A routine Treasury advisory to the media about arrangements for the budget speech on Wednesday may not be what journalists want to hear.
The advisory cautions that due to “cost-containment measures, there might be scaling down on the refreshments provided”. Poorly paid, on-the-go and nutrient-deprived hacks covering the Budget are advised to “come prepared with additional snacks” for the long hours that they are in lock-up from 6am - unable to leave the parliamentary buildings until Gordhan tables his speech in the National Assembly.
While journalists can anticipate leaner fillings on their sarmies on Wednesday, the advisory sends a strong message that the finance Minister means business, and is intent on trimming the fat everywhere.
It is also apparent that the Minister knows the importance of leading from the top. While some ministers struggle to defend the hundreds of thousands of Rands spent on overseas jaunts while the economy is on the skids, the finance Minister earned praise when he was photographed travelling on an economy flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg after the State of the Nation address (SONA).
Although lavish and unchecked personal spending was evident on the red carpet on 11 February, it was a marginally less grandiose occasion. The celebratory post-SONA dinner was canned, a casualty of fiscal prudence which saw the budget for the event almost halved from two years ago, down to R3.5 million.
The customary media cocktail network session hosted by the presidency was also shelved this week. Parliament has been forced to tighten up generally, with virtual tea-on-tap services curtailed for MPs forced to sit through lengthy committee meetings. It has also been reported that Parliament’s building plans to enlarge the precinct are also on hold.
In his state of the nation address, Zuma glibly set the tone for Gordhan’s cost-cutting budget. Overseas trips by government officials will be approved only if they are able to motivate what the benefits are for the country, and the size of delegations will be reduced. Zuma also announced that dinners traditionally hosted by government departments after budget votes speeches will be scrapped.
These overdue interventions emphasise that every cent counts. But these savings are minuscule compared to the excessive bleeding of state resources from the top - in Zuma’s Cabinet and at state owned enterprises - and also in provinces and municipalities.
Gordhan has the will to make a difference. While journalists munch on their Tupperware leftovers on Wednesday, the true test will be if the second-time round Finance Minister has the power to stop the rot and rein in the big spenders.
This column first appeared on Media24 platforms in February: http://www.news24.com/Columnists/Janet-Heard/no-nonsense-pravin-cuts-back-on-budget-snacks-20160223