There are only two levers of any significance that finance minister Tito Mboweni can pull if he wants to slow the spiral in SA's public debt in the next few years. One is the public sector wage bill. The other is the effectiveness of the South African Revenue Service (Sars) and its ability to close the tax gap. Neither of them is likely to help him much in the next year or two. That means the budget numbers he will present on February 26 will be bleak, particularly for the next two fiscal years. The question will be whether he can come up with a credible enough plan to start improving the state of SA's public finances beyond that.

That isn't an issue just for rating agencies or the market: it matters even more for the poor. That's because on its current trajectory, the government is heading towards spending almost 20% of the revenue it collects on paying the interest on its borrowing - money that's going to bankers and bondholders instead of to public services or public infras...

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