Aloe from the other side: How SA's economy slid from fine fruit to fire-ravaged fynbos

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Finance Minister Tito Mboweni extols the virtues of the Aloe ferox plant as he delivers his 2019 Budget speech in Parliament on in Cape Town yesterday. PHOTO: Gallo Images
Finance Minister Tito Mboweni extols the virtues of the Aloe ferox plant as he delivers his 2019 Budget speech in Parliament on in Cape Town yesterday. PHOTO: Gallo Images
  • Finance Minister Tito Mboweni will likely begin his budget address by giving an update on health of his little aloe ferox plant, which has become a surrogate of sorts for the state of SA's economy. 
  • Mboweni's use of the aloe appears to have caught on, with President Cyril Ramaphosa starting to use the example of how fynbos needs fire to germinate in his speeches. 
  • Former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel was wont to make allusions to fruit and plants around budget time, famously handing out plums in 2003 to show the economy was bearing fruit.

When Finance Minister Tito Mboweni begins his budget address on Wednesday afternoon, there will be an aloe ferox placed next to him on the lectern – a hardy indigenous succulent with thick spiny leaves.   

Since February 2019 – just a few months after he was named finance minister in the wake of the abrupt resignation of his predecessor Nhlanhla Nene - Mboweni has been accompanied by the aloe during his budget speeches.

The plant was "resilient, sturdy and drought resistant," said Mboweni when he first introduced it to MPs. "It has a long history of medicinal use. It withstands the elements."

Since then the succulent has become a surrogate of sorts for the economy, and the minister has taken to starting his addresses by giving an update on its health. 

"The aloe ferox survives and thrives when times are tough," the minister said in February last year, before the coronavirus struck. "It actually prefers less water. It wins even when it seems the odds are against it."

By October, when Mboweni presented his medium-term budget, the impact of the pandemic had become clear and SA was facing its worst recession in 90 years. South Africa's debt levels would become unsustainable unless spending was cut, he warned.

Still, the minister kept an upbeat aloe-related note.

"[The aloe] can survive the harshest of circumstances and can certainly withstand a pandemic.

"Our little aloe ferox has survived! It is recovering!"

Mboweni's aloe-based economic explanations were a hit, and soon more plant-based metaphors were springing up.

Back away from the botanicals

At an investment conference in November last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa said rebuilding SA's economy battered by the Covid-19 pandemic must be "akin to how the protea germinates after the fire".

"In the aftermath of a fire, dormant buds survive and the protea releases its seeds. The land comes back to life even richer than before."

In his State of the Nation Address in February, Ramaphosa continued on the theme.

"We, the people of South Africa, have over the past year experienced a terrible hardship," said the president about the Covid-19 pandemic, which has caused over 45 000 deaths. 

"Like a wildfire that sweeps across the mountainous ranges where the fynbos grows, a deadly pandemic has swept across the world, leaving devastation in its path."

Like fynbos, South Africa would "rise again", he said.

Plum times

Mboweni's initial reason for bringing the aloe to Parliament appears to have been to underscore how things have changed since former minister of finance Trevor Manuel could boats of "plum times".

"A few years ago, Madam Speaker, one of my predecessors handed out succulent plums to the members of this house, to demonstrate the times of plenty we were in," said Mboweni in February of 2019.

Manuel handed out plums to members of Parliament in 2003 to show the economy was bearing fruit.

"We must take the bitter with the sweet," Mboweni said in 2019. "Today, I bring you a seed to prove that if we plant anew, we can return to those plum times."

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