Tito Mboweni.
Tito Mboweni.
Image: Getty Images / Jeffrey Abrahams

If talking could solve SA’s problems, Tito Mboweni, a garrulous raconteur if ever there was one, would surely have fixed everything long ago. He has already been holding court for two of what turns out to be an eight-hour encounter over a hearty breakfast, a magnificent lunch and copious quantities of alcohol, when he comes to a — or rather the — decisive moment of his life.

As a young man in 1980, as the anti-apartheid struggle was gathering steam, he broke off his university studies, crossed into the mountain kingdom of Lesotho and told the first exiled African National Congress official he clapped eyes on that he wanted to take up arms against the regime. It was not to be.

“You guys are so angry and militant, you’re going to cause havoc,” he recalls being told, delivering his anecdote with a comic’s timing. “You are not getting any arms. You are not ready to fight. You are raaaaw,” he says, disintegrating into laughter. Instead of war, the 21-year-old studied economics, ending up at the University of East Anglia in England. “When all this fighting is over,” he was told, “there will be a country to run.”

Mboweni has since run many things in South Africa. He was the first black governor of the central bank, a position he held with aplomb for a decade. The hand that could have gripped an AK-47 instead signed the nation’s banknotes, which in the black townships came to be known affectionately as “Titos”. Then last year he was summoned back to the cabinet as finance minister after a decade in the private sector, including as chairman of AngloGold Ashanti and an adviser to Goldman Sachs.

His return is a sign of how badly the ANC ship needs steadying — or perhaps bailing out. It is 25 years since the first all-race elections that ended more than three centuries of white minority rule. But under Jacob Zuma, president for nine years until he was ousted last year, the movement that once inspired the world became a byword for corruption. On May 8 2019, it faces an election. It will win, but probably not with the thumping margins of past victories.

“The past nine years have been very distressing. I ended up in hospital, actually,” Mboweni says, as we tuck into a carnivorous feast and clink glasses of full-bodied red wine. “People were standing up [in the ANC’s national executive meetings] and defending Zuma and his corruption without any shame. We were very small in number,” he says of those who opposed Zuma. “That’s the law of politics,” he says, when pressed on the ANC’s silence. “You either have the numbers or you shut up.”

Cyril Ramaphosa, who replaced Zuma as president, is determined to reverse the rot. But can he?

I have come to see Mboweni near where he was born in 1959, a remote hilly area in the northern Limpopo province, then Transvaal. It is a green and charming part of the country that conjures up JRR Tolkien’s Shire. Even his cottage-style house with its sloping thatched roof looks like the sort of snug abode in which a hobbit would feel perfectly content. “It’s a special place,” he says. “Green. Cool. Misty.”

Mboweni stands at the head of a long table laden with multiple grilled meats, plastic green fly swatter in hand. “These damn flies are everywhere,” he says, his generous frame lurching from left to right as he swipes lavishly — and mostly ineffectively — at the buzzing invaders.

“This is the unintended consequence of having chickens and lambs,” he says of the animals he keeps in his sizeable garden. “I’ve got so many. Will you take one?” he asks, before roaring with laughter again at the thought of my carting one of his lambs off to London.

A quarter of a century after it won power, the once mighty ANC is struggling to keep the lights on, let alone govern effectively. Eskom, the state power monopoly, is $30bn in hock and Mboweni, as finance minister, has reluctantly agreed to bail it out with $5bn of state funds. He is also being pressed to rescue South African Airways which, like Eskom, has been bled dry by corruption and mismanagement. His instinct as a businessman is to pull the plug.

“If it was my personal money, I wouldn’t put one cent into South African Airways. I’m not allowed to talk about it,” he says. Then his exasperation gets the better of him. “If I were running a chicken farm and I kept on putting in inputs but I wasn’t getting any eggs, I would close it down.”

Ting! In his exuberance, his fly swatter clatters against one of the glasses — filled with an excellent KWV Merlot.

“It’s a beautiful wine,” he says, the connoisseur coming out.

He turns intellectual, bombastic and raucously funny, Mboweni is rarely self-deprecating. He splutters with indignation at calls from the left to curb the central bank’s independence. He defends executive pay and calls me a “leftie” for arguing that chief executives are prone to manipulating profit targets in order to inflate their own remuneration. But he is also a loyal member of an ANC with strong socialist roots.

In spite of — or possibly because of — his contrariness, Mboweni has glided through life from would-be guerrilla to central bank elitist and from cigar-puffing plutocrat to avid Tweeter popular with the disenchanted youth. Though he has amassed wealth, he has never been associated with the corruption that has undone many comrades.

If it was my personal money, I wouldn’t put one cent into South African Airways. I’m not allowed to talk about it
Tito Mboweni

Still, his impatience with those he considers fools has given him a reputation for arrogance. He still likes to be addressed as “Governor” years after he vacated that position. He once hung up on me — in genuine or feigned anger — because I had neglected to use the title.

As finance minister, he carries himself as someone with a lifetime of achievements — and a considerable pension — to fall back on. In defiance of his aides, he spends as little time as possible in the ministry in Pretoria, studying his briefs in his Limpopo hideaway and conducting meetings via a newly installed teleconferencing facility. Normally punctilious about dress, today he is wearing a casual green cardigan and loose-fitting jeans. When I ask to take his picture for the FT illustration, he waves me away. “I’m not properly shaved. It’s not a central banker’s look.”

Our conversation had actually begun at breakfast in a nearby café, but has migrated to his home, where a gaggle of house guests has prepared an enormous lunch. We chat initially in his creaking wooden-floored attic, which is lined with books, including the bound minutes of monetary policy meetings. He offers me a midday whisky.

“Before 12 it’s a prohibited drink,” he says, after pouring himself a prodigious glass. “It has to be either Irish or Scottish, never English,” he teases. He later makes a jibe about French mustard.

I ask for water and he squeaks back up the wooden steps with a lovely crystal jug. “It’s a central banking thing,” he deadpans. “It’s called liquidity.”

When he became bank governor in 1999, many white technical staff walked out, presumably outraged that their boss was a black man. Mboweni describes with relish how he enticed one or two staff members to stay and rebuilt institutional knowledge in record time.

His whisky drained, we head downstairs where the guests Mboweni refers to as “the young ones” have been grilling meat and preparing salads. I’m not quite sure who everyone is — they include one of his sons — but as I’ve already been briefly introduced I am too shy to ask again. Nor will Mboweni talk about his marital status, which I take to be in flux.

We all sit at the same table. Mboweni holds forth — often standing, fly swatter at the ready — while I intersperse questions. We have heaped our plates at a buffet-style service. I’ve gone for steak, a slice of chicken, spicy boerewors sausage and a fillet of snoek, a large bullet-shaped fish that thrives off the Western Cape. On what space remains, I mound some Greek salad.

We’re talking about his childhood. Growing up in the 1960s, he says, apartheid felt more distant than for those in the segregated cities. “We had open lands. We had cattle. We had goats. We tilled the land. We went to school and there were black teachers. For us they were simply teachers. It was a total contrast to a kid in the township.” Nor was apartheid discussed at home. The ANC had been banned in 1960 and Nelson Mandela imprisoned in 1962. “Our parents were actually defeated psychologically. So they didn’t want to discuss politics. They were a defeated people.”

School was a different matter. “Most of the teachers who taught us at primary school were amazing people who saw the classroom as a centre to educate and to grow the black child. They saw it as a theatre of struggle,” he says, taking a bite of potato salad.

“My old man was a chef who worked in Johannesburg and for as long as I can remember he worked at a hotel called Chevenham at the corner of Banket and Wolmarans Street in Johannesburg.”

“So he was absent a lot of the time?”

“He wasn’t ‘absent’,” Mboweni retorts sharply. “He was working. He was working in Johannesburg, like so many men did from this area.”

I immediately regret my careless choice of word, with its connotation of the absentee father. In reality, Mboweni’s parents were trapped in a racist system that obliged many men to travel long distances for work.

“I take it back,” I say meekly, though by now Mboweni is chuckling.

“It’s always a pleasure to correct an Englishman.”

He recalls how he gradually gained knowledge of apartheid. “When you came to Tzaneen,” he says of the nearby town, “you came into contact with white people who didn’t like black people. You could see it, but it didn’t bother me. They were just these funny people who had their own funny way of living.”

Whites went into the shop to pick up goods, while blacks, barred from entering, had to stand outside and point. “It’s so blatant. You don’t need any political education.”

Later, in boarding school, he befriended children who had taken part in the Soweto uprising of 1976, in which hundreds were killed in months of protests after refusing to learn Afrikaans. Denied a place at the University of Natal because of his colour, Mboweni ended up at Turfloop in the north. There police brutality against student strikes “gave one a sense of powerlessness. ‘The best thing that these people understand is if you take up arms,’ we thought. That’s how I ended up in Lesotho.”

Ting goes a wine glass as a fly makes a narrow escape. “Damn these things,” he says. “They’re unbelievable.” He jumps up to change the music to Congolese, with its tinkling guitar rhythms.

In 1990, a few months after Mandela was released, Mboweni returned to South Africa. When the ANC won power in 1994, he was appointed, at the age of 36, to Mandela’s first cabinet as labour minister and presided over far-reaching workplace reforms. He is surprisingly reluctant to reminisce about the great man. “I suppose we came from a different generation. We just did what needed to be done. There was no buddy-buddy time.”

Does that mean he shares the criticism of Mandela that has bubbled up in recent years? Some, such as the 38-year-old leader of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema, blame him for failing to act more decisively in favour of the black majority.

“It’s easy for him to say. He was just a kid,” he says, adding that the ANC made various commitments to the white minority. “We did not defeat the Boers. We had to enter into negotiations. These youngsters were little. They need to be told again and again we did not win the war.”

He invites us to seconds. “Please proceed,” he says with a mock formality when we’re all sat down again.

Mboweni himself had been conscious of the risk of squandering power. He once told an interviewer, “We can’t leave black people wondering: When is liberation coming?” Yet 25 years after the ANC took control, the economic gulf between blacks and whites is as wide as ever, I say. Four in 10 black people have no work. Might not they legitimately wonder precisely that?

“If they say liberation has not come they are talking rubbish,” is his uncompromising reply. Black South Africans, he says, have the right to move freely about their country, to vote and to be treated as equal citizens — things systematically denied under apartheid.

“Here was a country and a people under subjugation for over 300 years. What do you expect the ANC to do in 25 years?” he says, draining his glass.

But isn’t the ANC in real moral crisis, I persist? In government, it has spent more time feathering its own nest than solving the social problems it inherited.

“Fundamentally we had a president who was captured by special interests,” he says, referring to Zuma. Much of the damage can be repaired through ongoing inquiries that, he says, will lead to prosecutions. I suggest that the problem with blaming everything on Zuma and his cronies is that this absolves the ANC. Isn’t it the truth that the ANC has become much like any other African liberation movement corroded by power?

“That’s a big mistake. It’s not like that. The ANC is a huge thing,” he says of its mass grassroots support. “Properly organised and properly led, I have confidence that it can recover lost ground. What I see is a determination by this new leadership to reconstruct the political and ethical value system.”

Including breakfast, our rolling meal and conversation have already lasted nearly eight hours. Mboweni picks up a bowl of bananas. “You peel it, you split it,” he says, demonstrating. “You choose the type of ice cream you want. It’s done. It’s my favourite dessert.”

As we tuck into our banana splits, the music of Papa Wemba, the Congolese singer who died in 2016 after collapsing on stage, is warbling in the background. Mboweni says he’d like to go the same way, performing in front of an audience.

“I could be giving a speech on inflation targeting,” he says, dissolving into laughter for the umpteenth time. “The ANC obituary would say, ‘He died in the line of duty.’ ”

 Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019

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