/ 22 February 2019

A necessary bitter aloe to swallow

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni delivered a tough
Finance Minister Tito Mboweni delivered a tough, messy budget speech in a tough, messy economy. (David Harrison/M&G)


‘Madam Speaker, our president has set us on a track of renewal. But today, I will leave the poetry (and the singing) to the president. I am here to speak about hard facts and figures.” So began Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s maiden budget speech, though he didn’t quite dispense with the poetry and symbolism.

No, Mboweni could not resist drawing on the tradition of South African finance ministers to drag into the house all manner of fruits, shrubbery and other flora to make seemingly clever symbolic points about how hard the times are, how resilient a nation we are, or distributing the fruits of our labour.

We have Trevor Manuel to thank for having to endure this nonsense over the years. It was he who handed out plums to the National Assembly. Most of Mboweni’s predecessors have followed suit, even when they also promised to dispense with poetry and song because the times were hard and their task a tough one.

Hell, this time last year Malusi Gigaba, the most shockingly inappropriate pick for finance minister after Des van Rooyen, took the poetic flourish a step further and riffed on a Kendrick Lamar lyric to the effect that “we gon’ be alright”.

But a year later, we ain’t alright. And that’s why Mboweni had to drag in an aloe for his improv. We are not okay, and so we must be reminded about what we have within us that is tough, resilient and perhaps even healing. (As an aside, does it strike anyone else that Mboweni’s tenure at ­treasury, much like Gigaba’s, is a piece of desperate improv, perhaps for different reasons? How likely is it that Mboweni will be reappointed after May? He seems so ill-suited to the job, surprisingly. And there is more than a hint in his demeanour that he actually doesn’t want it or need it. In a pre-budget briefing he apparently kept haranguing journalists that the world is “in a post-Soviet era”. Now this was some piss-poor reasoning back in 1999, when everybody was doing it. But in 2019?)

Aloe ferox is an indigenous aloe — a hardy, drought-resistant plant often used for its medicinal properties. It is found from the southwestern Cape to southern KwaZulu-Natal and in the southeastern Free State, shooting up flame-coloured flowers in the winter months, and growing up to 3m high. As an Eastern Cape boy, I know it well. We call it ikhala, and its bitter sap has been put to many inventive uses, not always medicinal. Nursing mothers may smear a dash around their areolas when they think it is time for the infant to be weaned. Not a happy thought, and if you think about it, probably by far the more compelling metaphor represented by the bitter aloe. Not tough, or hard, or resilient, just bitter: an unpleasant taste to wean you off old habits.

Habits such as Eskom, and the entire accompanying mess that is our country’s state-owned enterprises: the immovable feast of bailouts and handouts, the dodgy procurement, backhanders and destroyed balance sheets. Like all of us, Mboweni said that we cannot continue to pour money down that dark hole.

“Pouring money directly into Eskom is like pouring water into a sieve,” he said.

But he understands better than most of us — we who are embittered by rolling blackouts and corrupt, unaccountable executives — that you also cannot stop the money in one swift action. Grid collapse is a real possibility and 2019 is a real election year. And the wider risks to the economy are real, too.

He and the ANC know that in the immediate term Eskom must feed off our collective teat, but the milk must start to carry a hint of the bitterness of the aloe.

The immediate and substantial risk that Eskom poses to the ­economy and state finances was partly addressed by allocating ­R69-billion over three years— ­R23-billion a year — as a support package with ­conditions, or the sap of the bitter aloe, if you like.

As part of a list of conditions a “chief reorganisation officer”, or CRO, will be jointly appointed by Mboweni and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan.

One can wonder why a place with a highly paid chief executive needs a CRO, but that’s for another day.

The chief reorganisation officer will work with Eskom’s board and management to carry out the recommendations of the presidential task team.

Mboweni also included some details about how Eskom will be unbundled into three entities, revealing that each entity would, in time, have its own board and leaders, debts and assets.

This is the part of the whole Eskom restructuring that will be resisted by the ANC’s union allies, who see it as code for privatisation, commercialisation and large-scale job cuts. (Eskom employs 47 000 people but generates the same amount of power as it did when it employed 32 000. Something will have to give).

In addition to the Eskom headache there’s the state’s wage bill, now the second-­biggest item in the state’s budget after social expenditure. It crowds out spending on investment and transforming the economy, and Mboweni wants to reduce it by R27-billion over the next three years.

But it too will be a clash of wills between the ANC and ­significant members of its con­stituency. Already the National Union of Mineworkers has hinted that its support for the ruling party in May will be tested by the government’s moves to unbundle and restructure Eskom. The likes of the South African Democratic Teachers Union and the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union could follow suit over public sector job cuts.

And that is the ANC’s bitter aloe of 2019.

This was a tough, messy budget in the midst of a tough, messy economy. If the ruling party doesn’t manage to hold the line with its allies and its broader working-class constituency, it faces a tough, messy election. What is the party willing to risk and who is it willing to sacrifice?

Vukani Mde is a founder and partner at LEFTHOOK, a Johannesburg-based research and strategy consultancy