Yesterday, I had just finished my early morning banting breakfast when my phone rang. A senior and respected journalist was on the line. Before taking the call, I made a mental note of the possible topics of discussion. There is some pretty heavy stuff in finance and you have to be on your toes all the time. But I need not have worried: "What do you make of err ... all this Buhle Mkhize stuff on social media?"
Now I have to confess I had never heard of her and I would prefer to steer clear of a social media spat right out of "Mean Girls". But the fact is that it could not have come at a worse time and made what was always going to be a tough week even tougher for the new Finance Minister, Malusi Gigaba, who made his maiden appearance at the finance committee this week in Parliament.
Five minutes before the finance committee meeting was scheduled to begin, the new minister sailed into the committee room oozing charm and confidence. Finance Committee Chairperson Yunus Carrim, who is a stickler for time, welcomed the minister and proceedings soon got under way. The minister began by trotting out "the message", which was evidently focused on "inclusive economic growth". The minister was in full flight, saying something soothing about "supporting structural reform", when I noticed Professor Chris Malikane, the minister's controversial economic adviser lurking at the back of the committee room, trying to keep his head down, literally.
The minister hit all the right economic notes during his presentation – "inclusive growth", "policy clarity" and "strong institutions" – but he came across as if delivering rehearsed lines from a National Treasury script, and he simply was not convincing.
Carrim thanked the minister and called for questions from committee members. And that was when things began to go wrong for Gigaba:
- On policy uncertainty: he could not define "radical economic transformation" and claimed its meaning had been resolved and that there needed to be a debate on the subject;
- On the Cabinet reshuffle: he denied the cabinet reshuffle had anything to do with the ratings downgrades, suggesting "No. 1" was a scapegoat; and
- On the social media spat: he called the questions a "cheap shot".
But the minister really tripped himself up when it came to tough questions on his economic adviser, whose mad ideas on the economy would turn South Africa into Venezuela and who, at some point, left the committee room when things got heated. Gigaba tried to convince the committee that, in his own words, he did not "speak with a forked tongue" and that his economic adviser had in fact been "reined in".
The "weekend special", Des van Rooyen, may have been a better option.
But we all know it is simply not true: since being "reined in", the minister's economic advisor has done anything but "keep quiet". He was interviewed by SAFM (bashing ratings agencies), CapeTalk (bashing the private sector), Sowetan (bashing the National Development Plan), and Rapport (warning of a coming civil war).
Worse, despite being "reined in", Malikane agreed to speak at a public meeting hosted by Black First Land First. There is some controversy about exactly what he said, but he traversed two themes, both of which are terrifying, including:
- That the South African economy would have to be destroyed à la Venezuela and Zimbabwe before it can rise again; and
- That taking up arms, though not his preferred option, was an option to bring about radical economic transformation.
The bottom line is that it was a bad day at the office for the minister and I wondered whether the "weekend special", Des van Rooyen, may have been a better option. At least he has a master's degree in finance, even if many of his assignments were reportedly done by the parliamentary budget office.
In the end, I was left with the impression that the minister is a suit without substance, incapable of pulling the economy right and giving hope to the 8.9-million people who do not have jobs, or who have given up looking for jobs, in South Africa.
I hope I'm wrong. But I suspect I'm not.