Tito on the brink: He should stay and point SA straight
Mboweni is said to be miserable as finance minister, but he’s got the intellectual heft and ambition to do the job
People who have spent time with President Cyril Ramaphosa in recent days report that he is relaxed and cheerful, energetic and animated. In the face of our dire economic problems and incessant warnings about a brewing intra-ANC revolt against him after this May’s general elections, that is interesting news.
I guess we worry about the future because if Jacob Zuma or his faction are planning a comeback of sorts, we still assume they can do whatever they want. We forget that Ramaphosa has been around the block a few times too. If Zuma has his spies and troops on the ground, so, probably, will Ramaphosa.
The thing to ensure, though, is that they do their jobs properly, and I’m increasingly hearing worrying news about finance minister Tito Mboweni. At Davos recently the SA delegation, led by Ramaphosa, was typically active. We do well at Davos. There are formal presentations and then more relaxed dinners. Ramaphosa speaks constantly.
Mboweni went to Davos with the delegation but reporters who covered the event say he was often nowhere to be seen. Ramaphosa would even crack a wry joke at any of Mboweni’s appearances, I’m told.
Then Carol Paton wrote a column in Business Day last week basically announcing (because Paton knows stuff) that Mboweni is on his way out and that he will not remain in the job after the coming election. I checked as best I could (the minister did not respond to my private digital query) and the responses are similar.
He’s miserable, people say. He doesn’t like the Treasury and its staff much. The coming budget has basically been written for him by the director-general, Dondo Mogojane, and he constantly misses meetings (though he has been tweeting photographs in recent days of himself and the Treasury team preparing the budget).
What’s more, he has been holding colloquia this past few months, listening to ideas from economists (including from Harvard University, which has outraged, I’m delighted to report, local leftwing economists who have written Mboweni a long complaining letter about being left off the invitation list). At one in January he actually told the audience he wouldn’t be back after the election. I’ve heard that from three people who were there.
So what’s going on? Mboweni is difficult and complex. He’s scratchy. He loved being SA Reserve Bank governor because it raised him above the mess of real politics. Central bankers are a breed of their own. They speak quietly. Their manners are impeccable. Being among them is like belonging to a gentlemen’s club of the past – all leather chairs, whisky and knowing chats.
Mboweni was a good one and much admired and liked by his peers. Being finance minister has lowered him back into the political slough from which he once escaped. So he comes across now as aloof and disdainful of the common prattle among the rest of us.
Shut SAA down, he says, leaving others to do damage control. His forays onto Twitter are often bewildering, always sparky. This came out of the blue about 10 days ago: “I publicly, and in my personal capacity, DISAGREE, with the phasing out of Afrikaans as one of the mediums of teaching at the University of Pretoria. As a country, you are shooting yourselves down. You will regret it in 30 years’ time.” Cue outrage and support.
The thing is, though, he’s also a pretty good finance minister. He has the right fiscal instincts and the intellectual heft to fight for his corner. And whatever he may say about leaving, people really close to him remind doubters that he is ambitious. And that he knows that once (if) he leaves this government there is very little chance of perhaps, one day, becoming the guy who gets to be president.
It must be difficult for Ramaphosa. He drafted Mboweni back into service very quickly – perhaps too quickly – after Nhlanhla Nene resigned in 2018. And part of Ramaphosa’s problem, whether he persuades Mboweni to stay or manages to draft a newly jobless Maria Ramos into the job after a few months’ rest, is that he doesn’t seem to have a clear and rounded economic strategy.
Ramaphosa has attended Mboweni’s colloquia, which may in one way have been an attempt by the finance minister to get the president thinking straight about what has to be done, and soon. Mboweni studied development economics in exile in the UK and he likes ideas. He was one of the youngsters drafted into forming economic policy by Nelson Mandela before 1994.
I was quite taken aback when I read Paton’s column. I thought Ramaphosa and Mboweni made a good team. And there’s still time. Perhaps some of the rewards of Mboweni’s colloquia will make an appearance in Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address on Thursday. It would be a positive but understated acknowledgement of a developing role.
As for Mboweni himself, I hope he stays. He may want to bring aboard some of the Afrikaners he enjoyed working with at the Reserve Bank but he does himself no honour by not fully appreciating the enormous contribution the Treasury team made in keeping this country afloat when once the entire Zuma government was determined to destroy it.
Peter Bruce is a former editor of Business Day and Financial Mail.