Ferial Haffajee: Who is more powerful – Mboweni or Magashule?

Ferial Haffajee (Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)
Ferial Haffajee (Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)

After the bombshell statement by the ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule on Tuesday suggesting the party had instructed or would instruct the SA Reserve Bank to expand its mandate, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni objected loudly and virally on Twitter and on Facebook.

The minister laid out chapter and verse of how the Constitution works, how it protects the central bank’s independence and how the country’s economics architecture is set up to make the Finance Minister the apex political authority over finance. There is a dotted line between the Finance Ministry and the central bank and a relationship not of authority but of consultation and, one hopes, geniality.

In other words, Mboweni was telling his own party, the governing ANC, that it could not tell the SARB what to do and when to do it; and if it wanted to, it would need to go through him, not acting as a member of the ANC, but as the Finance Minister.

South African thumbs went berserk, retweeting the Minister and breathing a sigh of relief as if Tito’s tweets negated the seven-page statement put out by Magashule, in which the economic intent to introduce quantity (sic) easing (meaning quantitative easing or fiscal support by central banks) was also outlined.

Mboweni is not more powerful in South Africa, although he should be. If we were a better democracy and politics were at least in some measure designed for people and not for the ruling party, then, naturally the word of the finance minister would be the final word in a kerfuffle like this one. But in our byzantine bequeathment by the ANC, this is not obviously the case.

Party time

In fact, Magashule is a far more powerful political personality as the structure of both the ANC and of the party-based political system means it believes it exercises a sovereignty over the state – the party is thus more powerful than the government. It’s a Soviet or Chinese style hangover that has no place in a country like ours, where the Constitution sets up a different praxis.

What former President Jacob Zuma did was return power to Luthuli House (the ANC headquarters) away from the Union Buildings and from Parliament. Under him, the ANC and its former secretary-general Gwede Mantashe were the centre of political life and the voice of Mantashe became the voice of policy.

Magashule considers himself an inheritor of this mantle and this way, he believes that he (on behalf of the ANC) holds the purview over economic policy. Thus, he believes himself to be Mboweni’s political superior and until President Cyril Ramaphosa tells him otherwise or until the head of state sets up a different practice, the skirmishing between party and state will get worse, not better.

At the time of writing, Magashule’s statement on the SARB had not been retracted, even though it has been disavowed by Mboweni. In the public record and an item of decision, it stands as the chosen path of the ANC – Mboweni’s tweets and posts do not overrule that statement or suggest that a more sensible debate was held as the governing party’s leaders met in confab at the weekend to plot a path for all of us.

For the economy to grow, for jobs to be more of a birth-right for more South Africans and for a better South Africa, the political party-based system must change, but at the moment, such a future is as elusive a thing as an ANC mandarin with a working knowledge of quantitative easing.

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