/ 9 February 2009

Manuel’s lines in the sand

It may or may not be Trevor Manuel’s last budget speech, but it will almost certainly be the most important and the most difficult.

In the past 13 years he has made a career out of improbable balancing acts, so much so that the done thing among professional Trevor tipsters is to bemoan how boring the budget has become, stripped of its old-school mystery by three-year rolling expenditure frameworks, and surprising only for the colour of the minister’s tie, or a line item buried deep in the Estimates of National Expenditure.

No one expects Wednesday to be boring. Manuel is hemmed in on all sides by a dire convergence of political and economic forces and it is going to take an extraordinary jeté for him to spring clear.

At stake is not just his political future, but also the rule book for economic governance that was to have been his legacy.

South Africans have been slow to realise just how miserable the global weather is and how much that matters to us. We have been cushioned by sound regulation and fiscal prudence, but the global slump — the first aggregate fall in output among wealthy countries since 1945 — threatens to set back our economy severely just as it seemed to be finding its feet.

So Manuel will have supped deeply of the gloom at Davos, but when he looks out across Parliament on Wednesday, he may long for the snows and nice chat about reforming the International Monetary Fund.

No doubt his gaze will linger on Jeremy Cronin in the back benches and Kgalema Motlanthe warming the president’s chair, before flitting up to Jacob Zuma in the gallery as he launches what will either be his final sally in the National Assembly or, just possibly, not.

What everyone wants to know about this budget is whether it signals his intention to stay or whether he will quit, unable to stomach the ANC’s new populism and anxious to pursue international ambitions.

They are certainly looking brighter after his big splash at Davos, where he railed against unbalanced global governance arrangements and was tipped by Time to “one day [help] set the rules that govern your financial life”. Six months ago there seemed little prospect he would stay. He seemed frayed by Polokwane, hoarse from argument and, frankly, fed up. His medium-term budget policy statement was, as much as anything else, a line in the sand. “This is how I do things,” it seemed to say, “if you don’t like it, get someone else.”

His “resignation” from the Cabinet conveyed a similar message, with the help of a panicked stock market. When he said that the choice of Maria Ramos as chief executive of Absa would present no conflict of interest, it seemed the clearest statement yet that he would quit, for how could a minister of finance make any decisions affecting the banking sector when his wife sits at the apex of the country’s biggest retail bank?

There is no such clarity now and the ANC’s canniest politician is playing his cards extremely close to his chest.

Is it possible that he believes he needs to stick around for a year or two longer to act as the voice of reason, perhaps even in a new economic planning super-ministry? That he thinks if he employs his signature mixture of charm and brute force carefully enough, he can save the country from Blade Nzimande? In a Cabinet bereft of the centralising authority of Thabo Mbeki, the containing force represented by Manuel will be critical, his supporters in government hope.

Manuel’s critics fear Zuma will cave in to black capital and keep Manuel around, in which case he will insist on tight monetary policy, relative fiscal prudence and only limited state support for “industrial strategy”.

This week the wounded car ­industry was already petitioning for bridging loans. Others will follow. The state does not have the money to give them. Not while it struggles to fund a hugely ambitious infrastructure programme, grow welfare spending and contain a yawning current-account deficit.

Manuel will give money to health, education, safety and security and employment. That will allow him to say his promises are in line with the ANC’s election manifesto. But he will not push the budget deficit out far beyond 3%. And, crucially, he will not announce plans to change the mandate of the Reserve Bank — a crucial demand of that manifesto.

He will take money away from programmes that now look unaffordable. Premiers have already been warned of cuts to the medium-term expenditure framework.

He will win few friends in the national executive committee with this budget — that is a safe bet. “They want me out,” he has told party colleagues.

That does not mean they will succeed. Expect more lines in the sand and more outrage from the left, but know this: for Manuel it is game on, not game over.