Tito Mboweni, flanked by Treasury director-general Dondo Mogajane (left), deputy finance minister Mondli Gungubele (right), and deputy DG Vuyelwa Vumendlini, ahead of his budget speech. Picture: Ruvan Boshoff
Tito Mboweni, flanked by Treasury director-general Dondo Mogajane (left), deputy finance minister Mondli Gungubele (right), and deputy DG Vuyelwa Vumendlini, ahead of his budget speech. Picture: Ruvan Boshoff

Tito Mboweni, the finance minister, has been around the shaping of ANC party economic policy for so long now it is hard to believe the national budget he presented on Wednesday was his first.

It may also be his last. I got an honourable mention in the speech he made in parliament for writing just that. Enigmatic and eccentric as ever, he has openly said that after the May 8 election he will not return to the job into which he was catapulted, out of retirement (or at least seclusion) late last year. Yet he also bristles at the suggestion that he has played a mere walk-on part in the preparation of the 2019 budget.

In a way, he was the perfect person on the day. There wasn’t much he could do about the country’s finances or its sullen mood. He couldn’t cut taxes and he couldn’t do anything about growth.

But straight talking is an Mboweni speciality. I remember years ago, soon after he became governor of the Reserve Bank, he paid a visit to Zimbabwe. He came back and reported that "the wheels have come off". It was in 2002 and the SA government, under Thabo Mbeki, was furiously trying to avoid having any opinion over what Robert Mugabe was doing to his country.

Sliding into the top Treasury job just before the medium-term budget policy statement last October, Mboweni was quick to flash clear signs of his old self. SAA, he declared, should be shut down. This as the government, under Cyril Ramaphosa, was desperately trying to save it ahead of the coming election.

The politics of the budget he presented are simple and he perfectly captured them again yesterday, to the loud applause of the main opposition party and the puzzlement of some of his own colleagues.

He announced emphatically that the state would not be taking on any of Eskom’s debt and that Eskom had got itself into debt and would have to pay its own way out. That’s about as tough a position as any I can imagine. But he wasn’t finished.

"Isn’t it about time the country asks the question," he said. "Do we still need these [state-owned] enterprises? If we do, can we manage them better? If we don’t need them, what should we do?"

Well, quite. SA is overindebted and its state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are either bankrupt or nearly bankrupt, or, like Eskom, bankrupt and, because of both its debt and the importance of its actual job, an existential threat to the country.

So a finance minister has to deal with that. The fabulously clever economics editor of this magazine, Claire Bisseker, wrote last week that in order to find the money to help Eskom, which needs it most, Mboweni could do only one of two things: negotiate a reduction in the interest rates the government pays on its debt; or raise the growth rate.

Well, raising the growth rate wasn’t possible. But cutting the length of the maturing of our bond in the markets from, say, 25 to 15 or 10 years could create significant savings in the medium term.

That is what the ratings agencies want to see — our debt falling and not rising, as we have constantly promised them it would. Well, he didn’t do that either. And nothing happened.

The yield on our benchmark R186 government bond rose to a two-month high. But that could have been much worse. And the rand weakened a bit against the US dollar. So what’s new? Mboweni has given Ramaphosa some wiggle room. A little.

Ramaphosa is hemmed in. Talk of even partial privatisation will strengthen enemies to the left of him in the ANC and he needs the unions. Even then, he can’t have the necessary discussions until he has won the election, and won it well.

Matching Jacob Zuma’s 54% in the 2016 local government elections won’t help him. He needs to get closer to, if not beyond, 60%.

At the moment pollsters are quiet. The last credible poll, from the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) still seems fairly realistic to me, though recent load-shedding blackouts may have damaged the ANC vote.

Equally, the depth of EFF leadership enrichment via the looting of VBS Mutual Bank and the true effect of Patricia de Lille’s parting with the DA are probably not completely factored in either.

The effect of the IRR poll was that if you assumed a turnout of 69% of registered voters, then, assuming all parties were able to mobilise their supporters to come out on election day, the ANC gets 59%, the DA 22% and the EFF 10%.

That would be a real victory for Ramaphosa, a real disappointment for the DA (it would probably cost Mmusi Maimane his job as party leader), and a mixed blessing for the EFF (in percentage terms it would have grown significantly).

But to merely double the 6% or so the EFF won in 2016 it needs more than a million new votes. I can’t see that happening. It would have to take that million away from the ANC. Ramaphosa is just not doing badly enough to warrant it and the EFF’s magical manifesto promises are unlikely to fool an increasingly cynical electorate.

But even at 10% the potency of the EFF rises exponentially. It has already got a hold over the mayors of some of SA’s biggest cities, including Johannesburg and Tshwane.

Extrapolating from a 10% national vote it would be in pole position to be a kingmaker should the ANC fall short of 50% in vulnerable provinces like North West, where it is beset by ruinous infighting, or even in Gauteng, the nation’s economic powerhouse.

That happens because while the DA is happy to consider coalition governments with the EFF it will under no circumstances do so with the ANC. Granted, it phrases this differently — it will not join coalitions where it is a junior partner — but the effect is the same.

It would stand aside and allow the EFF into vital provincial governments with the ANC without so much as a fight to try to persuade the ANC to consider it as a partner.

I know a lot of this is wishful thinking, but there are parts of the DA and of the ANC that look a lot like each other. The DA’s position, though, is that it is the ANC that must split into factions that it likes or doesn’t like before it will talk to the one it likes.

In other words, Ramaphosa should deliberately split his rather large party to do any business with one a third of its size. It isn’t going to happen and South Africans will be the poorer for the DA’s vanity.

To be fair to the DA, the ANC’s record of malfeasance in office for the past two decades is hard to swallow. It is deeply corrupt and incoherent on much of its own policy.

But at its centre, at this moment in our history, there lives a small but not insignificant group of patriots, centred on Ramaphosa. These people are doing their level best, under the most trying of circumstances, to do the right thing and to save the country.

I have got myself into trouble, personally, before for making this point, but I think they deserve the support of all South Africans. How you do that in an election without voting for them I cannot tell anyone. But my heart is with them.

We are, as a country, on the very edge of disaster. Very few politicians understand the moment. A ratings downgrade later this year would kick us out of all the indices’ big funds (the savings of other people in other countries that we borrow).

According to Mboweni we already pay more than R1bn every working day merely in interest on the debt we owe. That would immediately rise sharply upon a downgrade. It would make it harder to grow our way out of the economic hole we are in.

The notion spread by populist economists of the Left is that the Reserve Bank should drop its watch on inflation and loosen monetary policy (allow the value of the rand to drop so it buys fewer things) because that would somehow stimulate economic activity.

It is the most dangerous nonsense.

Inflation is a killer. The Reserve Bank, our guardian against inflation, has just published a graphic showing what would happen to the price of a loaf of bread at a variety of inflation rates.

At the rate we have now, a R12.92 loaf of bread would cost R31 in 20 years’ time. If we lifted the upper inflation band from 6% to just 8% the loaf would cost R60 in 2038. If we raised it to 15% the loaf would soar to R212 in 20 years.

That’s the fire the Left plays with. I don’t want to live in that country. No-one invests in high inflation. No-one creates jobs.

I want what Ramaphosa and his cohort want, what Maimane and his party want: a disciplined and capable economy.

And how do we get that? We will all have to have made up our minds by May 8.