The baton changes hands

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan delivering his seventh Budget speech in Parliament.Picture: David Ritchie

It happened during Pravin Gordhan’s budget speech in the National Assembly on Wednesday, and if you were watching, you may well have seen it.

The television camera framed Mr Gordhan standing at the podium and, not much more than an arm’s length away from him, sat Jacob Zuma.

Pravin Gordhan is not a big man in stature, but his imposing presence towered over Jacob Zuma, who looked small, insignificant, dispirited even.

And so the baton changed hands, and Pravin Gordhan became the most powerful, the most respected person in our politics.

But the harbingers of that change were evident right from the start of the session when the house rose to its feet, led by the EFF, to applaud as Pravin Gordhan took his place at the podium. The gallery was also on its feet applauding, and after most people sat down, the EFF continued applauding until asked by House Speaker Baleka Mbete to take their seats.

As Mr Gordhan started to speak, an imbongi in the gallery began to sing his praises, a cunning reprise of the similar, staged event during the State of the Nation Address (SONA), but with significantly more impact. He only stopped his praises, when signalled to do so by Julius Malema.

Mr Gordhan proceeded to deliver a budget speech that spoke directly to the central tenet of Jacob Zuma’s SONA, radical economic transformation, but with the distinctive difference that he avoided the by now predictable Bell-Pottinger style swing at “white monopoly capital.”

It was a compromise budget, and he did take criticism from a number of quarters – the left said he’d been too easy on the rich, the right said he’d been too hard on the rich – but the man is walking an economic tightrope not of his own making.

Yet, he still managed to find the R28 billion he needs without raising personal income tax across the board. Instead, around 103 000 tax payers who earn over R1.5 million per annum, will cough a little more per month than they have done, and it’s not as if they cannot afford it.

There were other measures too, but essentially what he has done, is spread the burden equitably among those who can afford to pick up the tab.

He also noted when announcing the top marginal rate increase to 45%, that we do have a progressive taxation system, which is overtly redistributive in nature.

As an aside, I have no sympathy with the hard done by 103 000. Increasing VAT by one percentage point would have been the easy way out, but the impact that has on the poorest of the poor is grievous by comparison with the super-rich. The poor must make hard choices between food, clothing and transport costs; the rich must make discretionary spending choices between restaurants, electronic goods, cars, and overseas trips.

Remarkably, or perhaps not, virtually the entire house stayed awake and listened to what Mr Gordhan had to say, without focusing on their tablets or phones. He had them in the palm of his hand.

His delivery was not without coded messages, the most significant of which was the lion and buffalo parable: ““Ditau ge di shumishana di ka bolaya nare.” (If lions work as a team they will bring down even a buffalo.) But it was this seemingly innocent adjunct that delivered a clear message: “And we’ve got to be, honourable members, lions with all types of T-shirts on, to bring the buffalo down.” No prizes for guessing who that buffalo might be.

A consistent theme in his delivery was the thorny problem of inequality and the skewed nature of our economy, but without stooping to populist rhetoric the way Jacob Zuma did during his SONA. It was a measured and sobering assertion that transformation must happen, but not at the expense of economic growth, and that growth will not be sustainable without transformation. He presents an argument that is virtually impossible to rebut, unless you subscribe to the zero-sum philosophy: in order for me to prosper economically, somebody else must endure hardship.

Perhaps one of the most telling moments came when Mr Gordhan thanked Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa for their guidance in preparing the budget: the EFF’s Mbuyiseni Ndlozi stood on the only point of order raised.

The look of sour anticipation on Baleka Mbete’s face was a study as she acknowledged him, but it was what he said that made it clear Jacob Zuma’s star is finally on the wane. “There is no guidance that Zuma gives, no guidance to the country,” said Mr Ndlozi. “He must not be thanked in the name of this Parliament, or in the name of the people of South Africa.”

Although Baleka Mbete very quickly shut him down, noting that it was not a point of order, the damage had been done. You cannot un-say words.

The house rose again to applaud once Mr Gordhan was done, with the notable exception of ANC grinches like Bathabile Dlamini, Des van Rooyen, Faith Muthambi and David Mahlobo, despite exhortations from the EFF to stand up.

The contrast between Jacob Zuma’s SONA and Pravin Gordhan’s budget speech could not have been more stark, which begs the rhetorical question: why the difference?

But Jacob Zuma will not go quietly. Already he has launched a counter attack. SARS commissioner Tom Moyane did a Shaun Abrahams, when he called a press conference to complain publicly about his treatment at the Pravin Gordhan’s hands, accusing him of all manner of things, in a clear attempt to give Jacob Zuma reason to fire Mr Gordhan.

We must hope that this attempt to discredit Mr Gordhan will founder as spectacularly as did Mr Abrahams’ when he pressed trumped-up charges against Mr Gordhan, which he had to publicly, and embarrassingly withdraw.