Having ascended to the second-most-important job in politics, he should contemplate this

Ratings agencies, taxpayers, investors and hard-pressed consumers will focus laser-attention on the pronouncements of new finance minister Tito Mboweni when he delivers his “maiden” mini-budget speech in parliament this afternoon.

But there is nothing virginal about Mboweni’s cabinet status. He returns to the front bench of parliament two decades after leaving it, in 1998, as Minister of Labour, to assume the governorship of the Reserve Bank.

Most of the commentary on his appointments has ranged from kindly sympathetic – of the “horror job but someone has to do it” sort – to the extravagantly lavish. “Masterstroke by Ramaphosa” being the headliner of this trope.

Of course, even the most able ministers of finance do not make the economic weather, but can, if skilled and dextrous, navigate both the head and tail winds buffeting the country. Hardly surprising then, given the perfect storm raining down on SA right now, that Mboweni was so resistant to accepting the post.

Back when he was labour minister and I, in addition to being its leader, had to double as Democratic Party spokesman on labour, I shadowed Mboweni and staunchly opposed the raft of (as I perceived them) job-crushing legislation he piloted. The point in those far-off day was that you could, and we duly had many of them, have ferocious disputes across the aisles of parliament, and then Mboweni would invite you to drinks and dinner afterwards. So a relationship forged in adversity, developed into a friendship. That says a great deal about the new minister of finance’s self-confidence and sense of proportion, alas seldom sighted in our politics in these times.

However, perhaps the most perceptive and important remark offered on Mboweni’s appointment is that his economic acumen (apart from his bizarre tweets of recent times) is married to a keen understanding of the treacherous political tides he also has to navigate, especially in the ANC.

It is of passing irony that the trade unions whom his era as labour minister did so much to empower and entrench could, in his new iteration, be his new nemesis as he confronts the unsustainable fact to which he gave voice at the weekend: eight out of every 10 rand of the taxpayers’ funds spent by the government is now consumed by public-sector wages.

So, as he finds some means of rejigging our economy and restarting its spluttering engines, he might land up being, to succeed in his new perch and provided he is backed by a president known for his caution to date, the proverbial fox placed in the chicken coop as he uses his credibility to redress the imbalance of power his previous policies created.

But whether Mboweni decides to take an axe to the unsustainable public-sector payroll and liberate parts of the job-poor economy from its current shackles, there is little doubt that one key fact separates Mboweni from his predecessor, Nhalanhla Nene.

Nene, before commendably and singularly (to date) falling on his sword, was noteworthy for his technocratic approach to the political economy.

Mboweni, in contrast, is deeply embedded in the upper echelons of the ANC. He managed to keep his seat on its national executive committee despite, or perhaps because of, his frank disapproval of the methods and machinations of Zuma and his followers. Indeed, his private-sector emoluments meant he was one of a handful of NEC members who were not reliant on Zuma for his salary. “Speaking truth to power”, though a cliché, is always commendable. But it is also easier when your livelihood is independent of the power-holder’s purse.

We recently witnessed the funeral in Pretoria of a former cabinet colleague of Mboweni, Pik Botha.

His death on October 12, in the same week as Mboweni’s appointment as finance minister, could suggest a certain bookend: between a faded figure lost in the mists of recent memory and a past figure now restored to the front line by the needs of the moment and his own fidelity to the dominant ruling party.

Botha, certainly in his heyday as long-serving foreign minister, was a figure of dominance. He was also, by the admittedly meagre and unimaginative standards of white politics in the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps the only figure in the ruling National Party possessed of both imaginative flair and crowd-pleasing charisma.

I witnessed his pulling-power first-hand and with nearly calamitous results (for my cause, not his) in February 1986. I was the candidate in a municipal by-election, hitherto unknown to my voters, in the modest suburbs of Bellevue and Judith’s Paarl in northeastern Johannesburg. Ten days before the election, the leader of my party, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, had walked out of parliament and the party. Not exactly a vote-winning formula for his ex-party’s neophyte candidate.

The National Party candidate and its campaign smelled blood in the electoral waters. And at very short notice, it arranged an eve-of-poll rally headlined by its star at whipping up white votes, Pik Botha.

But if the Progressive Federal Party had just lost its leader, Pik Botha in the same week had nearly lost his job. He had mused to a group of journalists, with whom he always enjoyed swapping war stories and sharing drinks, that it was conceivable that a black person could become president of SA. Of course, exactly eight years later, in 1994, that is precisely what happened and the ever-ready Botha happily served under him for two years.

But back in dark and repressive 1986, and facing both forces to its left and right, this was an apostasy in the NP. So Botha’s boss, President PW Botha (no relation), forced the other Botha into a grovelling written apology. For neither the first nor last time in Pik Botha’s long career, his reformist bark was not followed up by the bite of a wounding ministerial resignation.

But his bravura performance that night in my constituency, telling the enthralled and packed auditorium that he would sooner apologise to President Botha than “do a deal with the  majority-rule Progs”, as he dubbed my side, nearly sealed the deal. A few days later I barely won, and only by 39 votes.

The point about Botha’s long service at the top of politics (he was a cabinet minister for nearly 20 years) is that for all his bluff charm and reformist noise, he essentially served power rather than trying to change it. In fact, his huge popularity among white voters was never matched by support in his own party and in its parliamentary ranks.

Two years after he prostrated himself before PW Botha, the latter was felled by a stroke. But in the contest to succeed him, Pik Botha was eliminated in the first round of voting. The winner of that contest, and PW Botha’s successor, was the far less flashy and perceptibly more conservative FW de Klerk. He did not just serve power, but fundamentally, sometimes inadvertently, changed its dynamic completely. He also within less than five years was no longer president.

De Klerk’s reputation these days is mixed, ranging between appreciation for surrendering power, to derision for having his hand forced; and the ruling party always hangs the millstone of apartheid around his neck. But when history one day writes his epitaph it will not likely include the rather damning assessment penned in The Economist obituary to Pik Botha published this past weekend. “His defence of the system only served to prolong its horror.”

Only through dint of a fluke of false news (a century before this term of art entered the lexicon) did Alfred Nobel, while very much alive, have the opportunity to read his own obituary. The newspaper in question headlined its report, “Death of inventor of dynamite”. He decided he wished to be better remembered by posterity. So he funded the Nobel Prizes which bear his name and he is best remembered for his philanthropy, not his weapon of destruction.

With the public finances in such a mess, his revenue base at an historic low and unemployment at a nine million-jobless high, thinking on how posterity will remember him must be about the last thing on Mboweni’s to-do list

But having now ascended to the second-most-important job in politics in a country in need of painful and dramatic reforms, and when he has a spare moment, he should contemplate the key question: “When I have finally left  office, will I be remembered as the person who changed the economic course of my country for the best, or as someone who occupied power and never tried to change it?”

Best of luck, Tito.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.

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