The word Finance Minister Tito Mboweni used most in his medium-term budget policy statement wasn’t “austerity” or “saving”.
It wasn’t even a phrase like “bloated Cabinet” or “state capture”, or even “Thuma Mina”, which was one of the frontrunners for the word of the year.
The phrase of the year – land expropriation without compensation – didn’t feature once in what has popularly come to be called the “mini budget speech”.
The word that popped up most during his almost hour-long speech delivered in the National Assembly on Wednesday was a four-letter word.
No, not that four-letter word. The word that Mboweni used the most was: “will”.
Mboweni used it 69 times, for example:
• We will urgently fix the South African Revenue Service;
• Rebuilding confidence will unlock private sector investment;
• Visa requirements will be eased to boost tourism; and
• The upcoming investor conference will showcase these strengths to local and international investors.
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The overall message of Mboweni’s speech was that the economy wasn’t exactly in the most comfortable of spaces.
He even used the word “crossroads” in the title of his policy statement.
The word “will” is usually a positive word, generally understood to mean a hope or belief that you have an idea of what is going to happen in the future. Mboweni used it nearly three times more than the next most-used word, “South” (29 times).
The word “billion” was used 25 times, not always in the most positive of contexts.
Mboweni announced that he had slashed the forecasted tax revenue that the government will collect over the three years by R85 billion.
City Press business editor Justin Brown reported that tax revenue had been revised down by R27.4 billion in the 2018/19 tax year, R24.7 billion in 2019/20 and R33 billion in 2020/21 relative to the 2018 budget, which was presented in February.
The key reason for the R27.4 billion less in tax revenue was mainly due to R20 billion less in expected VAT revenue and an expected R5.9 billion less in companies tax.
“Public” was used 21 times – mainly in connection with the public sector and public spending, especially referring to the reprioritisation of public spending to support growth and job creation.
Growth, economic, infrastrucure, investment, and government also featured around the topics of stimulating growth and avoiding additional fiscal measures that could limit growth.
Mboweni started out lyrically, opening with the much-quoted paragraph from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.
He ended his speech as lyrically as he began, saying: “We can choose whether or not these difficulties break us as a country, or make us ... We can choose whether we will allow the axe to cut our soul, or if we will try again. We must make sacrifices and choose a path of redemption.”
The problem with a word like “will” is that it implies that something is imminent.
Mboweni ended his statement by urging South Africans to “choose the road of prosperity and opportunity, where the true spirit of South Africa lies”.
But it is here that another kind of “will” comes into question – the will of politicians to lead from the top, “make sacrifices” and put into practice the austerity measures that normal South Africans have been forced to employ.
It’s not a question of “will” South Africans choose the road of prosperity, but “can” we.