mere diplomacy. Gordhan believes in this stuff. The difference may be in execution and in his relations with other Cabinet ministers. He will be sharp on wastage and corruption; as he said, it will move beyond words to action. And, his will be less a “government within a government” than Manuel’s treasury was.

On Tuesday Gordhan adopted a deliberately understated tone, implying, I thought, a level of humility that was not conspicuous by its presence in his predecessor. And to emphasise that he will be more of a team player, less a “first among equals”, Gordhan referred to almost all of his fellow Cabinet ministers by name during the course of his speech. He will rely more on them to come up with the big ideas and innovations, providing the fiscal framework and, if the economy permits it, the money to fund the more expansionary plans of the new administration. This is a subtle shift in power and institutional relations within government.
So it was that the far-reaching extension of the child support grant to children aged 18, adopted at Polokwane, was announced not by Gordhan—though it did confirm that the money was there to pay for it in the coming three years — but by the Cabinet office last week. But Tuesday also affirmed that the treasury remains on top of the process—though now that Parliament has the power to amend the budget, it may be able to play a more assertive role in future years, if it navigates its new powers adeptly.

There was a delicious moment in Gordhan’s speech when, in an off-the-cuff aside, he said: “We can understand the sceptism of those on our left.” He was pointing to the members of the DA seated on the left-hand side of the chamber and not to the left of the ANC alliance. And spot on he was too: if anyone was truly disappointed on Tuesday, it was the frustrated opposition conservatives who, anxious to get their teeth into a clumsy and feckless stagger towards a loony left approach to the economy, were let down. Instead they were met with the pragmatism and sound common sense that one would expect from the communist pharmacist turned tax man who now leads “Team Treasury”.

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