ANALYSIS | SA's economy is in a blizzard, and Mboweni's tweets are just one snowflake

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni (Gallo)
Finance Minister Tito Mboweni (Gallo)
Times Live / Esa Alexander/Gallo

At least three ANC top six officials, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, have cautioned Tito Mboweni against his apparently controversial public statements and Twitter rant – but that’s as far as it goes. 

The finance minister enjoys the backing of the president and it seems that any lobby to push out Mboweni will not be given oxygen. 

His plan to approach the International Monetary Fund for funding has been endorsed by the ANC national executive committee and the party’s focus now has been geared on an economic recovery plan post-Covid-19. 

In conversations with ANC officials, Mboweni was said to have been told that contradicting Cabinet colleagues is unbecoming of a finance minister and taking his frustrations to Twitter was ill-advised. 

Mboweni was further cautioned that his long-standing critics in the NEC would use his Twitter rants to "eat him alive". 

By the time the ANC’s NEC met on Thursday, Mboweni’s critics – who are known to be opposed to his push to access funding from the International Monetary Fund – appeared to have found a gap in the form of his Twitter rants to attack him. He was described as "ill-disciplined" for telling Parliament he opposed the on-going cigarette ban in Cabinet and for Tweeting that obeying majority or collective decisions felt like "swallowing a rock". 

But concessions from Mboweni’s supporters, including Ramaphosa, that Mboweni’s utterances were inconsistent with the decorum of the office of the minister of finance rendered the discussion closed. 

ANC economic policy guru Enoch Godongwana summed it as follows: "All people were saying is that the office of the finance minister requires a certain kind of decorum."

Once that was widely agreed to, any effort by his opponents to segue from Mboweni’s "ill-discipline" into opposition to Mboweni’s economic plan fell through. 

Instead, the ANC NEC accepted and endorsed the plan to approach the IMF for finance – an issue that has been a bone of contention for weeks. 

ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte referred to an attempt to stir controversy around Mboweni’s statement’s as "infantile politics", saying party officials were too busy dealing with the crises to be concerned about petty squabbles. 

Quibbling while Rome burns

Duarte seemed to be of the view that the economic crisis as a result of the coronavirus is too big to be fighting over tweets. 

It is probably not the last time Mboweni speaks out of turn or makes known his feelings on social media and it would not be the last time he is slated for it. 

The finance minister is known to insist that public debate should be encouraged at a time when there is no clarity on how the economy will rebound following the Covid-19 pandemic. 

However, the way Ramaphosa handled Mboweni’s controversy allowed for the party not be drawn into a ruse of fighting over the finance minister instead of dealing with what’s currently at hand. 

That approach led to the party taking a clear decision on the IMF after an explanation that the ANC has never been opposed to accessing funding from these international financing organisations as long as South Africa’s sovereignty was not in question.

The NEC was told that the government was had the option to access up to $50 million (R915m) from the World Bank and $4.2 billion (R77bn) from the IMF with favourable loan conditions – better than the market. 

Ramaphosa poured water on a factional fight by not giving oxygen to Mboweni’s controversial comments. This has allowed him to focus the discussion on recalibrating SA’s ailing economy.

It has empowered them to push through a fractious issue of IMF and World Bank funding and get on with the task. 

It has set the tone for what is to come: the party can’t be distracted by personality politics amid an economic bloodbath. 

The focus now is revising the budget and reallocating R130 billion to give life to Ramaphosa’s R500 billion economic stimulus package. 

Any effort to push out the finance minister is dead in the water and now the work can go on and be appraised accordingly. 

Qaanitah Hunter is News24's political editor and the author of Balance of Power: Ramaphosa and the future of South Africa (NB Publishers).

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