Take2: The minister of pencils

If you wanted to have a smart guy in charge of economic policy, you could hardly do better than Ebrahim Patel. He is one of our best minds on economic issues, razor sharp and ready to debate the minutiae of any issue to the tiniest degree.

With a background in unionism, Patel, the newly appointed minister of economic development, is now the left’s man in the Cabinet and has quickly emerged as a foil to other policymakers who are seen to be of more moderate persuasion.

Much has been made, in particular, of supposed tensions between Patel and Trevor Manuel, the erstwhile finance minister.

The tension, real or imagined, goes to method rather than outcome. We all want higher levels of growth and lower levels of unemployment, the dispute being over how this is best achieved. I’d likewise guess that most economic policymakers want a more competitive currency, the debate being how to keep the rand slim and trim rather than toned and muscular.

But Patel has now become a kind of bogeyman, one scare report going as far as to suggest that he was about to freeze the rand. The report was as quickly denied by Patel’s office as it appeared in a newspaper. This is a great pity.

I would have liked to see some follow-up speculative reporting on what level Patel would have set the frozen rand. We’ll never know now, but my prediction is that the Patel rand would be R10 to the dollar.

This would instantly give us a competitive currency. It would also establish a parallel black market and provoke capital flight.

But Patel nonetheless appears to be in the ascendancy. He sits in the cluster of ministries that impact economic policy, while Manuel does not.

But if Manuel feels short-changed or marginalised in his new role in government, he was not showing it at a public lecture he gave at Wits’s Graduate School of Public and Development Management earlier this week.

There are people who think he is so unhappy that he is about to quit. I did not see any sign of this. I found him to be as engaged in development issues as ever. Like Obama, he has hit the ground running in his new job, publishing a Green Paper and intending to bring in 20 respected thinkers outside of government to give input into the national planning commission that he now heads.

He wants these positions advertised before the year-end break so that the experts can be on board early in the new year. Manuel said that this was desirable as too often governments lose a lot of time just recruiting personnel and setting up the office.

Patel should know this. He appears in the medium-term budget released this week as a line item under the Department of Trade and Industry. Patel gets R29-million for “salaries and operational costs until the functions and related funds have been formally shifted from the Department of Trade and Industry”.

The new Jacob Zuma government has already begun the real economic work. It is contained in Pravin’s Gordhan’s medium-term budget, which prioritises and details government spending over the next three years.

There are people in government doing real work and getting things done. Patel, with his Ministry of Pencils, is not one of them.

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Kevin Davie

Kevin Davie is M&G's business editor. A journalist for more than 30 years, he has worked in senior positions at most major titles in the country. Davie is a Nieman Fellow (1995-1996) and cyberspace innovator, having co-founded SA's first online-only news portal, Woza, and the first online stockbroking operation. He is a lecturer at Wits Journalism. In his spare time he can be found riding a bicycle, usually somewhere remote.

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