By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Malusi Gigaba, the sometimes colourfully dapper – his unique wardrobe include suits with such ‘interesting’ colours like green and purple – South African finance minister, presents his first budget statement on 25 October. It is not the big one; that won’t be due until next year. But the mid-term budget would be a good first test of his 7-month stewardship thus far. Economists polled by Reuters put the likely revenue shortfall in the current fiscal year to be announced by Mr Gigaba at R40 billion (US$3 billion). (It could be up to R55 billion, some suggest.) I did not provide a shortfall forecast but the fiscal deficit projections I expect the finance minister to announce are as follows: 3.3 percent of GDP for the 2017/18 fiscal year, 3.1 percent for 2018/19, 2.8 percent for 2019/20 and 2.6 percent for 2020/21. Of course, if growth were to improve, they would be a little lower. However, there is not much to suggest that the needed structural reforms to spur growth would be implemented anytime soon.
Show me the money
Ahead of Mr Gigaba’s speech, several allegations have emerged he might be following a meticulous script written by his controversial principal, Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa. Lately, he has made some moves that deserve commendation, though. Dudu Myeni, a Zuma acolyte and perhaps much more, would finally leave her post as chairperson of loss-making and highly indebted national airline, South African Airways (SAA), in early November. Even this supposedly laudable move is being viewed with suspicion. There have been suggestions that the R5 billion (US$374 million) that is needed by end-October to ensure SAA remains solvent could be funded from the coffers of the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), the manager of public workers’ retirement funds. Additionally, as much as US$7 billion in total might be drained from the PIC to sustain ailing state-owned enterprises (SOEs). These suggestions have been met with vehement opposition by labour unions and others. To allay such fears, Mr Gigaba has provided assurances that the PIC’s funds would not be put to such use and has ordered an investigation into alleged irregularities at the PIC. Such moves might still not be enough. Earlier, Julius Malema, the firebrand opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party “commander-in-chief”, accused Mr Gigaba of being the architect of the now infamous phrase: “state capture”; which implies the domineering influence of a few private actors in collusion with public officials over state resources. Mr Malema analogizes the finance minister’s assurances to a rat saying one’s cheese is safe with it. Curiously, PIC chief, Daniel Matjila, who earlier asserted machinations were afoot to see his back at the investment firm because he won’t let go off “the keys to the big safe”, somehow got a clean bill of health from the PIC board in late September; after an internal audit about whether he allocated funds improperly. Interestingly, Mr Matjila now says he has not entirely ruled out providing some funds for SAA. But should public workers’ hard-earned pensions be used to revive something so intractably failing? Surely not.
Game of thrones
Hitherto loud political noise have recently become even louder, after President Zuma lost a court case that if he had won, would have enabled him escape his day in court for myriad corruption charges. Regardless of recent directives by the prosecution authorities that he make representations to them before end-November, it is not likely he would be prosecuted (if at all) before he secures a deal to leave office relatively unscathed (see my earlier column on 17 October 2017: “What next after Zuma fails to shake off corruption charges?” for broader views on this). More pertinent is that plans are likely at an advanced stage to remove Mr Ramaphosa as deputy president. The speculations have been fuelled even more by frantic denials from the president’s office. But in Mr Zuma’s case, when there have been speculations in the past, they tend to happen eventually; that is, even after many denials. Besides, a recent surprise cabinet reshuffle that saw the exit of Blade Nzimande, an ardent Zuma critic and leader of the South African Communist Party (one of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) tripartite alliance partners) suggests Mr Ramaphosa’s axing is only a matter of time. Turns out the wait may not be too long. Just this past weekend, reports emerged that Mr Ramaphosa might be arrested and charged with treason as early as November. The reason the president would want Mr Ramaphosa out of his government is not too difficult to discern. Should his deputy win the elective ANC presidential elections in December, Mr Zuma’s likely premature retirement may be very cold indeed.
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/south-africa-gigabas-first-test/