Cape Town – The Budget Speech might have been a tad boring without any red-bereted comedy, but what was lacking in humour in Parliament was made up for behind the scenes during the pre-budget press conference on Wednesday.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan revelled in the knowledge that the room of over 120 journalists was there to hear how he would save South Africa from a ratings downgrade and change the economic course of the country.
“Thank you for welcoming the new old guy in such numbers,” Gordhan told the journalists. “Thank you for your support.”
Once his opening remarks were complete, Gordhan was ready to pounce with humour and wit to retort to the challenging questions posed by journalists.
“Deterioration in the credit-rating outlook towards the end of 2015 was followed by changes in the finance portfolio, catching investors off guard and raising concerns about fiscal probity,” Sunday Times journalist Jan-Jan Joubert read from the 2016 Budget Review.
“This statement differs from what President Jacob Zuma believes. Can you explain this?” he asked.
“It’s called 9/12,” Gordhan replied bluntly, but added more sanguinely later: “Use your imagination.”
9/12 refers to December 9 2015, when Zuma replaced Nhlanhla Nene with Des van Rooyen as finance minister, causing markets, bonds and the rand to fall drastically. Days later, Zuma was forced to go back on his decision and eventually called on Gordhan to return to a job the president had removed him from in 2014.
Zuma has consistently said that his appointment of Van Rooyen was not the cause of the market crash and went as far as saying this week that Van Rooyen was the most qualified finance minister he had ever appointed.
Moving on to the South African Revenue Service (Sars), in which Gordhan – a former Sars commissioner – is at loggerheads with incumbent Tom Moyane, the minister teased the crowd.
While Moyane was spotted at Parliament, he was not sitting in his usual chair alongside the Treasury leadership. Asked why, Gordhan at first tried to sidestep the question and even told one journalist calling in from Pretoria: “You are sleeping in Pretoria.”
Eventually, he came up with a telling line that signals the tension between the two offices: “I have absolute confidence in the 14 000 staff who work at Sars.” Still no mention of Moyane.
In other replies, he told a journalist who said his Budget Speech was paying lip service to the drought that “A speech does pay lip service, that’s what it’s supposed to do. I understand slogging through the Budget Review is hard work, but..” and he then gave her the page number to find the full details on the issue.
When Daily Maverick journalist Ranjeni Munusamy asked if he would speak about his former finance ministers in a section of the speech that looked like something was missing, he said: “I cut it out! Come on, don’t be frivolous.”
A few journalists asked questions, to which he replied: “You have answered your own question.”
Asked about privatising state-owned entities, Gordhan said: “Don’t be tempted to use the P word – I haven’t used it. We are deliberately talking about co-investment.”
Regarding his decision not to over-tax the rich, Gordhan said: “I have not yet given in to the temptation to tax the millionaires amongst you.”
He added that the super-rich are very clever at hiding their money in tax havens. He said that “aggressive tax avoidance” and “creative tax planners” are hampering efforts to collect money for the state.
Asked if his bold moves to save the country’s economic future would be supported politically, Gordhan said: “These are not ideas I cooked up yesterday. If you see me sitting here in October, then I have political support and if not, then I don’t have political support – that’s how life works.”