Chris Malikane. Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS
Chris Malikane. Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS

SA’s featherweight finance minister Malusi Gigaba’s first couple of weeks on the job have been a shambles. He has somersaulted between "radical economic transformation" and "inclusive economic growth", and between attacking orthodox and right-wing economists at treasury and supporting the skilled and experienced team working there.

But the high-water mark was the appointment of Prof Chris Malikane — who has some mad ideas on the economy, such as supporting the nationalisation of banks, mines and insurance companies — as his economic adviser.

The minister was forced into damage-control mode hours before departing for an international investor roadshow, desperately trying to reassure investors that not only did his economic adviser’s ideas not represent government policy, but that he had been "reined in" and told to "keep quiet". The slap-down was brutal and public, and suggested the adviser was a dead man walking.

But Malikane has done anything but "keep quiet". Interviewed on SAfm, he bashed ratings agencies; on Cape Talk he bashed the private sector; in the Sowetan he bashed the National Development Plan; and in Rapport he warned of a coming civil war.

And far from being banished to the seminar room, he hovered at the minister’s side during meetings with international financial institutions and investors in the US.

The minister’s "roadshow message", released by treasury, included a commitment to "inclusive growth, prudent fiscal discipline and sound economic policies".

But his economic adviser, whose economic ideas would turn SA into Venezuela, sent exactly the opposite message to that audience and the ratings agencies.

Things have gone from bad to worse because Malikane now denies being told to "keep his mouth shut".

Responding to a question about the ministerial gagging order, he said: "No, no, no, no. People’s inference of what the minister said is wrong. There is no way the minister can tell a fellow South African to keep his mouth shut. I’m an academic, I work with ideas. I have to challenge public opinions that mislead the nation. When the minister said rein me in, he meant we should no longer focus on talking, but on doing — action that will transform the economy."

Gigaba’s economic adviser has become a political liability. He must be sent back to the seminar room

We can only conclude that either the minister was lying when he claimed his adviser had been told to "keep quiet", or he is too weak to ensure his adviser does so, which is more likely, given the fact that, from the start, Malikane said: "I’m not going to shy away from expressing my views."

The truth is the minister’s economic adviser is not going to "keep quiet". He will not distinguish between the "seminar room", where he can afford to express mad ideas because the stakes are so low, and the "boardroom", where he cannot afford to express such ideas because the stakes are too high.

That’s because the minister’s adviser misunderstands his role: he seems to be an activist at heart who is on a campaign against the "neoliberal policy framework" and who needs to "challenge public opinions that mislead the nation".

A political liability

The minister must now realise that the appointment of Malikane was a mistake, and that his decision has the potential to become a full-blown scandal that will define his first 100 days in office, and which will escalate into a kind of "Malikanegate".

The fact is, the minister’s economic adviser has become the story and the message, which now screams "policy uncertainty".

The minister must face the fact that Malikane has become a political liability. He needs to act decisively and stop the bleeding by sending him back to the seminar room where his ideas won’t do any damage to SA’s economy.

* Maynier is the DA’s shadow minister of finance

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