On Wednesday, Pravin Gordhan came to parliament to deliver his 2017 budget. But he also had a political message.
Apart from tabling the much-anticipated budget, Gordhan sought to claim, and define in his own way, the radical transformation narrative he has been accused by detractors of opposing. The words “transform” and “transformation” were mentioned at least 50 times in his presentation.
It’s no accident that he opened by invoking the vision of ANC icon Oliver Tambo for South Africa. “We seek to create a united, democratic and non-racial society. We have a vision of South Africa in which black and white shall live and work together as equals in conditions of peace and prosperity…,” he quoted Tambo as saying.
This was meant to remind all that, despite the deep economic inequalities and injustices, South Africans must not veer from the vision of creating a democratic society where was not a determinant of a person’s social or political status.
Also referring to the Freedom Charter and the constitution, the finance minister wanted to argue the political legitimacy of the budget he was about to table.
For those in his party who argued for transformation in order to benefit themselves and their coterie of friends, he quoted from the ANC’s Morogoro Conference declaration thus: “Our nationalism…must not be confused with the classical drive by an elitist group among the oppressed people to gain ascendancy so that they can replace the oppressor in the exploitation of the masses.”
As if to answer critics who accuse him of not appreciating the transformation imperative, he took the trouble to enumerate what he called the South African “realities”. These included:
- The income disparities in the population.
- The wealth gap, where 95 percent of the wealth was in the hands of 10 percent of the population.
- The 35 percent unemployment rate.
- The fact that half the children in Grade 5 cannot yet read adequately in any language.
- The concentration of poverty in townships and rural areas.
Not once mentioning “white monopoly capital” (seen by critics inside and outside his party as the chief source of our economic ills), Gordhan argued several times for a partnership between key stakeholders including government, business and labour.
State-owned enterprises, he said, were “well placed to partner with private sector investors in growing the productive capacity and infrastructure of our economy”.
Gordhan also outlined how he saw the transformation happening. “This is not transformation to be achieved through conquest, conflict or extortion, as in our past. We do not seek to reproduce the racial domination that was the hallmark of apartheid nationalism.
“Our transformation will be built through economic participation, partnerships and mobilization of our capacities. It is a transformation that must unite, not divide, South Africans,” he said, once more citing ANC and struggle stalwarts such as Helen Joseph, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela.
The message of his budget, he said, was that tough choices had to be made to ensure, among other things, the end of inequalities and divisions. South Africans needed to share in the promised, more prosperous, future.
Again returning to the partnership theme, he said transformation required “greater urgency and effective collaboration among all social stakeholders’’.
Gordhan also sought to demonstrate that economic growth and transformation were two sides of the same coin, the one depending on the other. “Without transformation, growth will reinforce inequality; without growth, transformation will be distorted by patronage,” he argued.
Fiscal prudence and financial rectitude were not incompatible with transformation either. “Let me say clearly and emphatically: sound public finances, the health of our financial institutions, investment-grade credit ratings and our competitive public procurement processes are valued elements in the sustainability of our transformation path,” he said.
On government spending, he zoomed in on the elephant in the room of ANC Alliance politics – the need to curb and reduce the public sector wage bill. He praised provinces for making progress in “controlling personnel costs”, and urged national government, if only half-jokingly, to follow suit.
The standing ovation Gordhan received in parliament, evoking momentary inter-party unity (absent even over the Esidimeni tragedy), belied the fact that some in his own party were actively working to depose him even as he spoke.
In the end, as he made what he knew might be his last hurrah as finance minister, Pravin Gordhan was as much presenting the nation’s budget as he was stating his political case - and defending his ideological beliefs from political detractors.