DAVID MAYNIER: What’s up with Tito Mboweni?
SA’s new finance minister comes across more and more as an eccentric lame duck — but the economy needs something better than that
The idea that the new minister of finance, Tito Mboweni, would restore the National Treasury to the centre of decision making on the economy has been turned on its head, it seems.
Mboweni entered the Treasury’s revolving doors with a reputation for shooting from the hip, which, during his decade as Reserve Bank governor until 2009, was known as "open-mouth operations".
After he left the Bank, he flirted with "radical economic transformation", calling for the extension of state ownership of the mining sector, the establishment of state banks and the creation of a sovereign wealth fund.
So it comes as no surprise that Mboweni landed in hot political water for expressing a heretical view on dealing with zombie-like state-owned enterprises (SOEs) like SAA.
When he told investors in New York that SAA was loss-making and should be closed down, it was prominently reported in the Financial Times.
But his call to close down SAA seems to have sent shock waves through the governing party, which still seems to fondly reminisce about Aeroflot, Potemkin villages and the Lada.
But Mboweni had, in fact, made a similar statement during a rambling and often incoherent briefing to the finance committee after the medium-term budget policy statement in parliament in October.
Either way, the reaction was swift and brutal, culminating in what must have been a humiliating "smackdown" from President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Responding to questions from DA leader Mmusi Maimane, Ramaphosa was clear that though the national airline was in poor financial shape, and that we would have to pay someone to take it off our hands, there were no plans to close it down.
This must have hurt Mboweni, who apparently has a super-sized ego.
He may just be hard-wired to blow himself up from time to time, rather like Donald Trump
But there was more to come as the finance minister soon took to social media to call for a "war" with editors in a series of rambling tweets.
What Mboweni was trying to communicate exactly is not clear, but it culminated in a meeting with the SA National Editors Forum.
Of course, the Treasury tried to pass off the meeting as just "part of normal and ongoing engagements with key stakeholders in the country" — but this seems to be an outright lie.
What caused the meltdown on Twitter we don’t know, but it has turned the minister into a figure of derision, depicting him as sitting back consuming good food, wine and cigars, and posting the first thing that comes to mind.
Still, the ultimate effect of Mboweni’s recent actions has been to cast the new finance minister as a likable old man, who says what he thinks, but who is on the fringes of power.
It paints him as having very little influence on economic policy — least of all on how to deal with SOEs.
Mboweni has only been in the top job for a few weeks, but he is increasingly looking like a lame duck who may just be serving as a placeholder until the elections and will then be forced back into political exile.
The truth is that if the new finance minister wants to be taken seriously, and indeed restore the Treasury to the centre of decision-making on the economy, he needs to raise his game.
He needs to begin acting like a finance minister, one who is capable of dealing with the economic crisis in our country.
In the end, I suspect it may be that the "the Governor" is ungovernable. He may just be hard-wired to blow himself up from time to time, 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.
• Maynier is the DA’s shadow minister of finance and a member of the standing committee on finance