Finance minister Tito Mboweni. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER
Finance minister Tito Mboweni. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER

Amid the increasing gloom about the state of the nation, whether the subject has been the dismal growth prospects or the likelihood of a credit downgrade, the question that’s often been asked is where is the finance minister?

Tito Mboweni, who gets pilloried for his Twitter habit, might have felt that this was unfair and a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. 

So after a period of silence he sprang something of a surprise on Tuesday.

It was a detailed and well-researched report prepared by Treasury officials on a range of policy reforms that can get the country out of its low-growth trap that has seen the unemployment rate rise to 29%.

Considering its enormity, it’s outrageous that SA’s growth and jobs crisis has taken a back seat, with the focus more on internal fighting within the ruling party. Optimism that the ANC’s election victory in May 2019 would give fresh impetus to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s reform agenda has long evaporated.

There is already scepticism about how many of the ideas in the paper will see the light of day. But the more significant point is that it has created a buzz about the thing that matters for the prosperity of the nation.

What’s also welcome is that it’s an attempt to move the debate away from an unhealthy obsession on macroeconomic economic policy and the role of the Reserve Bank to policies at the micro-level that can be implemented today.

Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago, who has consistently bemoaned a lack of action on structural reforms, has often described these as  low-hanging fruit. Policies on immigration, where SA has more of a security-orientated mindset that emphasises keeping foreigners out rather than attracting tourists and skilled workers, are a point in case.

Mboweni’s document is also not overly ambitious, which in itself is welcome and an indication that it was drawn up by realists. None of the pie-in-the-sky stuff such as Ramaphosa’s promise of 3% growth in his first year in office. The focus here is on specific, if overdue, and achievable reforms that the officials think have a potential to add two to three-percentage points to growth and create 1-million jobs.

The strategy is centred on five themes and little of what it says is earth shattering or ground breaking. The authors acknowledge that it draws much of its thinking and conclusions on an existing national development plan.

Debates about modernising network industries, lowering barriers to entry for new businesses, agricultural reform (notice the lack of reference to expropriation without compensation), changing industrial and trade policies to make them more flexible, promoting export competitiveness and harnessing regional growth opportunities are not new.

Ask anyone who has had the misfortune of running a small business that depends on government contracts over the past two decades, and you will hear the same stories of late or non-payment that have crushed many a dream.

That it’s still true today isn’t due to ignorance on the part of government officials and ministers.

There are some aspects — energy and telecommunications stand out — where the document goes against conventional ANC and government thinking and it will be interesting to see how the internal debates unfold in the coming weeks and months.

It’s often said that SA is hobbled by a lack of ideas. To the contrary, there is often a rush to the next big idea — land expropriation, nationalisation of the Reserve Bank, National Health  Insurance — before the implementation of existing measures to get to the same goal has been properly attempted.

The question is whether Mboweni’s colleagues will see the intervention as a necessary wake-up call or whether dogma and vested interests will hold sway.

All eyes will be on Ramaphosa and how he exercises his leadership.