A job well done

2016-03-02 06:00

IT used to be a thing of prestige to work for the government.

Members of my family and friends were treated like celebrities because they worked in Nelson Mandela’s government, even in fairly low positions in provincial structures.

As a young journalist, I remember being thrilled to meet and interview people serving in high positions in government.

It was as if they were the chosen people, with a higher calling than the rest of us, to serve the nation under a great leader. Cabinet ministers in the first democratic government were almost like royalty as many of them were key figures in the liberation struggle. Now it is difficult to look at people serving in the upper echelons of government with respect. There are only a handful of people who are worthy of the positions they serve in, who are working hard and doing their jobs with integrity.

The image of the state has been so rubbished by corruption, inefficiency and political misuse that some people feel ashamed now to say they are public servants.

This week, I attended the presentation of the 2016 Budget in Parliament by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

Early on Wednesday morning, journalists went into a lock-up session where we were given the Budget documents to study. Officials from the Treasury were on hand to answer questions and explain aspects of the Budget that might have been confusing for us.

Later that morning, Gordhan, his deputy Mcebisi Jonas, Treasury director-general Lungisa Fuzile and SA Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago, addressed a media briefing under strict embargo until the Budget was tabled in Parliament.

Throughout that high-pressure day, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the dexterity with which the Treasury managed the process.

While this is an annual event and perhaps practice makes perfect, the atmosphere around the Budget was different this year.

Gordhan has been in his position for only two months after the reshuffling of ministers in December 2015, and is still settling into the position he held previously. Security in and around Parliament has been tightened significantly because of the tense political situation and this impacted on how the Treasury normally manages the Budget.

And on top of all this, we have since learnt that Gordhan has been under additional pressure, with the Hawks drawing him into their investigation into the alleged “rogue spy unit” at the South African Revenue Service. In spite of all this, the Treasury machinery operated efficiently and the presentation of the Budget went off without a hitch.

Gordhan and his officials knew every aspect of the Budget inside and out, as was obvious from their willingness to interact with the media and the answers they gave. By making themselves available to do this, they also reduced the possibility of any misinterpretation of aspects of the Budget and ensured that citizens were able to get access to correct and properly explained information.

In a government where so much is kept secret, it is refreshing to find a department that understands its constitutional obligation to be transparent and accountable. The Budget was by no means a magic fix to South Africa’s problems. Gordhan faced criticism for not doing enough to stave off the possibility of a ratings downgrade and not making bold enough choices on cutting government spending and to build investor confidence.

The big test will be how the international credit-rating agencies respond.

In a government that many people have lost hope in, it was gratifying to see dedicated people conducting their work with integrity and efficiency, even as the power games continue to play out.

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