The insufferable Tito Mboweni

2009-08-20 00:00

RESERVE Bank governor Tito Mboweni is a difficult man to deal with at the best of times. No one can call him Tito any more, he insists on being addressed formally as the Governor. And I assume even the T of The Governor should be capped to show the respect demanded.

Whenever he invites journalists to functions — at home, at the office or elsewhere — dinners are always black tie. And don’t think you can just show up there in your red tie with some blue shirt.

The Governor is a stickler for what many see as British upper-class protocol: black tie means those fancy bow ties, the black suit and the white shirt. If you show up without these, as former Sowetan editor John Dludlu and I once did at his house, you get a lecture on etiquette, which is so out of touch with an African setting.

About two years ago, he called for a ban on soccer playing at the Union Building grounds, saying it demeaned the stature of the seat of the highest office in the land.

After that came the more bizarre ban on media photographers taking pictures of him at functions. Official pictures are now taken by the bank’s own photographers, who then choose the most appropriate image to send to all media. What he fears other photographers could show with their pictures remains a mystery.

Afro hairdo

But he was not always like this. As a student at Turfloop, my hunting ground for stories, he was simply a committed activist. When he went into exile, his last nights in Polokwane were at a safehouse organised by some of us.

When I later met him in London where he was working in the ANC office at the time, he was still the affable Tito.

When he returned, still sporting an afro hairdo, and later became minister of labour, Tito was still Tito. But from the time he became governor and started smoking cigars, he became a different man — aloof, snobbish and in many ways seriously insufferable.

Anyone who as much as suggested how he should do his job was given short shrift; The Governor knew it all. So it was no surprise that when the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) started with its marches to his office demanding lower interest rates and to see him, he showed them the middle finger.

What did the unionists and poor working class know about monetary policy that they dare make such demands while wearing their red shirts?

Is Mboweni mellowing out?

Even suggestions by other luminaries such as the then finance minister Trevor Manuel that the monetary policy committee (MPC) should release minutes of its meetings were treated with the contempt he felt they deserved. Who was Manuel anyway to tell The Governor what to do?

But a change has come over him. As Manuel noted this week, “in the twilight days of his tenure”, The Governor is softening up to some of the ideas that had hitherto been anathema.

Cosatu’s insistence that the interest rate be cut when all indicators seemed to point to at least keeping it where it was, seems to have been acceded to with Thursday’s surprise 50 basis-point cut.

He has also said the release of MPC minutes can be looked at. It is not clear what lies behind the changing face of The Governor.

Could it be that as the date of losing the title gets closer, The Governor is preparing himself to be just Tito again? Are we also going to see the ban on media photographers lifted? Or will that be left to Gill Marcus as her first duty to the media?

Being governor of the South African Reserve bank is a huge task and an important appointment. You live in a world populated by bankers and you live a life of luxury. But that can never be an excuse for becoming the snob Tito changed into. —

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