We must engage Tito Mboweni
I am not very fond of the minister of finance, Tito Mboweni.
I find him deeply insensitive, with very little regard for complexity and hardly any sociological imagination.
Perhaps these traits that I so abhor about him are precisely what makes him the right person to head the finance ministry in a SA that is tethering on the brink of economic ruin.
In some ways he reminds me of former president Thabo Mbeki, who had the unenviable task of building SA after years of euphoria.
Nelson Mandela was most beloved by our people – largely because he represented the kind of politics that SA was desperate for after decades of war (make no mistake, apartheid was war).
Mandela was the kind and compassionate grandfather who assured everyone that everything would be okay, and our people needed to hear this.
They desperately needed to be given a sense of hope that the future would be better than what they had endured over the many decades of repression.
Mbeki came in and he was not as well received, because his were not grandfatherly politics.
They were politics of difficult decisions – decisions which our people were not comfortable with, but which were necessary for the stability of the country and its economy.
And this perhaps is Mboweni, a man who must come in after a lot of damage has been done to the country’s institutions and its economy, and repair the mess.
Over the past few weeks, Mboweni has raised the ire of many people in our country with his pronouncements on the economy – particularly on the controversial e-tolls in Gauteng.
Mboweni made the statement that Sanral’s board must reverse its decision to temporarily suspend summonses to recover e-toll debt with immediate effect, arguing that it was a “bad decision … it has implications for the bond market, it has implications for the fiscus … for their own credit rating and the credit rating of the country”.
Mboweni concluded this statement with: “Pay your taxes, render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”
This statement might sound very crude and perhaps insensitive for people who are already battling with the growing cost of living in SA.
But there is an important point that Mboweni is making here – the point is that our government is not in a position to continuously be incurring debt that it is unable to repay.
Treasury has a responsibility to keep internal and external debt at acceptable levels.
To do this, it must ensure that none of the state-owned entities default and that they meet all their financial obligations to their financiers.
Because Treasury issues guarantees for state-owned entities, if they are to default, the burden of repayment for covering this debt lies with Treasury and, therefore, with taxpaying people of SA.
So Mboweni has an obligation to be invested in how state-owned entities and their boards run their affairs, because their decisions do affect the Treasury and, therefore, the health of the country.
Some argue that e-tolls would affect the poor, but this argument begs for deeper analysis.
Public transport, the mode that is used by the poor in our country, is exempted from paying e-tolls.
Those who pay e-tolls are private vehicle users – who mainly are constituted by the middle class and the rich.
So the argument holds no water.
Some argue that instead of e-tolls, the alternative should be an increase in the fuel levy.
This, in my opinion, is what would in fact affect the poor.
An increase in the fuel levy would result in an increase in taxi and bus fares.
It will also result in the increase in food prices as companies will seek to recover transport costs incurred by either cutting down production costs, the first which would be labour costs (thereby adding to the already high rate of unemployment) or by increasing the price of food.
So a fuel levy is what would actually hurt the poor more than e-tolls.
The reality of the situation is that the quality of roads that we have in Gauteng needs to be maintained.
Tolling is already a practice across the country and it is done to generate revenue for road maintenance, among other things.
There is no logic in arguing that the roads in Gauteng, in their impeccable condition, should not have to be paid for by the users.
I agree fully that the process undertaken in the implementation of e-tolls was wrong in a sense that there was no consultation with the public.
And this is always a problem, because more than anything else, it is unconstitutional in a democracy like ours.
But the reality of the situation is that Mboweni must be engaged, not simply insulted and dismissed.
If we must discuss the modalities of tolling, let us do that.
But we must never substitute reason and debate with insults. It is unhelpful.