Jan Gerber

Tito speaks: What you didn't see on TV at Budget 2019

2019-02-21 08:14
Finance Minister Tito Mboweni delivers his maiden Budget to Parliament in Cape Town on February 20, 2019 (GCIS)

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni delivers his maiden Budget to Parliament in Cape Town on February 20, 2019 (GCIS)

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It is 13:47 on Wednesday afternoon, 13 minutes before the sitting for the annual budget speech is scheduled to start. EFF leader Julius Malema enters the chamber alone. Quite often, on a "big day" in Parliament, the EFF arrives in a group, singing and dancing, like at the State of the Nation Address two weeks ago. 

But not today. Malema slumps into his bench, shows a thumbs up to an EFF member in the public gallery and becomes engrossed in his cellphone. A handful of DA MPs are standing around and some ANC MPs, including ministers, are entering the chamber.

Up in the public gallery sits former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas, smiling broadly as he greets officials from Treasury, presumably.

As is the custom for budget speeches, a teleprompter is hidden behind plants. But these aren't the only plants on display. The man of the moment, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, enters the chamber carrying a potted aloe. As does his deputy, Mondli Gungubele.

Several ANC MPs come up to Deputy President David Mabuza, who quietly entered the chamber after he missed last week's proceedings due to an illness in his family. 

Seconds before Speaker Baleka Mbete's entrance is announced, a smiling President Cyril Ramaphosa enters the chamber.

Mbete announces the order of the day – the budget speech – and Mboweni walks to the podium, potted aloe in hand.

"'Ello, 'ello, 'ello!" DA chief whip John Steenhuisen greets him in a Mockney accent, a play on aloe.

DA leader Mmusi Maimane smiles. Malema, who has been joined by eleven EFF MPs, looks sullen.

As Mboweni gets into his speech, he looks around the chamber and says he brought a special guest. 

"I'm here," Steenhuisen says. Mboweni doesn't react.

There are a few laughs when Mboweni says he is going to quote from the "good book" – the Bible.

"What about Das Kapital?" wonders Steenhuisen.

Speaking of books, on Ramaphosa's desk a weathered, orangey brown book lies face down. On its back is a drawn portrait of a youngish man, in the Soviet style.

'We must take the bitter with the sweet'

When Mboweni speaks about the "rot" that needs to be addressed, DA MPs point at the ANC benches. 

"One of my predecessors…" Mboweni says at some point.

"Which one?" someone in the DA blurts out.

"Trevor Manuel," Mboweni says.

The reason for his aloe soon becomes clear. He says one year Manuel brought plums to illustrate the "times of plenty" South Africa found itself in. The hardy aloe has many healing qualities, but it is also a reminder that "we must take the bitter with the sweet". He said it was now time to plant seeds.

ANC MPs applaud as Mboweni thanks the Nugent commission which investigated tax shortfalls and issues of governance at the South African Revenue Service (SARS).

EFF chief whip Floyd Shivambu is chatting to Malema when Mboweni says SARS' dedicated illicit economy unit would fight the trade in illicit cigarettes and tobacco. A day before, SARS raided the properties of the EFF's benefactor and cigarette trader Adriano Mazzotti.

The expected giggles rise from the ANC benches when Mboweni announces the so-called "sin taxes". 

A present for 'chief Buthelezi'

When he says by how much a bottle of wine will increase, he adds while gesturing in the general direction of the EFF and ANC: "Including that wine that is popular among two political parties."

This can only be a reference to the Rupert and Rothschild wines which have been spotted at the "gala dinners" of both parties.

Again, no response from the EFF. Two more of their MPs have joined since the early parts of Mboweni's speech, so 14 of the EFF's 25 MPs in the National Assembly are now gracing proceedings with their presence. 

"There will be no excise duty on sorghum beer, as a retirement present to chief Buthelezi," Mboweni says, and the whole House, including IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, laughs politely. 

"No!" screams the DA when Mboweni announces an increase in the fuel price.

A big unironic cheer comes from the DA benches when Mboweni says: "Is it not time the country asks the question, do we need all these [state-owned] enterprises?"

Some faces in the ANC benches look rather bemused but light up as they applaud when Mboweni adds that maybe they should be kept, but run better.

"Sell them!" some Thatcherites in the DA benches scream every time Mboweni mentions the phrase state-owned enterprises. 

The ministers shall share

When he speaks about Eskom, a DA backbencher predictably exclaims: "Shocking!"

"Hear! Hear!" DA MPs say when Mboweni opines that the public wage bill is unsustainable.

Social Development Minister Susan Shabangu offers mints in a can to Minister of Public Service Ayanda Dlodlo and Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant.

Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula also shares the sweets she produces from her handbag with her benchmate, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga. Motshekga had her tablet open in front of her, and every few minutes she would scroll through a few pictures, on an app much like Pinterest, before returning her gaze to Mboweni at the podium.

Minister of Women in the Presidency Bathabile Dlamini is furiously scribbling notes throughout most of the address. Ramaphosa follows the speech from a printout, the book left untouched on his desk. Mabuza doesn't have anything on his desk except a glass and a bottle of water. He sits with his hands in his lap, nodding every so often, and joining in the smatterings of ANC applause.

Towards the end of the speech, Mboweni again quotes from the "good book". 

Maimane, with a smile, says the "good book" also says something else: "Thou shalt not steal."

As Mboweni concludes, Ramaphosa gets up and turns over the book on his desk. The title is Tito Speaks.

A quick Google search will reveal the book by Vladimir Dedijer is a biography about Yugoslav communist revolutionary and statesman Josip Broz Tito, detailing his early life, his captivity in Russia, the organisation of communist cells in Yugoslavia, the story of the Partisan War of 1941 to 1945 and his break with Joseph Stalin.

Mboweni approaches Ramaphosa, hands him the aloe. And Ramaphosa hands him the book.

Read more on:    tito mboweni  |  budget 2019
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