Two seemingly unrelated events over the past 24 hours might give us some indication of where the political and economic year is headed. And early signs are that it won’t be pretty.
First, on Thursday, Deputy President David Mabuza fired a broadside at Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan and Eskom chairperson Jabu Mabuza, saying they had “misled” the president about load shedding.
And then, in the early hours of Friday morning, eccentric Finance Minister Tito Mboweni took to social media and went off about the country’s imminent ratings downgrade, declaring: “You were warned and chose to ignore wise warnings!!” (With two exclamation marks).
WHY SHOULD WE TAKE NOTE OF IT?
Mabuza and Mboweni may serve in the same Cabinet, but they aren’t on the same team. And Mabuza’s attack on Gordhan and Mboweni’s frustration reveal the depth and extent to which President Cyril Ramaphosa’s attempts to rescue the state and country are being stymied.
HOW IMPORTANT IS MABUZA?
He’s had a quiet time of it as Ramaphosa’s Number Two. Recall that he made his big power play at the ANC’s elective conference in 2017, throwing in his lot with Ramaphosa, rather than Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, thereby securing the pole position to succeed Ramaphosa when his term of office ends.
Since being appointed deputy president, he has been out of the news, quietly trying to clean up his image as strongman politician from a provincial backwater, and someone who has been implicated in various alleged crimes. There have been few public appearances and his parliamentary statements have by and large gone unnoticed.
There haven’t been many public indicators of what Mabuza’s plans are. And it’s also unclear what exactly his beliefs are or what his ideology entails. What is clear though is that, before he became deputy president, he was a gun for hire, and that he didn’t commit to Ramaphosa until the last minute. He has also publicly attacked the reformist minded Mboweni, once declaring that he doesn’t take him (Mboweni) “seriously”.
His statement that Gordhan and Jabu Mabuza misled the president is significant.
Gordhan is Ramaphosa’s man, of that there is no doubt. He has been backed to the hilt by the president and is regarded as the man who will do the dirty work. When he makes a move, or a big announcement, it is done with the blessing of the president. They are in lock step. Similarly, Jabu Mabuza’s appointment as Eskom chairperson was done at the insistence of Ramaphosa, mere days after he was elected ANC leader.
Misleading the president is a serious accusation. And by saying what he has, Mabuza has located himself in opposition to Gordhan and, in effect, to Ramaphosa.
HOW LONG WILL MBOWENI LAST?
On Friday morning, in response to Mboweni’s tweets, former Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa tweeted that the finance minister did not have broad support because he (and governor of the SA Reserve Bank Lesetja Kganyago) are believed to be remnants of the much maligned “1996 Class Project”, a reference to government’s fiscally conservative economic policies between 1996 and 2007.
If you cannot effect deep structural economic reforms, then game over! Stay as you are and you are down graded to Junck Status!! The consequences are dire. Your choice. Yep!! Askies!!
Mboweni has been frustrated ever since he took the job as minister of finance in September 2018. He has warned, time and again, that there needs to be serious structural reforms if the economy is to be turned around and the state’s finances are to be restored.
But because of 2007, when the “1996 Class Project” was chucked out at Polokwane, any policy position which may resemble anything remotely resembling “neo-liberal” is rejected out of hand. Such as getting rid of some state-owned companies or trimming the public service. Both, incidentally, have been identified as the biggest threats to fiscal stability.
You were warned and chose to ignore the wise warnings!!
Mboweni has been unable to enact the reforms National Treasury believes are imperative. Whether it’s a dithering president or an intransigent governing party, Mboweni seems very near the end of his tether.
He’s known for taking internal debates public, and for being unafraid of any ANC backlash.
But the tabling of the budget is fast approaching (it happens in a couple of weeks) and he needs something to placate the ratings agencies with. Otherwise we might go bust.
Who is ignoring his warnings? Ramaphosa or the ANC?
Mboweni’s not winning the battle. And he wants everyone to know.