by Angelo Fick
Tito Mboweni, two weeks into his tenure as Minister of Finance of the Republic of South Africa, was plunged into the deep end of the fire-pool which is that cabinet portfolio.
He opened with a quotation from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859). While the passage he chose – the opening of the novel – sounds grand, its application into contemporary South Africa begs several questions, many of which Mboweni would be best placed to answer, given that he in some senses chose the passage (one realises a team of people writes these speeches, and they are not the sole thought of the man – or someday, we imagines, or dreams, woman – who delivers them).
If the story of South Africa’s economic woes is to be understood through the lens of Dickens’ novel about economic, political and moral troubles in two spaces – on the one hand, revolutionary Paris and the same period in London at the end of the eighteenth century, and on the other his own time, Victorian England – one has to wonder about the application of the allegory.
Who are we, the ordinary citizens, an observer from the NGO sector asked me at the conclusion of the speech? Mboweni, quoting from the novel, wants us to be the selfless Sydney Carton, who sacrifices his life for the principle of the thing, but also to save others. If we are Carton, who are these others for whom we are being asked to sacrifice our lives? And who is operating the guillotine? Tricky thing, analogies and quotations …
One also wonders about the quotation from the apocalyptic Book of Isaiah, composed in Babylonian exile and named for an 8th century BCE Jewish prophet. Had Mboweni quoted from the same chapter, but begun with an earlier verse, the meaning of his invocation may have shifted, perhaps even radically. After all,
If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity;
10 And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noon day:
11 And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.
We, the citizens, may well confront the executive and those meant to hold them to account, the members of parliament, with these lines, the verses immediately preceding the ones Mboweni quoted.
Have they, those cabinet members and the people’s representatives in the National Assembly, truly responded to the injunction to ‘draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul’? Hundreds of communities protesting around South Africa seem to think otherwise.
Perhaps we should remind ourselves that life may be imagined differently, for ourselves, the citizens, but also for those who profess to serve us, the public servants who cost us so much, including the members of parliament (in both houses) and the ministers in the executive arm of government. Things need not be as they are, as Mboweni indicates in his ‘Medium Term Budget Policy Statement’.
In fact, they need not even be as he envisions them. They could be far more interesting. Imagine those who serve the people living like them.
Imagine public servants who earn in parity, such that a member of parliament and a school teacher or staff nurse do not have the salary disparity they currently have. Picture, if you will, a cabinet reduced in size, and in which its members serve out of honour and dedication to the cause, earning no more than a high school principal or ward matron.
What kind of reprioritisation of values would that result in?
Now imagine that the towns, streets and pipes under our roads Mboweni asks us to imagine had to be shared by those paid by all 58 million South Africans to serve their interests. Their homes would be among the poorest, for how else are they to truly live up to the injunction of Isaiah to ‘take away from the midst of thee the yoke’.
Their children would attend the public schools, for what better way is there to ensure that those who are supposed to work towards the improvement of education do so, than to subject their children to the very education they implement? The same goes for public hospitals and other amenities.
Imagine if all MPs and members of the executive, including the President of the Republic of South Africa, had to rely on public transport. We would not have to build super-fact intercity trains that run parallel to the existing rail network that barely serves the majority. We would all be on the same trains, buses and taxis, side-by-side, cheek-by-jowl, all of us together.
Our children would then learn in the same schools, and so, presumably, those who plan and manage the education system would be invested in that system working, because their children would be in it; the same with public clinics and hospitals, and libraries and train stations, among other things.
The streets of our towns might be better policed, and drug dealers dealt with more effectively, if the immediate loved ones, the wives and husbands, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, of our public servants in parliament and cabinet had to negotiate those streets every day.
The elision of tax on sanitary pads shows an inkling of how such a re-imagination of life can work. Perhaps we should encourage Minister Mboweni to continue his act of re-imagination, and re-imagine South Africa along with him, and also for him. If MPs and ministers had to survive on the average income of South Africa, perhaps things would change more quickly.
To quote the minister himself: ‘We can spend our money better.’
As for the unfortunate Facebook post in which the minister quoted Jesus on Caesar, and suggested that Caesar’s henchmen would break the bones of those who do not pay: who does he imagine Caesar is, in invoking that quotation, and are we the citizens the persecuted Hebrews?
And then, does he realise that in siding with Caesar, he is choosing the wrong side of history? That very chapter of Isaiah which he quotes, after all, opens with this injunction: ‘Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression.’
The people are crying aloud, Minister Mboweni; are you and your peers drawing out your souls to the hungry to satisfy the afflicted souls?