The lighter side of 2012/13 budget

2012-02-23 08:20

Locking up a bunch of journalists for eight hours and taking away their phones and internet must sound like a media tribunal zealot’s happy dream.

In truth, this is a ritual that’s been happening twice a year for years now. First in February with the tabling of the yearly national budget, then in October when the mini-budget (or the adjustments budget) is tabled by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

It is only at 2pm when Gordhan’s speech in the National Assembly starts that the embargo lifts and journalists are allowed to share with the outside world what they have learnt about government’s spending plans.

By 10am, or four hours into the lock-up, Gordhan and other government finance heads, like his deputy, Nhlanhla Nene, address a press conference.

This year it was particularly merry, as three more ministers – Aaron Motsoaledi (health), Thulas Nxesi (public works) and Sbu Ndebele (transport) – joined in to make announcements affecting their portfolios.

Like his predecessor, Trevor Manuel, Gordhan keeps the mood at these press conferences light, perhaps because any bad news just looks so much better when served with a smile.

Take belt-tightening, for instance, or cut-backs and savings. These are topics he approaches not just with a smile, but with hilarity.

This year he was inspired by Motsoaledi’s health and fitness vibe.

Gordhan said in his “fat index” those who carried a little bit of extra weight could only trim down with a certain level of diligence and good diet.

“If you are the deputy minister, you are likely to make it,” he said, referring to Nene who has of late been looking like he had moved some notches down on his belt.

In his speech in the National Assembly, the metaphor changed to haircuts, perhaps so as not to discomfort the more rotund members of Parliament.

Going off-script, Gordhan said he didn’t have much hair to start with, but Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and Justice Deputy Minister Andries Nel, at least had something to cut and can have “some hair left” when done.

Water Affairs Minister Edna Molewa, with her locks, “can have a deeper haircut”.

“What we are saying is that all our Cabinet members are ready for haircuts. If you want to deepen infrastructure, then haircuts are necessary to reprioritise our finance,” he said, to laughter.

Unlike some instances of the presidential state of the nation addresses in the past, the figures in the budget tend to keep members of Parliament awake, and the announcements on the “sin taxes” are usually eagerly awaited.

Motsoaledi was the most enthusiastic in his applause for these taxes.

Motlanthe and President Jacob Zuma each appeared to have had a courtesy copy of the speech, which they followed – Zuma keeping his papers on his lap.

As the House adjourned, Manuel was the first to go up to Gordhan and shake his hand. Perhaps Gordhan, after three budget speeches, still consults his predecessor for tips.

In the opposition benches, DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko remained behind to caucus with the party’s parliamentary chairperson, Wilmot James, and chief whip Watty Watson.

It couldn’t have been to decide a single party reaction on the speech, because it was really Tim Harris who represents the party on these matters and who spoke to journalists waiting outside.

SA Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande, and his deputy, Jeremy Cronin, also lingered in the chamber after, where they might have discussed how to “welcome” the budget because at least it wasn’t one of “despair and contraction” (according to the party’s press release).

But outside, their other leftist ally, Zwelinzima Vavi, from the labour federation Cosatu, was fuming in his neat grey suit and lilac shirt and tie, a classy leather iPod sling bag on his hip.

Far from welcoming the slashing of Gauteng e-toll fees, Vavi slated it, pronounced “we are not cash cows”, and said the strike next month is going ahead.

As Gordhan by now knows, you can make them laugh, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

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