In parliament on Wednesday, finance minister Tito Mboweni will star in an update of “Mission Impossible”. This is his self-appointed task of “closing the mouth of the hippopotamus”. Or reducing the gap between government revenue and expenditure without choking off any prospect of economic growth.

It is not that Tito lacks a sincere and serious commitment to his cause. It is simply that he is in the equivalent position today in which the late minister of education, Kader Asmal, found himself more than two decades back.

He, like Mboweni, was a reformer. But when he tried his hand at improving the outcomes from his department, he admitted defeat at the hands of the powerful SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), one of the most change-resistant institutions in the country. He ruefully observed something along these lines: “I feel like the eunuch in a harem; I might have the desire, but I lack the power to act.”

Mboweni is hemmed in on all sides, most of all by his own team. President Cyril Ramaphosa produces word salads, not plans, with serious time lines or deliverables, and he has a preternatural ability to duck every hard choice and kick every can down the road to infinity — choose your cliché. They all apply.

The unions are even more change-resistant today than two decades ago. Having enjoyed massive Treasury-busting and beyond-inflation pay and benefit hikes for more than a decade, they are not front of queue to hand back any entitlements.

But the real bunker-buster, which will bomb the best intentions of Mboweni, lies in the scariest single line buried in the National Treasury Budget Review of February.

It states, on page 91: “National Treasury has expended R162bn over the past 12 years on financially distressed state-owned companies.” A staggering 80% of which has been expended on Eskom, in exchange for electricity blackouts.

Six months later, answering a question in parliament in August, Mboweni updated the figure over a 20-year timeline to R187.4bn.

And yet, despite the jaw-dropping amounts and serial failures in practically every state-owned company, the government under “reformer” Ramaphosa clings to the carcass of this dead duck.

In his speech in parliament recently, Ramaphosa did offer one line of candour. He acknowledged that the latest (of dozens) plan based on his “developmental agenda” could fail because the “state is incapable of implementing it”.

So absent of wholesale privatisations, which won’t happen this afternoon, or rowing back on deficit funding to prop up the ailing companies, what clues have we been offered for any improvement?

In 1980s Washington DC, a catchy line which summed up the brave new world of Republicans returning to the White House was “personnel is policy”. This means who you choose to deliver the goods will determine in large measure the outcome and the better qualified the appointee, the better the chance of success.

That is why Ronald Reagan entrusted his key policies, domestically, to James Baker. He was a savvy lawyer from Houston, and the man who had been a lifetime friend and consigliere for his party rival, George HW Bush. Under Reagan he would serve as chief of staff, then Treasury secretary. Results followed.
Ramaphosa, even within the cramped confines of his own ideology and party, shows no such imagination or self-confidence.

Start with his decision to appoint yet another council. This one has the ambitious task of reforming state-owned companies and enjoys the adjective “presidential” in front of its name. Yet its chairperson is Joel Netzhitenze. He is the intellectual father of “cadre deployment” and wrote the documents which led to the ANC implementing two decades worth of dumping the party faithful into immense positions of commercial influence.

Then there is Eskom, whose board chairperson is Prof MW Makgoba, not known for his commercial background or any expertise in electricity transmission. Or power utilities. But he is an immunologist and public health expert. His running of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) was mired in controversy and debt. But he is only an interim appointee and has been for many months.

Last week, the cabinet proudly announced that a recycled ANC politician, who deserted the ANC for COPE, then “came home”, had received an early Christmas gift. Leonard Ramatlakane is now chairperson of Prasa, which is on course to lose R757m this year and which has shut down most of the Cape rail service. It was in this province that Ramatlakane served as MEC for transport, a tenure mired in controversy concerning his unauthorised loan from the provincial Treasury to pay for his home security system. And then he had a tax problem with the loan, which led to an enquiry. Anyway, he was the one figure around which the fractious provincial ANC could unite to oust. And so he set up his stall in COPE, before returning to the ANC in 2014.

His qualifications for running a board of such a major enterprise appear to be long service in the parliamentary committee on transport. Another cadre, this one a prodigal son, another deployment.

Prasa was chaired between 2014 and 2017 by another ANC politician, Popo Molefe, who now chairs the board at Transnet.

In the complex world of offshore oil and gas, state company PetroSA is another site of previous plunder which was used as a piggy bank to pay for the ANC election campaign in 2004. At the time it was chaired by Molefe. Its current chairperson is a former mining trade unionist Frans Baleni. In 2015, Baleni was defeated in his attempt to be re-elected as secretary-general of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). But that made him a close ally of Ramaphosa and last year he got the call from the president to chair PetroSA. The fit for this task, beyond personal and political loyalty, being utterly unclear.

The list goes on and it is not, as Mboweni’s statistics reveal, starred with success. Winston Churchill once wrote: “We go from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Especially in our case, when the taxpayer stumps up for it.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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