Manuel won’t go gently

Uncertainty persists over the future of Trevor Manuel, but if Wednesday’s budget speech is any indication, he will not go gentle into the good night of retirement, or an international career.

He may have delivered the usual Manuel balancing act, with a budget that accelerated spending on health, education, infrastructure and social grants even as tax revenues sharply declined, but the real message was between the lines of figures and in departures from his prepared text.

He was being closely watched, not just by Jacob Zuma in the speakers’ bay with spokersperson Jessie Duarte, and by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe who sat close to Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi, but also by markets deeply gloomy about plummeting economic prospects and uncertainty for the first time in years what Manuel might say.

What he said was roughly that he may have moved a little closer to the limits of his tolerance for big government spending, but he had not been pushed over them, either by the dismal economic climate, or pressure from other government departments and the left.

None of this was unexpected. He has made very clear since the sacking of president Thabo Mbeki where his lines in the sand are. More interesting, and perhaps more indicative of his approach to the turmoil in his party, and speculation over his own plans, was the way he said it, calling up the legacy of Nelson Mandela, and laying down the law to delinquent civil servants, legislators, unionists and ministers in no uncertain terms.

Education is such a pet theme of Manuel’s that one can imagine a vindictive future president giving him Naledi Pandor’s job with a sadistic grin, particularly after he rounded on union leaders who were watching.

“I want to say to you in the gallery. We want delivery on the non-negotiables. Teachers in class on time, teaching, no abuse of learners, no neglect of their duties,” he insisted, his voice rising to a crescendo familiar from his attacks on more obvious opponents, like the DA, or the apartheid government. This time it was from the DA benches that much of the cheering came.

Turning to plans to pay teachers more based on their skills and performance he said: “It is not just about how much more people earn, it is about how much more they provide.”

Profligate civil servants were next. “There is insufficient control of foreign travel, advertising and the use of consultants,” he said. When MPs looked nonplussed he rounded on them: “I don’t know why MPs are looking away, oversight is their responsibility.” He would recommend, he said, that a new body be set up to review wasteful government programmes with an eye to cutting them entirely.

“By [spending]less, I mean as close to zero as we can get” he said.

Manuel has consistently battled the Department of Trade and Industry and the presidency over planned industrial policy measures, and he left no doubt that aid for the motor industry had been reluctantly given, and that sectors looking for handouts would have a hard time making their case.

“We will have to distinguish between policy and favours”, he told journalists, “you can’t sit and choose winners”.

South African business needed to be much more competitive, he suggested, implying that if the global downturn forced a restructuring, and the closure of underperforming firms, the impact on workers should be mitigated, but companies should not be bailed out.

He was similarly tough on some of the key shibboleths of the ANC and the trade union movement, notably the concept of “decent work”.

“Jobs are bloody hard to come by”, he said “all, jobs, and the more adjectives you add, the harded it gets”. The deal done by the mining industry to reduce working hours and introduce job-sharing offered a more useful example than abstractions about “decent” work, he suggested.

It was all capped with call for unity, underpinned by a quote from Nelson Mandela, who had been released from prison 19 years to-the-day before.

As a video of Mandela’s speech played, and was handed out to MPs on a DVD, he went beyond the conclusion of his prepared speech quoting Mandela’s legendary treason trial speech.

“I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination — it is an ideal which I hope to live for and advance, but if need be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.

Manuel added his own coda, uncharacteristically tripping over his words a little:
“The spirit of those words remains true in defining who we are, where are and what we are. The dreams of our forebears will live on through our children because the define the raison d’etre of how we all behave toward each other”.

He seemed to be trying to remind the ANC of its founding principles, rather than its squalid present, but amid the wild cheering, it wasn’t clear it had worked.

“He was over-reaching there”, said one senior MP who was otherwise broadly supportive of the programme outlined in the speech, “it was too much, having the image of Mandela on the screen and then fading back to Trevor, and handing out those DVDs. He obviously wants to stick around, but it was too much”.

Manuel’s wife, Maria Ramos, who will take over as chief of the banking giant ABSA just before the April elections was watching from a front row seat in the gallery. “I can now officially acknowledge her”, Manuel said, referring to the years during which their relationship was an open secret.

Her decision to take that job may ultimately make it difficult for Manuel to return to the finance ministry, even if he wants to, because so many of the decisions taken by the finance minister affect the banking sector, and the scope for conflict of interest is immense. Certainly that argument is being rehearsed by those in government, the ANC, and the tripartite alliance who want to wrest control of the treasury from Manuel.

“I think it will be impossible”, said an official close to President Kgalema Motlanthe “the conflict is just too clear, and he knows that. When she took the job they decided he wasn’t coming back as finance minister”.

A senior alliance figure who is largely supportive of Manuel agreed saying, “there should be a role for him in cabinet, but not finance”.

He may want to stay on for a while, perhaps only a few months, to ease markets into acceptance of a new and very different government, some who are familiar with the debate suggested, but no-one is counting on him giving another budget speech.

“It is a relief in a way”, said one mid-level treasury official “it may be our last budget”.

That would mean a scramble to find a credible replacement, and at the top levels of the ANC there is a sharp awareness of how limited the available options are.

The plausible is revenue Commissioner Pravin Gordhan, who combines a reputation for probity and technocratic competence with left-leaning economic views, and a strong relationship with members of the Zuma camp. His turnaround successes at SARS are widely admired in the business community. When he lined up with Manuel, Director General in the Treasury Lesetja Kganyago, and deputy minister Nhlanhla Nene at a press conference ahead of the speech Manuel made a pointed joke about Gordhan’s views, and not for the first time “on my FAR left”, he said with a laugh. “Lets toast to that”, Gordhan replied, raising his glass of water. The bond exchange may chuckle with him, but it is difficult to imagine who else they might countenance.

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