TO describe the budget presented by Finance minister Tendai Biti on Wednesday as lacklustre is an understatement; it was a monumental disappointment. Biti himself describes it aptly as “a sad balance sheet of unmet targets and policy slippages that has left the economy in an unacceptable state of underperformance”.
It’s good he admits as much, but it is not good that he immediately apportions blame to what he calls “a small clique of misguided and retrogressive individuals in our midst, who thrive on chaos and perceive development, democracy, growth, harmony, trust and stability as anathema”.
The minister should actually include himself in this small clique and also admit that he is part of the group that is, in his own words, having “ A lackadaisical business-as-usual mentality”.
By inference, it is his partners in the unity government he is blaming. However, having been socialised in Zimbabwe, he should be familiar with a saying which when loosely translated means that whenever you point your index finger at someone, at least three of your fingers are pointing at you. We are aware that as a politician, the temptation to use any platform to sell yourself and rubbish your opponent is always great, and the minister has a propensity to slag off his enemy at the slightest opportunity. Yet this is hardly the time to play politics.
The rest of the world is not going to wait for us while we play petty political games. All indicators point to difficult times ahead for the world economy; shrinking demand by the world’s biggest consumer, China; the debt crisis in Europe; and rising joblessness in the US being just among a few.
A typical characteristic of the world’s major economies is that they are inward-looking, and the harder the times get, the more they will become so. The major question is: What happened to the balanced budget Biti promised in his November 2011 budget statement? Didn’t he say: “We will eat what we kill?”
If we were eating what we killed, why are we suddenly in such a precarious position of budget overruns forecast at nearly a billion by year end? We know the minister has blamed a number of government agencies for failing to remit funds to Treasury, but as a lawyer laureate can’t he invoke existing laws to ensure this is done?
Talking now of amending the Public Finance Management Act when the unity government is most likely in its twilight might just be locking the stable door after the horse has bolted, but for posterity, it’s very relevant.
He also refers to the underperformance of the diamond sector, but if memory serves, wasn’t this off-balance sheet revenue while the core budget was supposed to be strictly adhered to? And besides, we all know, as Americans would say; he ain’t never gonna get nothing from there. That’s not to say that the diamond story is not important, but those who have been reading this newspaper will recall the various complexities associated with not only the diamond sector, but the entire valuable minerals position in the country.
In case the message is not coming out clearly enough, the key thing that the minister should do is to keep expenditures in check.
Expenditures such as the wanton travel by all government officials should be reined in. In this day of advanced information and communication technology, some conferences and seminars can be attended from here over the internet at a phenomenally cheaper price tag.
The other areas where Biti can bring costs down is on luxury vehicles and other purquisites splashed on senior civil servants. We are becoming like SA where you find sleek vehicles parked in shanty towns.
Nevertheless, Biti ought to be commended for the support he has been giving to the various initiatives to support the real sector, albeit small.
However, more will be needed to fully resuscitate the manufacturing sector, whose capacity utilisation is, according to the minister, only at 60%.