The 2017 Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) was Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s big breakout moment as a tightrope walker.
Nobody can accuse Gigaba of underplaying the crisis in the country but what he intends to do – or can do – about it remains unclear.
He presented a bag of gunk to the nation reflecting the poor economic performance and rising debt. There was not much detail on measures to raise revenue and cut spending‚ but the writing is on the wall that there will be bad news in the February Budget.
From the person who had a swagger in his step when he walked through the doors of the finance ministry in April‚ belting out rhetoric about radical economic transformation then‚ Gigaba seems to have sobered to the hard realities of punishing economic conditions.
“It is not in the public interest‚ nor is it in the interest of government‚ to sugar-coat the state of our economy and the challenges we are facing‚” Gigaba said. “It is only when we understand these challenges fully and candidly that we will know what to do and can decide what course we must take in addressing them‚ as well as what trade-offs we must make in the national interest.”
Even when the Gupta-owned ANN7 television tried to lure him into saying that radical economic transformation was the centrepiece of his speech‚ Gigaba avoided the question saying only that it was an “ongoing debate”.
The word “nuclear” appeared once in the speech – in a quote from President Jacob Zuma’s presidency budget vote speech in May saying “the programme will be implemented at a pace and scale that the country can afford”.
At a media briefing ahead of his speech on Wednesday‚ Gigaba said the nuclear deal was “not off the agenda” but for the foreseeable future‚ the country cannot afford it.
The story of the MTBPS was the about the bleak numbers and the fact that the country is in a holding pattern until there is political certainty – which might come after the ANC’s succession battle is decided.
The growth forecast was revised downward from 1.3% to 0.7%‚ debt is expected to reach 61% of GDP by the year 2022 and the South African Revenue Service collected R50.8 billion less than projected in February.
Spending will be R3.9 billion higher than expected‚ mainly because government continues to rain down money on the moribund South African Airways (SAA).
Total recapitalisation of R10 billion is being provided to the national carrier in the current year.
Gigaba told a media briefing ahead of his speech that government was searching for a strategic equity partner to fund a turnaround at SAA and provide private sector expertise.
But the MTBPS makes it clear that even after the capital allocation‚ government’s exposure to SAA debt remains significant at R15 billion and there is risk that if the airlines fortunes do not improve‚ there will be further calls on the remaining guarantee.
Gigaba warned that South Africa’s growth prospects must be improved but there was no magic bullet to do this.
“Procrastination and dithering must end‚ we must demonstrate decisive leadership‚” he said. He highlighted policy uncertainty and “perceived political uncertainty” as constraints on growth.
He had hard words for state-owned companies saying there were “worrying trends of governance failures‚ corruption‚ operational inefficiency ad the need for government bailouts”.
“As the Shareholder‚ we are tired of being dragged into crises by those we employ to govern and manage state-owned companies. This must end‚” Gigaba said.
Ironic‚ perhaps‚ for the person who enabled the state capture machinery as minister of public enterprises.