Tito Mboweni.
Tito Mboweni.

Expectations were high that Tito Mboweni’s appointment as finance minister last October would strengthen the National Treasury — an institution that had narrowly avoided state capture. Now there is increasing speculation that he will go after the May 8 elections, creating fresh uncertainty around SA’s most important ministry.

Mboweni’s possible departure is not necessarily because he has proved to be high-handed and divisive — and has a Trumpian tweeting habit — but because he doesn’t actually want the job.

Apparently, he took up the mantle from Nhlanhla Nene reluctantly after other more obvious candidates (including SA Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago and former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas) declined the offer.

Listen to further analysis of the budget here:

If Kganyago and Jonas — who would both be outstanding choices — are out of the running, the list of alternative candidates is rather short. This could result in Mboweni staying put by default.

Intellidex strategist Peter Attard Montalto suggests three names that could be in the running: Business Unity SA president Sipho Pityana; former deputy finance minister Jabu Moleketi; and Gauteng finance MEC Barbara Creecy.

Pityana declined to say whether he has been approached or would accept the post if offered it.

There has also been speculation that former Absa CEO Maria Ramos might be persuaded back into the government. Though she would be a safe pair of hands and has ample Treasury experience, having served as former finance minister Trevor Manuel’s director-general, her appointment would rile the Left, which regards her as part of the Manuel/Thabo Mbeki "1996 class project".

Co-operative governance minister Zweli Mkhize has also been touted as a potential finance minister but would be an inappropriate choice given the allegations of corruption dogging him.

The problem with Mboweni, according to political analyst Ralph Mathekga, is that he is difficult to manage politically in such a divided party, given that he has a bad relationship with the labour unions and is disliked by hardliners in the ANC.

The fact that Mboweni is uncompromising and outspoken has been a breath of fresh air but immediately caused political problems for President Cyril Ramaphosa. Just weeks after his appointment he said loss-making SAA should be closed. To the unions, which would face thousands of job losses, it was a red rag to a bull.

Soon after that, Mboweni took to Twitter to call for a "war" with newspaper editors, prompting the DA’s shadow minister of finance, David Maynier, to suggest that "the Governor" may just be ungovernable — "rather like Donald Trump, who apparently sits on his bed watching the news, eating cheeseburgers and posting the first thing that comes to his mind".

If Mboweni goes, it’s possible that two seats will become vacant at the top of the Treasury given the pressure on his director-general, Dondo Mogajane.

Mogajane faces disciplinary action following the public protector’s recent finding that he failed to disclose his criminal record when he applied for the position of director-general in 2017. According to the Treasury, it relates to the payment of an admission of guilt fine for speeding in 2011.

Mogajane has worked his way up the ranks since joining the Treasury in 1999. He was close to former finance minister Pravin Gordhan and is considered a straight arrow — two factors which might explain why the public protector has preoccupied herself with such a trifling matter.

"If Mogajane goes too there would start to be serious capacity issues in the National Treasury," says Attard Montalto. "The budget office is understaffed and there is a thin layer of top staff who are holding the institution together."

The obvious choice to replace Mogajane would be Ismail Momoniat because of his seniority in the department. Momoniat served under Manuel and was instrumental in formulating the Public Finance Management Act, a pivotal piece of legislation that governs the spending of public money.

Currently deputy director-general in charge of tax and financial sector policy, Momoniat is a "Treasury veteran who has a very high level of credibility", says Prof Philippe Burger, head of the department of economics & finance at the University of the Free State.

"Momo", as he is known in the financial community, made headlines in June 2018 when the EFF’s Floyd Shivambu demanded he stop representing the Treasury at a parliamentary meeting because he is "not an African".

On top of everything, there is also speculation that the departments of trade & industry, small business development and economic development will be merged into one new ministry after the elections under current economic development minister Ebrahim Patel.

Though many economists think it would make sense to merge these ministries for the sake of efficiency and policy coherence, they are sceptical as to whether it would help the economy unless the new ministry is led by a more business-friendly minister.

The next finance minister, if Mboweni does go, will have to be incorruptible, highly regarded by the financial community and a political heavyweight who is able to fight in the Treasury’s corner and make the case for a market economy in a sometimes hostile cabinet environment.

Mboweni is all these things. But he will have to raise his game if he is to stay on in the top job, assuming he wants it.