THE new finance minister’s budget speech on February 20 comes in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis in the South African economy.
Crises like these are typically attributed, inter alia, to economic policies and global market conditions. However, in our case the inescapable truth is that there has been large-scale looting of the resources of the people by the powerful in government and in the private sector.
Our economic crisis is, in large part, the making of a powerful elite.
Minister Mboweni’s budget is presented at a time that large-scale corruption is brought to light publicly by a judicial commission of enquiry.
The concurrence of the two phenomena is significant and foregrounds a tragic irony for South Africans in plain and crude terms: our democracy enables revelations about corruption at the same time that our finance minister announces how he intends to deal with the economic crisis.
It is noteworthy that whenever analysts speak of the state of our economy, there is a particular slant in their analysis that begs comment. The approach remains largely neoliberal, with prioritisation of factors that are a function of economic growth, market forces and economic activity that buoys the markets.
It is disappointing that the minister’s treatment of state capture and corruption was perfunctory. Saying that he supports the establishment of the new Investigating Directorate in the NPA is meaningless. Former President Zuma said the same thing.
What was lacking in the speech of Minister Mboweni is a commitment to accountability and transparency, and reference to empowerment of institutions such as relevant audit committees tasked with the responsibility to implement and enforce transparency and accountability.
Also noteworthy is that neither the term radical nor the term transformation occurred in the minister’s speech. This signifies another important shift from the pretence of a pro-poor agenda but which, essentially, masked state capture. Yet, our economy needs to address economic injustices inherent in a neoliberal, capitalist economic order.
Therefore, the minister’s budget speech raises serious questions about his commitment to prioritising immediate poverty alleviation.
One example is the increase in the budget deficit from the projected four percent of GDP to 4,5 per cent. This increase does not address the basic needs of the more than 30 million South Africans living below the R1 183 per capita per month.
Similarly, the 4,7 per cent increase in pension is R20 less than the increase in 2018, and the 2,4 per cent increase in the child grant is well below inflation.
Foreign direct investment and supply-side economics, as always, take precedence over the development of the informal economy. We continue to perpetuate the disparity of two economies, namely that of the JSE and that of the townships.
In this disparity the majority of South Africans are still excluded from the economy, unemployment levels remain intractable and the poor outcomes of health and education are not expected to improve significantly.
All South Africans cannot be aggregated into an economic monolith. The disparities of wealth and gross inequality, the worst on the planet, require a commitment to prioritise the poor above the more privileged.