Treasure Treasury’s tree-planters

A few years ago, former finance ­minister Trevor Manuel handed out saplings to the gathering at Parliament’s annual tabling of the budget.

The symbol was this: it was time to plant for the future, to move away from ­consumption spending to investment-geared fiscal planning.

This meant a tempering of the public sector wage bill; a medium-term planned decline of ­social grant beneficiaries and a healthy ­injection into infrastructure.

The future was in roads, rail, housing, hospitals, colleges and the rest of the social infrastructure that would provide a foundation for prosperity for the next generation.

Spend for tomorrow but don’t overburden the next generation with debt so large that it crowds out the hopes of the ­future.

With this philosophy embedded in how the Treasury does its work, it’s safe to say that this powerhouse of big brains and safe hands have ­become the great tree planters of South African public life.

The Treasury, along with other notable ­examples like the Independent Electoral ­Commission, the SA Revenue Service and, lately, the department of home affairs, is beginning to provide a template for good governance.

It’s worth looking at some of the Treasury’s ­leadership characteristics that have led it to being seen as a long-term thinker.

The first is that the Treasury is a hothouse of talent – it is filled with expensive and committed
officials who work hard under excellent political leadership in the shape of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

The second is that the Treasury works to a profoundly political philosophy that is repeated year after year after year.

In essence, this philosophy is of planting trees – making investments for tomorrow.

Thus, this year the infrastructure budget is the most notable ­feature and the education allocation is still the highest single amount of spend.

The bang for buck is a perennial downfall of education ­spending, but it is still investment spending, not a short-term consumption splurge.

In addition, the Treasury is a careful place – while big figures were bandied about for ­infrastructure this week, in reality a lot of the money is already allocated and a fair proporition may not be spent at all, if the Budget Review document is to be believed.

The People’s Budget campaign says Gordhan was too tight with grant increases, but that point is moot when you ­consider that an estimated one in three South ­Africans now get a grant.

Social solidarity is thus another enduring plank of the Treasury ­philosophy.

When you look to Greece and Europe, and to struggling America, then it really is a ­truism that we should treasure our Treasury.

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