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Shedding the Maggie look

Could we possibly be saying goodbye this week to the common caricature of Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel as Trevor Thatcher and do we have comrade Trevor back?

Has the ruling party returned to the left-of-centre political stage it must occupy in a country like ours? In many senses, yes.

With the renewed attention and focus on South Africa’s dual economy, with real spending set to grow at an average of more than 5% over the next three years, with social grants now soaking up the largest part of the public purse, the African National Congress is returning to its social democratic roots. And that is welcome.

To risk sounding churlish, the growth, employment and redistribution (Gear) strategy may have been a necessary response to the debt-ridden, near bankrupt economy the apartheid apparatchiks bequeathed the country, but it also did a lot of damage.

As much as the government may deny that poverty has deepened since it took power, Gear was tough medicine and a risky exercise, as the 10-year review of the government’s performance acknowledges. Where we diverge is that while the review says the risk was completely worth its fall-out, we believe the costs were too high.

Public investment in infrastructure fell to levels last seen in the Eighties, severely hampering economic growth. Our public care systems like welfare, education and health buckled under the pressure of having to extend apartheid-era services to a mass base while their budgets didn’t expand beyond that era’s levels. Let us not forget those times in this week’s euphoria.

While it is undeniable that financial management is on a par with, if not better than, the world’s best, Manuel et al did at times display a zealotry for deficit control and spending constraints that did not suit the moment or the country.

Home-grown solutions. That’s what we need and what we saw on display during this week’s presentation of his mini-budget.

Public works are not popular with neo-liberal market economists, but, if implemented properly, they can be an essential and creative palliative for South Africa’s unemployment nightmare. That government is now willing to expand the deficit and not constrain the economy is also good news. We should never, ever return to the days of deficit funding of old, but the distinction needs to be made between good and bad debt. That was done this week.

The spending on black empowerment and skills development is also welcome — it symbolises a self-confidence and a creativity in a government finally getting to grips with its own challenges.

There will be those who will scoff and cynically declare that with a general election just months away the ruling party needs to show some deliverables and also patch up relations with its left-wing allies.

That may well be the case. But then again, the beauty of electoral democracy is that it makes political parties responsive to people’s needs. The challenge is to make sure that pledges are adhered to and the programmes sustained beyond election day. 

So, yes, Trevor is his own man this week and so is President Thabo Mbeki, whose dogged focus on South Africa’s first and second economies, and the way to grow the links between the two, is long overdue.

The bombshell that fizzled

No doubt President Thabo Mbeki instituted the Hefer commission with the best of intentions, as a way of clearing the dust-filled air around the Scorpions’ corruption investigation of Deputy President Jacob Zuma. But the initiative has degenerated into an empty sideshow that shows no sign of bringing light into the darkness. To save taxpayers’ rands, allow Judge Joos Hefer to return to his comfortable retirement and free the newspaper front pages for real news, we suggest that everyone who has been caught up in this sorry circus be allowed to go home.

The latest blow to the commission is the fact that it will not hear evidence from the intelligence agencies. When Mac Maharaj and Mo Shaik testify next week, they will no doubt generate some titillating copy. But it is a racing certainty that they will not nail down their spy allegations against National Director of Public Prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka, nor will they conclusively prove claims that he abused his office.

Even if Ngcuka is shown to be an apartheid spy, this will not get Zuma off the hook. It will not explain why the Scorpions are investigating him — unless one believes the ludicrous conspiracy theory that Ngcuka is a hostage to old-order interests bent on embarrassing the African National Congress.

And it will not explain away the allegations against Maharaj, Schabir Shaik and the Kebbles, all of whom owe the law and South Africa answers.

The Hefer commission is the bombshell that fizzled. Rather than continuing to gawk at the large dud, the country should move on.

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