Newsmaker – Pravin Gordhan: Government’s worker bee

2014-03-02 14:01

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Prudence is the name of the game for the finance minister as an uncertain fiscal future looms large.

It troubles Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan that the 500ml bottles of water among the refreshments after his budget speech on ­Wednesday cost Treasury R10 each.

“When we had the tea party, whoever was selling those bottles of water was selling them at R10.

I think it was outsourced to someone. Now walk into a shop or a supermarket, I think the cheapest one is about R3,” he says.

His chief of staff, Dondo Mogajane, sitting in on the interview at the Midrand Conference Centre on the sidelines of a full day of meetings, chips in and jokes the tea party was a “high tea”.

That’s a rather grand exaggeration about a function with tea, coffee, water and a selection of dry biscuits that cost R6?000.

They both chuckle and Gordhan relaxes his businesslike demeanour a bit.

By deviating from the meat and range of other delicacies usually served up at government functions, Gordhan hopes to “set the tone” rather than rule by decree.

In the months following his speech, ministers from other government departments are set to present their budgets to Parliament – and they usually follow these up with gala dinners at fancy hotels.

Last year, Gordhan sent out a memo to government departments saying booze at official functions should be limited and credit cards should be cut up.

There have been reports of this being disregarded.

Parliament’s gala ­dinner following President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address last month was no more frugal than in previous years.

Asked whether he expected other departments to have similar “tea parties”, Gordhan says: “We set our tone. There is a general commitment to containing costs and all of us will find our creative way to give expression to it. We found this way, others will find their ways.”

Although Treasury will only be able to put rand amounts to the cost-cutting measures in October, Gordhan said there were early signs these were working.

As it is when belts are tightened, Gordhan’s budget this year was generally considered as conservative and prudent. His speech bordered on dull.

Some MPs were spotted snoozing through parts of it, awaking only to hear their taxes had been cut or to enthusiastically cheer or boo the sin taxes.

It wasn’t much of an elections budget, with the usual raises in grant money, but no special attempt to ingratiate government with either the poor or the middle classes.

Leftists in Cosatu came off second best in the budget, though, with the National Development Plan actually being priced in and the youth wage subsidy making progress.

Gordhan, a former central committee member of the SA Communist Party, is unlikely to take kindly to the noise from the left in this regard.

He told reporters in Parliament on Wednesday morning, at his usual embargoed briefing ahead of his speech, that South Africa is a “noisy place” and this could influence the investment climate.

“Sometimes perception is stronger than fact,” he said – a tactful “tone it down” jab to the populist left and vocal opposition parties.

If this was Gordhan’s last budget speech, he tried hard not to let it show.

Gordhan, who has been in office for five years after serving as commissioner of the SA Revenue Service for a decade, started Wednesday’s press briefing by saying he would not take questions on his possible retirement.

He turns 65 on April 12 and there has been speculation he would go. Gordhan, ever the disciplined cadre, said he serves at the pleasure of the president.

But his emotional tone when thanking his family at the end of his budget speech had many wondering.

He told City Press his job was a huge sacrifice, requiring his family “to be extra patient” with him and his “lack of availability”.

The brevity of the five-year term also made future planning a bit tricky.

“You’ve got to ideally ensure that you have a career afterwards if you want to leave or if you’re asked to leave,” he says.

On top of that there is constituency work and political work for the party. “Balancing all of those is a tough call.”

So, does he have a backup plan for next year? “Oh, there is always something to do,” he says enigmatically. “Let’s talk on the 10th of May, or something like that.”

Then he gets serious again, adding as an afterthought: “I’ve been a public activist for 40 years now, and I’ve been associated with the ANC for the same period. It is a long time. I would like to do something that will contribute to making South Africa a better place.”

Fuel hikes: Gordhan pleads for understanding

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has asked South African motorists to be understanding amid rising fuel prices.

The 36 cents per litre rise in the petrol price which kicks in on Wednesday will be topped by an extra 20 cents (8 cents of which is for the Road Accident Fund) when new fuel levies announced by Gordhan during his budget speech kick in next month.

Gordhan told City Press there was pressure on National Treasury to raise the levy by more than it has done.

The raise last year was 23 cents, 15 cents of which went towards the fuel levy.

“We were very considerate and concerned about the current environment,” he said.

“On the plus side for taxpayers, they got a R9.3 billion tax rebate,” he said.

Gordhan said not increasing the fuel levy would put Treasury in a difficult position.

In terms of revenue and expenditure Treasury has to “try to maintain a level which actually covers inflation, otherwise you begin to fall behind,” he said.

He asked motorists to be understanding.

“Much of what we are suffering with at the moment is outside our control. The oil price is not under our control.”

Currency volatility was another factor that contributed to the fuel price rise, he said.

“What the public needs to understand is where we have influence and control we will do everything we can to buffer citizens against unnecessary cost increases.”

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has asked South African motorists to be understanding about rising fuel prices.

In the third hike this year, the 36c-per-litre rise in the petrol price on Wednesday will be topped by an extra 20c (8c of which is for the Road

Accident Fund) when new fuel levies announced by Gordhan during his budget speech kick in next month.

Gordhan told City Press there was pressure on Treasury to raise the levy by more than it has done.

The raise last year was 23c, 15c of which went towards the fuel levy. “We were very considerate and concerned about the current environment,” he said.

“On the plus side for taxpayers, they got a R9.3?billion tax rebate,” he said.

Gordhan said not increasing the fuel levy would put Treasury in a difficult position.

In terms of revenue and expenditure, Treasury has to “try to maintain a level which actually covers inflation, otherwise you begin to fall behind”, he said.

“Much of what we are suffering with at the moment is outside our control. The oil price is not under our control.”

Currency volatility was another factor that contributed to the fuel price rise, he said. “What the public needs to understand is that where we have influence and control, we will do everything we can to buffer citizens against unnecessary cost increases.” – Carien du Plessis

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