About a minute or two after he stepped up to the podium in parliament to deliver his budget speech, finance minister Malusi Gigaba turned to President Cyril Ramaphosa and asked: "How long have I got?"

The question wasn’t a joke, even though Gigaba was far more assured this week than he was last October, when he delivered the medium-term budget policy statement.

The finance minister is a man under enormous political pressure. His apparent associations with the thieving Gupta family were just too many and too frequent. His sweeping away of the boards of the state’s biggest companies in June 2011, and their replacement with many people who turned out to be proxies of the Gupta family, is indisputable. This was, after all, the formal start of the state capture project.

The only question is whether or not Gigaba knew at the time that they were proxies for the Guptas, or whether then-president Jacob Zuma had given him an instruction to make those appointments.

Evidently Gigaba hit Google before the speech and found what he was looking for: a rousing and famous address by US president Theodore Roosevelt in April 1906, which would be a cloak to wrap himself up in. Roosevelt’s speech has become known as the Muckraker address — an attack by the US president on the way the press was scraping the bottom of the barrel in its reporting about him.

Gigaba quoted this bit: "There are, in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of, and attack upon every evil man, whether politician or businessman, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he, in his turn, remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful."

In other words, Gigaba was saying: "I may not be as guilty as you think I am".

But Roosevelt wasn’t finished.

"An epidemic of indiscriminate assault upon character does no good," he said, "but very great harm. The soul of every scoundrel is gladdened whenever an honest man is assailed, or even when a scoundrel is untruthfully assailed.

"Now, it is easy to twist out of shape what I have just said, easy to affect to misunderstand it, and, if it is slurred over in repetition, not difficult really to misunderstand it. Some persons are sincerely incapable of understanding that to denounce mudslinging does not mean the endorsement of whitewashing; and both the interested individuals who need whitewashing, and those others who practise mudslinging, like to encourage such confusion of ideas.

"One of the chief counts against those who make indiscriminate assault upon men in business or men in public life, is that they invite a reaction which is sure to tell powerfully in favour of the unscrupulous scoundrel who really ought to be attacked, who ought to be exposed, who ought, if possible, to be put in the penitentiary."

It’s lovely stuff, of course — especially the "some persons are sincerely incapable of understanding that to denounce mudslinging does not mean the endorsement of whitewashing". At the time, Roosevelt was facing from the print media what politicians today routinely get from social media. It wasn’t nice then, and it isn’t nice now.

But it doesn’t get Gigaba off the hook. At some stage he will have to test his story in public. Until he does that, he can progress little further in politics. If "how long have I got, Mr President?" is the question now, the answer must surely be: "not very long at all".

But life is complicated, Ramaphosa’s perhaps more than most. After all, Gigaba is young, bright, fit and a Zulu. His whole life has been spent in politics. In many scenarios, he’s a future president of the country. He is just the sort of person that Ramaphosa needs in cabinet.

Only, Gigaba could quite as easily go to jail. He faces two direct threats. First, when deputy chief justice Ray Zondo’s commission of inquiry into state capture gets its funding and starts work, Gigaba will surely be one of the early witnesses. He’ll be subject to, we all hope, the toughest possible cross-examination. At the end of his inquiry, Zondo will have the power to order the criminal prosecution of whomever he thinks deserves it.

The second threat is direct arrest by the police, even if the Hawks don’t exactly inspire much confidence. Perhaps when Ramaphosa has had time to settle, he’ll be able to establish a new form of prosecutorial investigation (sort of like the Scorpions used to be) or re-establish working groups of police and prosecutors to speed up priority investigations.

For the moment, Gigaba has cloaked himself in sanctimony. As he spoke yesterday, you could tell his time at treasury had done him good. He knows, probably for the first time, what real trouble looks like, and he worked hard yesterday to stop it.

In a way he succeeded. He dug a trench. Raising Vat from 14% to 15% was the right thing to do, if only because he has to protect our tax morality (which is our general agreement that yes, we must pay our income taxes) and there was a danger that further personal tax increases could backfire. The Greeks don’t feel sentimental about paying tax, for instance, which is why they are in a state of permanent crisis. Oh yes, and hidden in the budget was a quick line about cutting the public-sector wage bill. We’ll see.

But even while he was putting in place a defensive line to reassure the ratings agencies, there was something missing: growth. Yes, he said SA would end this year with GDP growth of 1%, up from an estimated 0.7% last October. That rises to 1.5 % in 2018 to 2.1% in 2020.

Which is all well and good, but treasury always over-forecasts growth.

Worse, all of the growth Gigaba was talking about was due to factors external to the economy. There was the new national mood, of course; stronger demand in the US and euro areas; commodity prices were up and the rest of Africa was going to grow at 3.3% in 2018.

So the growth he was talking about was a sort of effortless cyclical enlargement where we do nothing, but things somehow end up all right anyway. In that budget scenario, everything was pretty much all sorted by the time Ramaphosa was elected ANC president in December. It’s the sort of prognosis that bears strong traces of Zuma’s dead hand.

Gigaba is more than likely to be removed as finance minister in a cabinet reshuffle in a few days or weeks. If Ramaphosa wants to hold on to him, I’ve already suggested sending him to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for a while. Get him out of the country and learning something useful. Or just drop him and leave him to his fate and to Zondo.

But the bottom line is, someone has to be able to do better than this for growth. Take this line: "Working closely with the department of trade & industry, I have approved six special economic zones that will make qualifying companies subject to a reduced corporate tax rate and enable them to claim an employment tax incentive for workers of all ages."

As far as I could see, this was the only effort in Gigaba’s speech to get even close to the reindustrialising, job-creating, exciting and beneficiated new manufacturing land that Ramaphosa has got us all looking out for. These would not be six new economic zones as he implied, you can bet. And the "qualifying" conditions would surely be as stupid now as they have been from the start — qualifying investors in the zones (the ones we already have, which I suspect are the same ones Gigaba has just "approved") have to partner with the state.

Does anyone in the ANC have any idea how to create just one sustainable job? I doubt it.

Ramaphosa will be the only person in his cabinet ever to have run a business and he did it with help that not many ordinary entrepreneurs in his wake can expect to find.

You create jobs by making it worthwhile and easy to create businesses that create the jobs in the first place. Or you just straight-out give people the money to start their own dreams.

The more government tries to "create jobs" the deeper the hole it has dug for itself thus far.

Watching Gigaba’s speech I couldn’t help but think about the damage that Zuma did to the people whose lives and careers he touched.

Gigaba, in my view, is one such casualty. I doubt this is a budget he’ll be around to account for this time next year.

Please sign in or register to comment.