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South Africa: Is Godongwana a more politically savvy finance minister?

By Xolisa Phillip, in Johannesburg
Posted on Monday, 23 August 2021 16:42

Enoch Godongwana / Facebook

The surprise departure of South Africa’s finance minister Tito Mboweni could signal a break from an unequivocal economic reform agenda to a fiscal stance that is more accommodating to elements of the left. Will Enoch Godongwana win over the doubters?

Mboweni, who was synonymous with the economic reform agenda, has made way for Enoch Godongwana. The latter is viewed as more accessible, while the former kept many at arm’s length, including South Africa’s powerful unions.

Godongwana becomes South Africa’s sixth finance minister. His predecessors include Nhlanhla Nene and Pravin Gordhan. President Cyril Ramaphosa announced Mboweni’s departure and Godongwana’s appointment in a recent reshuffle.

Mulatu Zerihun, a senior economics academic at the Tshwane University of Technology, says frequent changes to the portfolio have the potential to erode public trust.

Mboweni had a good profile and was doing well, but the decision to retain a minister ultimately rests with the president, according to Zerihun. “For the current minister, we will have to wait and see what his performance is,” Zerihun said.

He will be able to hit the ground running on issues we have raised with him.

In its recent assessment of South Africa’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, the World Bank gave the country a glowing review and projected that it would register growth in 2021 and 2022.

Many credit Mboweni for this outcome, despite him operating in a fiscally constrained environment; but he had no shortage of critics.

“Tito stood for reforms – he was quite clear on that. He came into confrontations with his comrades regarding what to do with state-owned entities. He kept on hitting his head against the wall to the point where he got tired,” says Ralph Mathekga, a political analyst.

“Frustration might have added to the fatigue he [felt] because he was not making headway politically. He’s being replaced by someone who, at least, knows the political ins and outs and can, maybe, navigate the politics; but you cannot tell me that Godongwana is as reformist as Tito,” says Mathekga.

The politics of it all …

Politically, though, Godongwana could work better with the unions. “He might be more willing to give something. Maybe there will be a moderation in [relations with the unions]. He [Mboweni] did not have the patience to engage with the unions. For him, they [unions] had to understand that the fiscus is what it is: you have to make key decisions,” says the analyst.

However, “what weighs on me is: why did Tito [Mboweni] leave? What happened? This is not just about who is coming into that portfolio. It is also about who they have replaced,” Mathekga says.

Those who are competent tend to have credibility issues.

Kganki Matabane, CEO of Black Business Council (BBC), tells The Africa Report that the lobby group not only welcomed Godongwana’s appointment but also believed that the new minister understood transformation issues.

“We have welcomed the appointment. Mainly because we engaged with [him] previously. That was before he became minister. We believe he understands our issues. We also like the fact that he is more accessible to black business. He will be able to hit the ground running on issues we have raised with him,” Matabane says.

Drying talent pool

Many, however, have noted Ramaphosa’s reshuffle not only for the reorganisation of ministerial portfolios, but also for the advanced age profile of appointees. Most are well past the unofficial retirement age in South Africa, which is 60 years.

Nevertheless, “when we talk about the Cabinet being filled with grey-headed people, where do you get the people?” asks Mathekga.

Mathekga suggests that, perhaps, the African National Congress has reached saturation in terms of talent stakes. “Godongwana has been there for a while – no stellar performance in the past, but I don’t mean that in a bad way. The party is no longer producing young, talented people – that’s what it is.”

This points to an even deeper dilemma, according to Mathekga.

“I thought that if you had a credibility crisis like this president’s administration has in terms of dealing with corruption, losing ministers because of corruption scandals in the middle of a health crisis, you would pick people with credibility and competence; but where are they? Those who are competent tend to have credibility issues,” says Mathekga.

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