For almost seven years, our most important ministry after the presidency, the finance ministry, has been in a constant state of uncertainty. Seven ministers walked in and out of the ministry’s Pretoria headquarters over that time.
It was a departure from the past, when Trevor Manuel was one of the world’s longest-serving finance ministers, staying 13 years and ensuring stability in the treasury. He re-established credibility both at home and abroad after the ruinous years of apartheid rule. We were for all intents and purposes a fiscally barren nation in 1994.
But since the surprise late-night ouster of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister in December 2015, that era of stability was over. It’s not surprising that in the decade of weak growth that virtually every other major emerging market has experienced bar China (although its growth has slowed considerably), the treasury has had to battle against falling confidence levels in its ability to maintain fiscal prudence in the face of deteriorating politics.
Through intense factional battles in the governing party, some of the treasury’s most senior technocrats left for less strenuous jobs (on the political front, at least) in the private sector. People such as its third director general since 1994, Lungisa Fuzile, left to become Standard Bank South Africa’s chief executive.
His departure in 2017 was the most critical blow, given his ability to wade into battles with political “superiors” such as Pravin Gordhan and carry credibility in global markets — where treasury teams of various countries battle for the best deal for their respective countries.
When Fuzile walked out of the job, he left a largely unknown replacement in Dondo Mogajane to run the department with a meddling Malusi Gigaba as his finance minister. Question marks were raised about his ability to defend the institution against the forces of radical economic transformation.
Five years later, and with an improvement in the fiscal outlook for the country, as Moody’s changed the outlook to stable from negative last week, he too is leaving. While not possessing the gravitas of his predecessors such as Maria Ramos or Lesetja Kganyago, Mogajane managed to keep to the script of fiscal consolidation, aided no end by Gigaba’s eventual replacement in Tito Mboweni. We should applaud him for managing the final months of what became a rather desperate Zuma presidency. It was a good fight, and one we all needed him to win.
But as the country begins to grapple with an economic recovery from the ravages of Covid-19 pandemic and also considers growing inequality, there’s another war that we have to wage. One that won’t necessarily translate into merely closing spending taps — but dealing with pressures around the basic income grant debate in the party alongside stimulating a moribund economy.
Whoever comes in as the next treasury director general faces a vastly different fight than the one faced by Mogajane. We need a person whom markets will trust with a hopefully more expansionary message around fiscal policy, away from the austere focus of the past decade.
But for the work done, Mr Mogajane, we all owe you a debt of gratitude.