DM168 Reflection

Tito Mboweni’s unseemly klap at Judge Zondo

By Ferial Haffajee 28 February 2021

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni delivers his Budget Speech in the National Assembly, Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa on Wednesday 24 February 2021. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

The R800-million cost of the Zondo Commission has already paid for itself. For one thing, the management consultancy McKinsey has settled a R600-million debt after negotiation with the commission.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Answering a question from journalist Carol Paton after delivering his deft Budget this week, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni smacked the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture.

He said it had cost more than any judicial inquiry in post-apartheid South Africa, was taking too long and had better get the job done. Wow! His riposte was sharp, fast and quickly headlined to add to growing political pressure on Zondo and his team.

The ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte had already fired a broadside at the judge telling him to stay in his lane when he questioned MPs about their oversight role in the era of State Capture, which my colleague Marianne Merten has tallied at the cost of R1.3-trillion. Mboweni is playing tough guy to tame public finances. A debt spiral looms, with borrowings now equal to 80.3% of GDP – and that won’t be paid off soon with anaemic growth levels.

He is grumpy and saying “no” to everybody, including pensioners and children reliant on grants. They got less than inflation-based increases on Budget Day. So, in that context, his broadside at the cost of Zondo’s commission fits the script.

But Mboweni is also a politician and the ANC is facing its Ides of March at the Zondo Commission from next week. The party has had to prepare nine affidavits for the commission and President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to be its final marquee witness as it wraps up at the end of March.

You can expect the rhetoric about the commission and its work to get louder and louder.

Viewed in this context, Mboweni’s words are less than salubrious. Our government wastes money like Kim Kardashian at an island birthday party. Daily Maverick has reported this week how the Health Department has blown more than R40-million on Covid-19 communications when the state has a full-service, multibillion-rand Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) to do exactly that. So, why the splurge?

Earlier this month, Maverick Citizen editor Mark Heywood uncovered the unbelievable news that the Gauteng Education Department had splurged more than R400-million on cleaning schools. The Western Cape did it for R4-million. Our money runs like water through our government’s hands and Mboweni, as custodian of the public purse, does not speak out about this as forcefully as he did about the Zondo Commission. It’s a political Janus face.

The R800-million cost of the Zondo Commission has already paid for itself. For one thing, the management consultancy McKinsey has settled a R600-million debt after negotiation with the commission. But the moral credit of the commission is much greater.

The daily recounting of the era of grand corruption in South Africa with the meticulous work by the commission’s investigators and its lawyers is like a real-time master class in understanding the system of patronage and crony capitalism that ate up our country’s constitutional vision.

That constitutional vision is of a thriving and progressive social democracy, which places social justice at its centre. That heart centre was steadily eroded in the 26 years of freedom by the systems the Zondo Commission is helping us understand.  We will only know its thesis of State Capture when the final report drops with President Cyril Ramaphosa at the end of June, but already it has shown how the state-owned companies were easily repurposed to feed patronage networks.

It has revealed how the tender system has been corrupted by provincial businesspeople acting in cahoots with politicians and civil servants – 41% of all spending happens in provinces and a large percentage of it is looted every month, if you read the local and community media.

The Zondo Commission has also shown how the precious public rand’s parliamentary oversight system was debased by systems of what Duarte called “democratic centralism”. To whom do MPs answer: their publics or their parties? This will be an essential question that Judge Zondo and his team have started to answer for us.

The country, which should have its eye on the vaccine rollout, is instead high on the spectacle of former president Jacob Zuma giving the commission the runaround while tweeting from Nkandla, the homestead we zhooshed up at the cost of more than R300-million.

By taking a populist swipe at the Zondo Commission, Mboweni played straight into the hands of the crowd ganging up against all that the commission has taught us and all it is about to report on. The Pilchard may be doing his national duty by calling out overspending wherever he finds it, or he may be playing politics. I hope it’s the former. DM168

Ferial Haffajee is an associate editor at Daily Maverick.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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All Comments 9

  • Ferial, I am so glad you wrote this article, expressing the same concern I expressed in a comment in another article on DM shortly after Mbowene’s budget speech and in his press conference soon thereafter. Ramaphosa surely would have had insight to the budget speech, yet did nothing about it. So how serious is he, and the ANC in general, really about the commission’s work? Or will he and the ANC simply push the eventual report of Deputy Chief Justice Zondo to the bottom of the heap, despite the intention to make it public. And will the NPA have the guts to take real action against Zuma and others, considering the expected pushback by the Zuma/Magashule faction of the ANC. Positive and guilty verdicts against them in their current cases of corruption is vital, and needs also to happen speedily. Already the case against Magashule and others have been postponed for an incredible 6 months for only a pre-trial. Unless the NPA starts to move fast in all corruption cases, I am afraid we will only see these pushbacks by the guilty to gain immense momentum.

    • While the commission has been valuable in publicising the granular extent of the corruption and crime, I think the jury is still out on its intrinsic value in terms of whether it can help stop the rot. When considered on these terms it’s tempting to see the commission as a glorified soap opera, the revelations of which we can all be shocked and appalled at every few days. The nub here is that nobody is on trial, no-one has been convicted, and Zondo has been far too accommodating to certain individuals. In essence this is pure theatre for the masses – except that not enough of the masses care, or even know about it.
      I hope I’m proven wrong in this respect, and that real consequences for those who deserve them can flow from the information.

  • Point is the decision was taken and Zuma forced to abide by it. It is a sad day to see that all is decided in terms of money being spent. What price freedom? Now we have to pull through with it. Forget about praying for faith, pray for the courage to keep it. Amazing how true it is that one can talk yourself out of something. With all the knowledgeable sneering at imperfections in the system, we are indeed talking ourselves into a very dark future. White cynicism at black incompetence is nothing better than the previously disadvantaged wailing about the travails of apartheid. Then again, any excuse is good enough to prevent yourself from looking to the future. Ugh! the future has responsibilities and I’m too lazy to face those.

  • Providing further funding to allow the Commission to properly complete its work and compile a strong report that can serve as a basis subsequent prosecutions is would be a sound investment, and to undermine the work of the Commission with these sorts of comments and lack of support just plays into the hands of those who seek to collapse the Commission and avoid any effective outcomes resulting. To make these statements while still allowing money to be poured into the black hole SOEs highlights a complete lack of commitment to addressing the fundamental issues underlying the crisis that the country currently is in.

  • Is there any way the public can finance the rest of the Commission’s life if the Treasury won’t? We need to get a proper report which is not compromised by lack of funding.

  • It’s disgraceful that as a finance minister he goes looking for more money whilst ignoring the huge theft going on in our municipalities and SOEs by his cadres.

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