STANDSTILL: Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Pravin Gordhan. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

AS SHE does every morning, Iman Rappetti opens her news show with a meaningful and powerful message. She uses shadow boxing as a metaphor for life. Along the way she asks whether our government is shadow boxing or doing the actual fighting when it comes to the delivery of public goods.

This takes me straight to thoughts about how commentators have been hyping tomorrow’s budget speech.

We are told by some of them that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan is going to deliver the speech of his life. This is more or less what many commentators said about President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address or — to be more accurate — state of the economy address.

The last time a speech by a South African head of state was this highly anticipated was when the intrepid Ou Krokodil, PW Botha, gingerly soaked his big toe in the River Rubicon and decided it would be imprudent to go the whole hog.

Those of you who are old enough will remember that the Rubicon speech was a flop. I am not going to say the state of the nation address was a flop. All I will say is that it did need a good raising agent.

The primary audience of the state of the nation address were rating agencies. Government and African National Congress (ANC) spokespeople kept telling the nation SA must avoid a credit rating downgrade to junk status since, and I agree, that would be calamitous for the country.

In my view, the state of the nation address fell short of the expectations of rating agencies, business and investors as I understand them.

I think rating agencies are no longer satisfied with rhetorical commitments about things such as economic growth, effective management of the budget deficit and the need to build bridges between big business and the ANC government.

Put differently, what the finance minister needed was a strong political mandate from the president and the ruling party. This the state of the nation address did not do.

We must not be fooled by the congratulatory and sanguine responses from sections of big business and the private sector. The relationship between business and the government does entail an element of code switching. What is said privately and in public are not always in concert. People do not always say what they mean on public platforms. Also, we seem to think we can talk ourselves out of a downgrade.

In other words, the solution is a new or different narrative.

But a new or different narrative is not going to change the fact that, since 2012, the gap in credibility between what we say about the economy and what we actually do has been growing wider.

In short, one of the problems we face as a country is the gap between what our government promises to rating agencies, on the one hand, and the actual performance of the state and the economy, on the other. I don’t even want to mention the gap between what is promised and delivered to our people.

Since the state of the nation address was about maximising the pleasure of rating agencies, did it strike the right notes? In terms of topic selection it did. But when it comes to the need for a credible growth plan and to send a strong signal about managing the budget deficit by dealing with the public sector wage bill, and the relationship between this wage bill and state capacity, it did not.

This means that the president did not give Gordhan a sufficiently strong political mandate after whetting the appetites of commentators, business, investors and rating agencies so strongly.

Gordhan was set up for failure, but I can assure you he has very little to worry about. The budget speech will be hailed as a miracle. We will be told that, given the constraints and economic challenges he has to navigate, the speech was nothing short of a miracle. This will be said simply because the markets, big business and investors need Gordhan more than he is wanted by Zuma. They need him for confidence building. This probably means the rating agencies will postpone the decision about a downgrade to the end of the year even if they are not satisfied with the content of the budget speech.

As for business and other dominant players in our economy, Gordhan may not be their puppet but I suspect some among them fancy themselves as ventriloquists. As for those who seem to think Gordhan is the de facto president, Zuma is not called Gedleyihlekisa for nothing.

• Matshiqi is an independent political analyst