By Sibusiso Dlamini | 2021-03-02
On Friday, Minister of Finance Neal Rijkenberg stood in front of politicians and the anxious public to outline government's priorities for the next financial year. In what we expected to be one of his hardest tasks since he was appointed to office, Minister Neal took on the podium looking rather at ease this time around, and this was the same with the gallery which also seemed to be just a tad more focused this time, as opposed to the previous occasions where they glaringly looked disconnected, if not uninterested in what Neal was presenting and projecting. Maybe the ambience came to play, because this time, things were done differently. It wasn’t the fanfare and fashion show it always is, this was a straight to the point event, where we were all told one message in a million words – this country’s problems are real and they are only getting deeper! For that hour or so – as the entire nation was transfixed on him, the main man honestly pitched up to the party. The man was dressed for the event, he looked much calmer, he seemed to have taken more time rehearsing his speech this time around, and more importantly he passed on the message clearly. I will be the very first to commend him on the decision not to increase taxes – albeit temporarily. This shows that he understands the implications and the impact that decision would have had on an already ailing economy – especially considering the poverty and unemployment rates in this country. Besides looking more comfortable, the minister – just like his speech didn’t have that thing, as women say all the time. The speech failed to give off sureness to the public, sureness that government was working on a grand plan to get us out of the mud. All Neal did was what anyone with sense could have done, reduce the costs. This budget puts things into a clear perspective for all of Emaswati – there’s no money and all the loans we keep on taking are catching up with us. All I took from the budget speech was that things are tough, we will have to really tighten the belts and that corruption will indeed be the downfall of this nation. I also hope this past year has been a wake-up call to both Cabinet and Members of Parliament. Cabinet has lost three members to a ravaging once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, and this should give them a clear indication of what is happening on the ground. The honeymoon is over, and so is the time for bickering and attention-seeking stunts aimed at cheap political point scoring is also over. It’s time to roll up the sleeves and get to work. I plead with politicians and every single citizen of this country to re-visit this speech and get the message that is being communicated to us – things are only going to get worse, so let’s prepare ourselves because tougher times lie ahead. But, I have to take my hat off to the minister and his team for a job well done. Albeit, the fact that they have been dominating the headlines in the tabloids of late, Minister Neal and his team have come up with what they could under these circumstances. They seriously tried to cut across all sectors, until there just wasn’t anything left to cut, and that is commendable. Pleased I am also pleased with the fact that they didn’t fall into the trap of coming up with a typical politician budget aimed at giving false hope to the people. There’s also the matter of our civil service wage bill, which has been ballooning over the years and because government hasn’t had a plan for years on dealing with the issue, it remains a scandal waiting to happen. The decision to review the country’s Public Enterprises is one that is long overdue. These parastatals heavily rely on government yet their performances aren’t justifying our taxes spent on them. These entities need to be reformed by yesterday, and one can only hope that the Eswatini Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre (ESEPARC) will do a good job in reviewing these entities’ relevance and effectiveness. It is also a fact that this country is in deep economic crisis, not only because of the era of over-budgeting, overspending and unfinanced budgets as the minister alluded, but also largely to the fact that we have cash flow challenges and government arrears have resulted in many small and medium enterprises going under the bridge. This is why reducing public stock debt needs to take priority. As the minister rightfully said, these arrears have accumulated as a consequence of unsustainable government operations over several financial years, where expenditure routinely – and mind that word – ‘routinely’ exceeded revenue and financing. This didn’t have detrimental effects only for the private sector, but it also worked against government’s goal of slashing the continuously growing unemployment rate in the country since citizens lose jobs when these companies fail to make ends meet. Since it is clear that it’s getting harder for us to stimulate the economy by relying on investors, the government will have to shift its focus to the youth. The decision to allocate the lion’s share of the budget to the education sector is one that makes me happy, but again, I know that this country has a tendency of making wonderful plans and ruining them with the execution. The Ministry of Education and Training needs to gets its house in order and this will not be achieved through PS Bertram Stewart’s hardliner attitude, rather with harmonious relations. It’s only in this country that we celebrate a civil servant rudeness honestly I am also very disappointed with the Ministry of Agriculture and the fact that the sector only contributed one percent in the increase of the country’s GDP. The investments in water harvesting and irrigation infrastructure through the help of the European Union (EU) has to start paying dividends. I hope the Minister responsible for the agricultural sector as a business person himself will sit-down with all the parastatals and the senior officials in the ministry who are seriously underperforming to ensure that they change their ways. This country has arable land, plenty of water and way too many unemployed young people to not be making the difference in the economy through agriculture. We are spending way too much money on that LUSIP project to still rely on other countries for basics such as our staple food. Even though the Minister says government has been fixing the foundations, creating fiscal space through greater efficiencies in spending without resorting to significant increases in taxes, ballooning arrears or deficits, what still remains a fact is that Eswatini is in the red! We need to take action and follow these plans and strategies we conjure up, because if not, they will remain wish-lists nicely tucked in government shelves. I guess as we tighten our belts, we must console ourselves with the verse the minister cited in his opening - “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God and to those who are called according to his purpose.”
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