Opinionista Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar 25 February 2021

Bold political interventions are needed if Tito Mboweni’s Budget is to stand any chance of success

To achieve success with the 2021 Budget and Operation Vulindlela will take a mammoth effort from Cabinet. More importantly, it will require us to confront the holy cows and the political economy that underpinned the tripartite alliance, enabling and supporting the ANC as the governing party since 1994.

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni unveiled South Africa’s 2021 Budget at a time when the country struggles to identify how best to navigate the choppy waters brought about and enabled by the African National Congress as the country’s governing party. The challenge with these financial statements and outlining the fiscal priorities are that they require far more work than simply balancing a very constrained and stretched public fiscus, requiring political capital and bold interventions.

South Africans are mindful that the balancing act can simply unravel and collapse if Public Service and Administration Minister Senzo Mchunu or Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan are unable to hold the line. The uncertainty that this could create would simply unravel the balancing act tabled by Mboweni and National Treasury this week, and it would have devastating consequences to the slow recovery that South Africa is undergoing.

Mboweni’s social media antics aside, he will need to focus on holding the line and building a coalition to achieve the objectives of the 2021 Budget especially at a time when South Africa needs to reconstruct its foundations and shift away from “feet of clay”.

Budgetary realities and the fiscal abyss do not seem to be high priorities for those who are required to work with Treasury to ensure that the Budget tabled in Parliament is both achieved and championed by all who sit in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet, who are not pulling in the same direction, and are often not fit for purpose and should rather be moved aside in order to commit to that initial promise by Ramaphosa to establish a capable and effective government to further the wishes, aspirations and needs of South Africa.

Operation Vulindlela has been positioned by Ramaphosa and certain colleagues in Cabinet as a “critical coordination tool to unlock and fast track implementation of the structural economic reform agenda”.

Ramaphosa’s Cabinet, much like the inner workings of the ANC, has not always moved in the same direction. We only need to look at the implementation of the party’s step-aside rules to the allocation of further funds to South African Airways as reminders of how costly this ineffective and collective responsibility can be. The lumbering pace of the Ramaphosa administration must be reflected on by those entrusted to coordinate the efforts of Operation Vulindlela as the structures of government need to be adjusted, scaled down and rebuilt to enable real reform, transformation and structural change.

However, Ramaphosa, the Treasury and cadres such as Deputy Finance Minister David Masondo would have us believe that Operation Vulindlela is a crucial intervention in achieving structural reforms. The intervention of Operation Vulindlela is premised on the collective efforts of the president’s office working with the Treasury to confront structural issues and crucially to confront those issues to enable both reform and transformation.

In the absence of certainty, reform is ineffective, misguided and often limited to reactionary steps dominated by personalities without an overall objective or just outcome. Operation Vulindlela has an important role to play in addressing structural problems and it may be a model for collective responsibility by the executive to achieve outcomes. However, it highlights the inability of the Cabinet to confront these issues.

Earlier this week, Daily Maverick published an opinion piece by Gordhan, in his capacity as public enterprises minister, seeking to provide an outline around how state-owned enterprises would be turned around and how the recovery would unfold as led by the Department of Public Enterprises. We will require much more from this department and in particular Gordhan — who is called upon to remember how he fought, often alone, against the dominant factions within the ANC’s parliamentary caucus when he became a backbencher and was willing to take on Jacob Zuma and the insurrectionists within the state and our SEOs.

South Africans are mindful that a lost decade coupled with the State Capture project collapsed state capacity and enabled dysfunction and malfeasance. However, what we now require is more depth and aspiration from political leaders. South Africans require Ramaphosa, Gordhan, Mboweni and leaders of their ilk to demand more from themselves and to provide South Africans not with a collection of dots, but rather a real roadmap for reconstruction, redress and change.

Operation Vulindlela may not extend throughout Ramaphosa’s administration, but it has a crucial role to play in ensuring that the departments of Public Enterprises and Public Service and Administration not only hold the line of the 2021 Budget, but begin championing a united policy position and intervention that will ultimately achieve the broad objectives of the economic recovery plan by accelerating priority structural reforms as well as key shifts in creating capacity within the government.

The political capital required to achieve this will take a mammoth effort from those in the Cabinet and require us to confront the holy cows and the political economy that has underpinned the Tripartite Alliance enabling and supporting the ANC as South Africa’s governing party since 1994.

Policy interventions and new policy positions are often neglected and shunted to the back room, but what South Africa now requires is for Ramaphosa to direct all his social compacting work to announce policy interventions that will not only stabilise our public finances, honour and uphold the values of our Constitution, but critically that will also provide a reset on a business-as-usual approach.

These interventions must be focused simply on confronting growing poverty, desperate unemployment and joblessness, rising and entrenched inequality and specifically confronting dire household debt and hunger across South Africa.

Now is the time not merely to account for what has happened and to recover, but rather enact public policy interventions that have the opportunity to not simply inspire a generation, but enable a generation, and create sustainable communities, towns and cities. DM

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