Three elephants

Readers of the Book of Revelation have long prophesied that credit ratings agency Moody’s post-budget day of judgment will be preceded by the arrival of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, representing war, famine, pestilence and death.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has tried to defy such gloomy prophesies by unleashing instead the three great elephants of the liberation movement: mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe, public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan and finance minister Tito Mboweni.

The elephant represents strength and patience, symbolising the wisdom, loyalty, reliability and determination that characterise the creature’s behaviour in the wild. The giant African political elephant, known to science as Loxodonta Mantashe Africana, presents a magnificent spectacle. The largest mammal in the world, with a torso span of more than 4m, it drinks upwards of 100l of water per day, and communicates by means of low-frequency rumbles that can be heard a dozen kilometres away.

Mantashe’s critics forget that once roused to anger he can storm unstoppably across the plains of Boksburg or through the meetings of the national executive committee. In recent months he has generated confusion, even despair, among energy sector analysts, but the direction of his march towards independent power production, municipal electricity generation and a renewable energy transition has finally become set.

Gordhan is widely revered as a repository of the deepest secrets and a divine representation of intellect and wisdom. The elephant is typically a gentle giant and very slow to anger, but the relentless provocation of Ganesha Gordhan by the EFF leadership will not be forgotten. When yapping and snarling EFF members cornered the minister in parliament in July last year, Gordhan stood unmoved and entirely fearless, simply demanding that “they must touch me”.

In his budget speech on Wednesday, Mboweni revealed himself as the third member of the government’s elephant herd. Disdainfully ignoring calls for prescribed assets and the tapping of public sector pension funds, he pushed back against central bank nationalisation and advanced the cause of exchange control liberalisation. Then, flapping his great ears, he charged fearlessly in the general direction of the public sector unions.

We must not get ahead of ourselves. Elephants do not always move very fast. Gordhan, Mantashe and Mboweni may be pragmatists, but they view the world through dramatically different intellectual lenses. As a result of their enormous bulk, the three can cause great damage to one another if they fight.

The financial and operational crises in the parastatals have meanwhile not been resolved. The Treasury no longer claims that national debt is on course to stabilise over the medium term. The likely rate of growth in the years immediately ahead remains dismal. The scope for damaging unintended consequences from public sector disruption should not be underestimated.

Nevertheless, the boldness of the three ministers offers some reason for hope. Ramaphosa’s government has appeared paralysed by powerful commercial and political interests and enmeshed in debilitating internal compromises that make reform impossible.

All three ministers, in their unique ways, have dragged themselves out of the swamp that is ANC economic policy and asserted positions at odds with the movement’s prevailing and untenable conventional wisdom. Government action freed from party shackles has been shown to be possible — at least in principle.

Have the three elephants done enough to push back an expected Moody’s downgrade decision in March? It is hard to say. The agency shares with the authors of the Book of Revelation a reticence about specifying the precise conditions that will precipitate the apocalypse, and a remarkable talent for mystification. But Mboweni has probably won the government a little more time.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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