Newsmaker – Nhlanhle Nene: Cabbage farmer must now steady SA's economy

2015-03-02 07:00

Seven years after entertaining the nation by falling off his chair on national television, Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene is finally sitting pretty.

With the lights gleaming off his shaved head and a conservative shirt to suit our load-shedding economy, South Africa’s new minister of finance this week delivered his first budget speech, mostly without notes.

In the audience sat Trevor Manuel and Pravin Gordhan, this quiet technocrat’s predecessors. For years, they were the heavyweights, he their backroom deputy. He helped to write their budget speeches and now he has to carry the responsibility for things he would previously only have recommended, he says solemnly.

But don’t ask him to auction off his budget tie, as Trevor Manuel always did with such fanfare. These are different, post-economic-crisis days. Gone are the days when our budget speeches were almost greater occasions than the state of the nation address.

“In any case, I love my ties too much,” he says.

It’s exactly 20 hours after his first budget speech.

We are chatting in a stuffy, small waiting room on the third floor of the department of finance – 120 Plein Street, Cape Town. The minister’s office at the end of the hall is his private space, we were told beforehand. No photos there, please.

Nene is not used to all the attention, it seems to me, as if he is more comfortable among the rows of cabbages on his farm close to Kranskop, KwaZulu-Natal.

He was perplexed when a couple of journalists, after they could read his budget speech in advance behind closed doors and under embargo, told him his speech was “boring”.

Boring? Austere, rather. “It was probably a reflection of the situation we are in. We are confronted with the reality of slower growth, a bulging debt burden and unemployment that is not decreasing. This asks for pragmatic solutions. I believe it demands honest confrontation of real issues.”

But how was the budget received?

“In general, quite positively. What worries me [about the budget] is whether we will find the right balance – to not smother the economy, but to also address all the challenges with our limited resources.”

How does it feel to be the first finance minister since 1994 to raise personal income tax?

“Let me put that right. I am not the first. There have been new taxes, such as tax on capital gains. And you must also remember, at the start of our democracy we had the luxury of being able to extend our tax base and lower the individual tax burden.

“The global economic crisis changed everything. You could literally see the graph lines of our tax income and noninterest-bearing government spending crossing each other. We lived with that for a while, and tried to stimulate the economy with our fiscal policy. But if we don’t make the gap smaller?…?we have now reached the point where it’s going to become unsustainable. We can’t leave it to the next generation.”

Ask around and not many people know something personal about this minister with the eyes that always look a bit surprised. Nhlanhla Musa Nene was born on December 5 1958 in Kranskop. He holds a BCom degree from the University of the Western Cape and, in 1990, he organised the first strike in the financial sector.

He’s happiest on his farm and tries to go there every weekend. Then he takes photos of his cabbage heads and sends them to his colleagues. His wife, a retired teacher, farms with chickens.

“Farming is my passion. Especially the quality of my cabbage.” He smiles.

“And yes, of course land reform is important. Small-scale farming must be promoted because the fact that it creates jobs is even more critical than the allocation of land.”

Nene, it is said, doesn’t nearly have the political gravitas of Manuel and Gordhan. He is not a member of the ANC’s national executive committee, as they were. He is not part of President Jacob Zuma’s small inner circle.

So, I ask the minister, is he absolutely certain President Zuma is behind him?

“I haven’t experienced any lack of support from the ANC leadership in general, or from Cabinet.” He leaves it there.

Asked about the government wage bill that’s going through the roof, Nene searches for the right words.

“Look, the only comment will be?…?I hope we can reach a reasonable compromise. If it’s more than what was budgeted, it will push out other essential services.”

Shortly before his budget speech, Nene announced that retired Judge Frank Kroon would be chairing a committee to investigate the controversy and turmoil at the SA Revenue Service (Sars).

Why didn’t he intervene sooner?

“Look, I don’t think it took that long. From May [when Nene was appointed] to our appointment of the new commissioner wasn’t that long. And when the media reports on problems, it has to be investigated internally first.”

Nene stresses that the advisory committee will serve to strengthen commissioner Tom Moyane’s position and duties.

Most important now, he insists, is that the integrity of Sars be restored.

On the carpet between us lies the cellphone of the minister’s media man. Somewhere along the way, he started recording the interview.

Our time is up and, while Nene poses for one more photo, I slip in a last question: are the Treasury and the Reserve Bank the only two left standing? The Hawks, the Public Protector and Sars are all trapped in controversy and politicking.

“I don’t have an opinion. We play the roles according to our mandates.”

In the hot minister’s seat, it helps that hope has always been at the centre of his survival, he says quietly.

“I want to believe that we all live in hope, and the only way that hope becomes reality is if you do your bit. One expects of others to do the same.”

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