/ 17 February 2014

ANC wants Mboweni as finance minister

Mboweni has the market credibility for the portfolio
Mboweni has the market credibility for the portfolio

A group of senior ANC, alliance and ­government leaders are lobbying for ­former Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni to be part of the economic cluster ­– preferably minister of finance – after this year’s general elections.

Although the issue has not been raised in formal ANC structures, it is understood that, during informal meetings with ANC leaders, Mboweni has expressed interest in replacing Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

According to those lobbying for Mboweni, there is unhappiness that the economic cluster does not reflect the make-up of South African society. This is driving the push for a black African to lead the treasury.

An ANC national executive committee (NEC) member told the Mail & Guardian this week that the desire for a black African leader in the economic cluster was being discussed across the government, the ANC and the alliance.

"The debate is there in different forms and has been raised in ­informal gatherings of the ANC and its leagues, Cosatu and the government. It has never been raised formally in the constitutional structures of the ANC … but it is there," said the NEC member, who preferred to remain anonymous.

Another ANC NEC member said the matter would, however, not make it to the NEC or come up for public discussion because "our policy is that South Africa belongs to all who live in it. We can’t be seen to be working against that."

But the NEC member said that the ANC’s tactic was to entrench democracy for blacks in general and for Africans in particular.

"When it comes to Africans, it’s got to reflect in all sectors of the economy. That’s not the case at the moment. We are not in charge of what the communists call the commanding heights of the economy."

Because of this contradiction, the ANC found itself in a "perpetual balancing act", said the NEC member.

"One of the complications is that, while you transform the country, you don’t want to sideline other race groups because you want Africans on top." 

The first NEC member believes, however, that turning lobbying for Mboweni into a debate about appointing a black African finance minister is an act of opportunism.

"We must not allow the movement to choose leaders on the basis of [skin] colour. Tito is highly competent. If the president is to look at someone different to run the treasury, he stands out as one such comrade," said the NEC member.

The Sunday Independent recently reported that Gordhan was contemplating retirement after his first term in Zuma’s administration.

"I will be discussing that with the family over this break," said Gordhan in an interview with the newspaper in December.

Gordhan played down these reports when contacted by the M&G, with his spokesperson Jabulani Sikhakhane saying that the minister’s remarks had been taken out of context. Gordhan had not convened any special family meeting to discuss retirement from public office, Sikhakhane said.

"The context in which these issues arose was the fact that the minister will be turning 65 in April next year," Sikhakhane told the M&G shortly after the Sunday Independent report.

Sixty-five is the normal retirement age in South Africa, and this year’s elections will be held in May, a few weeks after his birthday.

ANC and government insiders told the M&G this week that Gordhan’s suggestion that he was ready to move on came after his Cabinet colleagues questioned his decision to announce cost-cutting measures. The measures included a ban on using taxpayers’ money to fund booze-fuelled government parties in a bid to curb wasteful government consumption, restore confidence in the economy, and reprioritise spending on infrastructure investment and socioeconomic development.  

Other steps included a limit on the amount spent on ministers’ cars, restrictions on air travel, car hire, accommodation, catering, and entertainment and conference budgets.

Sikhakhane said it was up to President Jacob Zuma and the ANC whether the ­minister returned to Cabinet after the elections.

Sikhakhane said Gordhan’s announcement of cost-cutting measures in his mid-term statement last September had followed their approval by Cabinet.

A Luthuli House insider said that it was unlikely that Zuma would replace Gordhan. "There are always these discussions in the ANC that are not official, but people want to make them look like they are big debates with credibility," the insider said. "The minister of finance will be Pravin, unless he retires."

The ANC insider agreed, however, that Mboweni was "the most suitable candidate" should Gordhan not return to his post.

"The ANC has few people who are respected by the markets. In the current NEC, Tito is the obvious candidate. If you look at his track record, he has seriously pushed neoliberal agendas, appealing to South African business. He ran the Reserve Bank according to the interest of capitalists. From a business point of view, he will be the best person to replace Gordhan," said the insider.

The first NEC member said Zuma was "under pressure" to implement the ANC’s Mangaung conference resolution on the "second phase of economic transformation" and appointing Mboweni would be seen as a step in that direction.

"Tito is the perfect candidate to do that. He successfully transformed the labour market when he was labour minister. He did a sterling job as Reserve Bank governor. Tito is an economist. It will make him authoritative as head of the economic cluster," he said.

There could, however, be trust issues caused by Mboweni’s staunch support for former President Thabo Mbeki in 2007 against Zuma in the race for ANC presidency.

"The way I know Zuma, he has not forgiven him for Polokwane," said the Luthuli House insider. 

But another senior ANC leader said Mboweni’s candidacy as finance minister was likely to receive the backing of ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe.

"He [Mantashe] is someone who appreciates skills and competence. He would support Tito as finance minister because he knows that he [Mboweni] understands issues. He [Mboweni] is not a pushover.  I don’t think people, including President Zuma, would ignore him because he supported Mbeki. Look at Thoko Didiza. She is now deputy head of elections [in the ANC]. I really don’t think that [Mboweni’s support of Mbeki] would be an issue."

Another NEC member warned that lobbying for Mboweni as finance minister before the elections could count against him.

"Tito’s character would emerge on its own rather than as a product of a lobby. He is supported by people with integrity within the ANC."

A Mboweni supporter said lobbying was normal in the ANC.

"We must put our ideas into the president’s head before he [makes] appointments. Lobbying always has some level of success."

Approached for comment this week, Mboweni said: "All communications matters are dealt with by the SGO [secretary general’s office] and, within that structure, Jackson Mthembu should assist you. I am not a spokesperson of the ANC. I have no such a mandate."

Mthembu said he was unaware of a lobby for Mboweni.

"It has never occurred in my career as a cadre of the movement that whoever is president was lobbied to appoint someone," Mthembu said.

"The president appoints ministers in consultation with the officials and then they consult the NEC. But at the end of the day, it’s the president’s prerogative."