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The last three budget speeches, given by two different finance ministers in the space of a year, have delivered sharply different messages. If they were plotted on a graph, it would look like a pyramid. The first point on the pyramid was the medium-term budget statement in October 2017, delivered by Malusi Gigaba. It was shock therapy. Gigaba, it was said, was the fall guy, haplessly announcing that the government was in serious financial trouble. Debt was set to grow to record levels in the democratic era. The country was swiftly downgraded to junk by two ratings agencies in the wake of Gigaba’s speech. It piled pressure on the Zuma government for its fiscal waywardness. Gigaba also delivered the budget speech in February, and took the country to the peak of the pyramid. It had a tone of optimism. While debt was substantial, there was a sense of being on the front foot, buoyed by the President Cyril Ramaphosa-induced optimism of the first quarter. Debt requirements were revised dow...

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