Will Mboweni’s truth bombs give SA the shake-up it needs?

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Will Mboweni’s truth bombs give SA the shake-up it needs?

His style of dramatic 'change management' promises to be a rollercoaster ride

Peter Attard Montalto


What exactly is the point of being a minister? The question may sound silly but where there is a political party deeply enmeshed into the government mechanism the status quo seems to be that policy magically emerges from a “collective”. Ministers are then (meant to) passively implement the policy. Of course, you can add on top the ministerial cars, bag carriers and the rest.
Yet the Constitution has a different view. Ministers have delegated executive authority to act – in “developing and implementing national policy”. The nub really comes to the Ministerial Oath to be a “true and faithful counsellor” read together with s83(c) which says that the president must “promote all that will advance the republic”.
Ministers are meant to work to make SA a better place. That sounds like a pretty exciting job.
Has anyone before found the job of finance minister fun, though? You probably need a comfort in your own skin from experience, a sense of purpose, a fearlessness to enjoy the job, a deep level of trust in your staff. More so, you need a strategic sense of how to effect change.
Tito Mboweni seems to have all these qualities – and his manner of reluctant acceptance of the job (which he has laid out in much detail!) seems to confirm this.
But how to effect change as a minister or indeed a corporate?
Travelling to SA regularly over the past 12 years, a key question that I gnaw away at is how (in very dry corporate speak) “change management” can work in a country that has the highest rates of unemployment and inequality in the world.
There is the softly, softly approach, continually balancing interests. Being sensitive in language and risk averse to these various factional interests. This has been the comfort zone of most corporates in SA and especially corporate representative bodies as well as most policy makers. Some issues are simply untouchable – facing the right direction and taking baby steps only but then soon running into a pothole. This was the policy sense from the recent “stimulus” package, jobs and investment summits.
The other method however could be likened to Schumpeterian “creative destruction”. A vigorous and intense conflict of ideas ultimately with at its basis mutual respect that all sides want to “advance the republic”. It has a “theory of change” – it deals with the missing middle between the end point and the starting point. All ideas are on the table for sober analysis of what will work, regardless of how difficult they might be. There must be no “holy cows”. It might even require heading off in a totally different direction to reach the end point.
This has not really happened with policy formation in recent times. The SA Reserve Bank (SARB) has probably been one of the few institutions that has taken the latter view. I remember well it happened quite dramatically after Marikana – something clicked inside the SARB under Gill Marcus and there suddenly came a blunt assessment of the fact that SA was, fundamentally, not in the right place. This has continued to be reinforced even more robustly under Lesetja Kganyago (as seen in the diagnosis of the recent Monetary Policy Review).
What we are now seeing with Governor(/Minister) Mboweni is the latter style of dramatic “change management”. We now have two institutions, in Treasury and SARB, both with considerable intellectual capacity – taking an alternative strategy to effecting change to the status quo.
Mboweni’s strategy is the deployment of “truth bombs”. Statements of the obvious that no one else comparable is willing to say – on the structural deficit, the wage bill, SOE reform, Eskom, shuttering SAA, the need to call out looting and vested interests bluntly, like on VBS.
Deeper than this has been his frequent mention in speeches that policy is treading water and “reincarnating” the same prescriptions from 20 or even 30 years ago. The specifics above follow from this profound realisation and the ability to say it.
It is like a thermobaric bomb – creating a huge vacuum by sucking the gibberish out of a debate – a clearing of political space.
What happens to this cleared political space is key and where I remain cautiously sceptical. Is political capital deployed to do something different? Is there a counterreaction to maintain the status quo? (We have already seen a sharp reaction against Treasury staff in parliament after Mboweni’s SAA comments.) Does risk aversion reign supreme still from corporates in this environment or do they try to occupy this space?
A different method of effecting change in SA is being tried – popcorn is required. Kganyago sounded bullish about its chances of success in New York last week.
Its going to be a fascinating rollercoaster ride, yet ultimately a successful focus on “advancing the republic” would help the average unemployed citizen, and that is truly exciting.
• Attard Montalto is head of capital markets research at Intellidex.

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