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27 July 2017 16:35 (South Africa)
Opinionista Judith February

Budget Speech is the new State of the Nation Address

  • Judith February
    Judith-February.jpg
    Judith February

    Judith February is a governance specialist, columnist and lawyer. She  was previously executive director of the HSRC’s Democracy and Governance unit and also head of the Idasa’s South African Governance programme for 12 years.

The question increasingly in South Africa is: how do we stop what we know is wrong?

President Zuma came to Parliament a man so diminished in stature that he needed the army and metres upon metres of barbed wire to protect him from the people. The proceedings were repeatedly disrupted and Zuma eventually delivered his sonorous speech to a half-empty chamber.

We thus looked to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan to give us the real state of the nation. The difference as Gordhan rose to speak last week could not have been more marked. Gordhan came to Parliament with his position uncertain and the proverbial Sword of Damocles hanging over his head. Yet, he delivered a Budget that held the line as being broadly redistributive despite the painfully slow economic growth we are experiencing. 

Gordhan painted a pretty grim picture of South Africa’s high inequality-low growth environment and the equally dismal global context that exists. This is no time for the faint-hearted. Leaving the facts and figures aside, Gordhan did what President Zuma ought to have done in his SONA.

Zuma’s stilted, unconvincing speech belied his disinterest in the detail of government and policy and clearly indicated his disconnect from the text.

Gordhan on the other hand used the Budget speech to draw us all to what he called a “larger purpose”. His deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, had been doing the spadework and for a while now had been calling for a “new consensus” and for business, government, labour, civil society and all sectors to be involved in a project of inclusive growth. At its core though is a “moral (read: not corrupt) vision”.

Gordhan simply picked up that theme by using that well-worn word “transformation” more than 50 times in his speech. What was abundantly clear, however, was that for Gordhan and Jonas the idea of transformation is something quite different to what the rapacious class within the ANC and Cabinet imagine. Gordhan’s words were powerful. They hung uncomfortably in the air while he spoke and lingered long after he left the room.

We then saw precisely why he and Team Treasury pose such a threat to what the prescient ANC in 1969 called the “chauvinism and narrow nationalism” of an “elitist group” who wished to “gain ascendancy so that they can replace the oppressor in the exploitation of the masses”.

Those words sound staggeringly familiar today. Who are those who exploit “narrow and chauvinistic nationalism” for their own benefit and who speak words of transformation yet seek to line their pockets with the proceeds of dodgy deals and nefarious acts? Who are the individuals who seek to award tenders to their friends and associates at the expense of the poor? Who are those who sought to block the perfectly reasonable FICA Amendment Bill? Mzwanele Manyi and other proxies have been fighting in Zuma’s corner, pushing a need for “transformation” of the economy and railing against “white monopoly capital” yet at the same time opposing the FICA Amendment Bill for the most spurious of reasons.

Is it any wonder then that Gordhan’s speech was in fact a call to action, but not the tired, platitudinous one, rather a real one.  He laid out the challenges, asking us all to “disprove” the detractors and “defeat those whose greed and selfishness will obstruct us” in the path to real transformation.

As the speech ended, the House rose in applause for a man who so obviously possesses what seems in such short supply these days – integrity. It rose for Gordhan because at last some dignity and respect was returned to the House. Here was someone who set out the path we need to take with clarity of mind.

As the applause continued there were some among Gordhan’s Cabinet colleagues who remained seated in a singular display of arrogance. They represent the rogues’ gallery; Bathabile Dlamini, the Social Development minister whose arrogance and inaction may well cause 17-million poor people not to receive their SASSA grants on time. Dlamini has ignored a court order stating that the current service provider CPS’ appointment is unlawful and has been since 2014. Yet she persists and has shown Gordhan the proverbial finger when he suggested an alternative service provider.

One wonders why the incoherent Dlamini is so focused on ensuring that CPS retains the tender? It begs several questions regarding who is actually benefiting from this lucrative contract? This of course is Zuma’s world and so undermining the Constitution and the ConCourt is virtually par for the course.

One is known by the company one keeps and her fellow seated Cabinet minister was Weekend Special, Des/Dave Van Rooyen who was fingered in the State of Capture report and who seemed to spend much time travelling to Dubai.

Alongside him sat Minister of Small Business Development, Lindiwe Zulu, who equally defended Zuma during the “Remember Khwezi” protest at the IEC last year and almost went to fisticuffs with an EFF MP outside the chamber in 2015, losing her dignity and any shred of credibility in the process. What was she hoping to win through going to fisticuffs that she could not win by force of argument, one wonders?

And seated too was Minister of State Security, David Mahlobo, he of signal jamming fame who has turned our state security agency into one which protects only uBaba and his faction. He remains the incoherently dangerous mind behind the increased securitisation of the state.  

So Gordhan knows that he is fighting against state capture by not only his own boss and colleagues but also those proxies outside of Cabinet calling for radical economic transformation and the “fall of white monopoly capital”.

The challenge for Gordhan and Co is that these words and phrases can be used to either unite or divide us. After all, we know that South Africa desperately needs transformation – of the economy and of hearts and minds. His message however is that we ought not to be sidetracked by noise and the “alternative facts” about redistribution and redress. The noise talks “transformation” but in fact is a proxy for a corrupt little band of cronies hijacking the economy for their narrow gain.

In this context, who is able to lead us in a conversation about our past, the structure of the economy and redress without it being mired in noise and opportunism? Certainly not the president or indeed the ANC, so caught up in its own dysfunction and division. Last week Gordhan sought to provide leadership on a fresh commitment to ethical transformation.

However, Gordhan faces more immediate challenges, given the swearing in of former Eskom CEO, Brian Molefe, as an MP. Will he replace Mcebisi Jonas or will Molefe go somewhere less obvious like Public Enterprises? He has not come to Parliament to warm the benches for long, that much is certain. Even more disconcerting is the lack of leadership at SARS. Commissioner Tom Moyane seems to be running a personal fiefdom and with the R30-billion tax revenue shortfall, one cannot help but wonder whether Moyane is doing his own bit of “Gordhan sabotage”? Zuma, we are told, is going to deal with the clearly dysfunctional relationship between Moyane and Gordhan. Quite how this will happen remains to be seen, when Zuma himself is possibly fuelling the dysfunction. This past weekend Gordhan said again, “The public is very aware of what is going on. They know the agenda is to destroy Treasury…. but the public knows what is right and wrong.”

Indeed we do. The question increasingly in South Africa however is how do we stop what we know is wrong? How do we stop a rogue president and his captured colleagues from simply bypassing the rule of law and, in some instances, the Constitutional Court, and acting with impunity? Gordhan calls us to “own the process, defend the gains; demand accountability”. Save South Africa and other organisations are working hard to do just that, yet it’s a battle for the long haul.

What is needed is a large-scale resistance to Zuma and his colleagues’ impunity. That will mean more than filling the church hall and suing the state, though the former is a start and the latter equally important to embed the rule of law.

It will mean pouring into the streets and saying, ‘Enough!’ And it will take a more strategic partnership between labour, business and civil society (including churches, artists, writers, NGOs, community-based organisations; the whole gamut) seeking to forge proactive alliances with each other and those in government who are prepared to listen. A critical mass of cross-sectoral resistance is now a matter of urgency. We will need to leave behind our minor differences of turf in favour of uniting around ‘the bigger picture’ and that is protecting democratic institutions and entrenching democratic ways of decision-making. Can South Africans summon that collective courage one more time? Can we unite in the cause of ethical transformation, forge “the new consensus” and disprove the detractors? One senses we will find out sooner rather than later. DM

  • Judith February
    Judith-February.jpg
    Judith February

    Judith February is a governance specialist, columnist and lawyer. She  was previously executive director of the HSRC’s Democracy and Governance unit and also head of the Idasa’s South African Governance programme for 12 years.

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