Budget with Battered Pravin

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan seems to be widely regarded as a hero, if only because he seems so successful at annoying Jacob Zuma.  However, Gordhan’s latest budget is going to clobber ever so many South Africans, particularly those who are better off and not that good at fiddling their taxes.

He has to fill a gaping R28bn hole in the country’s finances, and today’s Budget shows that he is doing this through tax increases – not fully compensating for inflation in a process known as fiscal drag, and by thumping the rich with a new high tax band of 45% on those earning more than R1.5m a year.

The budget tax measures also include the usual hikes in booze and cigarette taxes, an increase in the dividend withholding tax, and hikes in the fuel levy and road accident fund levy.

Work is underway to introduce a new sugar tax later this year, and a Bill for a Carbon Tax will be presented to Parliament later this year.

The manufacturing sector is to be clobbered with a reduction in investment incentives, but more efforts will be made to focus support on black business.

The budget comes as growth is tiny, unemployment is massive, and South Africa is crying out for a boost.  Instead this is a budget that will suck wealth out of the system.

Gordhan and his deputy were repeatedly asked during a news briefing about their own futures and whether there would be a wider impact on the Treasury if they were to be sacked, as Jacob Zuma is reported to be planning.

The Minister made the point that it takes a long time to build an institution, and he has worked hard since his return to office to settle the country’s finances and to stave off the ratings agencies.   But he concluded that if Zuma boots him out, that’s it.  There is no appeal.

He suggested that overnight an institution can be messed up, and issued a vague warning that his ousting could bugger things up at the Treasury.   And he warned that patronage and kleptocracy are two diseases which we don’t need in SA – a clear reference to those believed to be pulling Jacob Zuma’s strings, and maybe even to the President himself.

To his credit, Pravin has not produced a lame duck budget, even though he may be turning into a lame duck minister.

It is a tough budget, and keeps the country’s finances from falling off a cliff.

However, this is not a budget for boosting growth and creating jobs, however much he may waffle on about the need for inclusivity, and all that stuff.

If this was his last big outing as Finance Minister, I suppose we can say that he tried as hard as he could.   Even if it will do far too little to get this economy moving again.

Can we get Some Batteries for our Energy Minister?

I get to attend quite a few conferences.   They may be less fun than a prostate exam, but sometimes they educate, inform, entertain.   It can be useful, too, to hear directly from key players in industry or government about their thoughts and fears, wives and mistresses.   The Africa Energy Indaba this week could have been worthwhile.  Indeed, a side-show on the eve of the event on SA’s gas economy was useful, despite the non-appearance of the Department of Energy’s delegate and the boss of Coega.   Both dti speakers were present, informative and worth a listen.

Today, however, was disappointment all round.  The main event was due to have seen a rare public appearance from our beloved Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson.  It was not to be.   She pulled out, withdrew and buggered off without having arrived in the first place.    My journo chum Angelo and I asked why the star attraction had become a black hole?    The response was that it is the Budget in Cape Town tomorrow.

Now correct me if I am wrong, but today is today, and the Budget speech is due at 2pm tomorrow.   And it takes 2 hours to fly from Jo-burg to CT.  Or is the Minister planning to walk?  And do we really believe that with knives hanging out of every vertebrae, our endangered finance minister Pravin Gordhan would rise to his feet, let out a frantic howl, and ask what had happened to his mate Tina, sulking until she could be rounded up?   This is clearly bollocks of the most bollecular variety.    The real explanations are probably as follows:

Firstly, the Minister had a commitment to this event and could not be bothered to pitch.  Not unusual, as Ministers and officials do this all the time.   They don’t seem to care that it is rude and disruptive.  After all, they are the Gods and we are the mere mortal scum whose desires and wishes are irrelevant.

Another, unlikely, explanation is that the Conference organisers never thought the Minister would pitch at all, but still put her name on the draft programme to pull in the pounds and the punters.   There was certainly no apology or explanation from the opening speaker, who kept on insisting what a wonderful event this was, and whose long windedness could have powered a large city for an eternity.

Of course, I may be in a toxic mood because the event was held in the Sandton Convention Centre, a location where the catering is awful and – as I pointed out recently on social media – there is nowhere to plug in a computer.   The provision of a pen and notepad is really no substitute for modern facilities.   Maybe that is why they call it the Con-vention Centre?

There is a serious concern here.  The Convention business is big business, even when events are held in Johannesburg and not in the more delightful Cape Town.

People pay big money to attend, to get here, and on essentials while they are here, such as food, shopping and prostitutes.

So it is not good if the word goes out that SA Conferences don’t deliver, that you can’t plug in your laptop at an Energy Conference, and that if you leave early they won’t give you a free parking voucher (as happened to me).

But the biggest concern is that we have a Minister of Energy who needs to be powered up.   You bring the batteries and I will not be so indelicate as to advise where to insert them.

Are Foreign Visitors Being Ripped off at our Airports? ZA Confidential investigates Cell C.

Are foreign visitors being ripped off after they fly into South Africa?  It has been well reported that some are targeted, followed from the airport, and then robbed when they get to their destination.

However, can there be a scam involving something as everyday as a SIM card?

I am not saying that fraud is happening.  But I have every reason to believe it is possible.

I was recently at ORT to meet a friend who was flying in from Istanbul.   After he finally emerged from the bureaucratic checks, he needed to get a local SIM card.   The MTN shop had sold out, there was a big queue at Vodacom, so he went to Cell C.

Now George is no ordinary international jet setter with an excellent taste in friends.  He runs an IT business, knows a hell of a lot about cyber-security, and can spot a potential scam.

He was concerned that his identity was not recorded, as is required, during the transaction.  The SIM was fitted in his phone but the credit-card sized plastic holder from which it was extracted was kept by the salesman.  It was only after we had navigated several buggered escalators to the car park that he realised this, and insisted on returning.

When he asked for his plastic, which he is adamant contains enough information for an insider to cancel the SIM and grab the data, he was told he didn’t need it.

Once again, I am not saying there was fraud.  I am just very suspicious, and clearly proper procedures were not followed at this shop, and the same may be happening at other outlets both at ORT and at other SA airports.

So what does Cell C have to say for itself?    I asked for their comment and here is an (edited) version of their responses.

“Yes, it is a requirement under the Act (RICA) to obtain the personal information of a customer before a Sim Card can be activated on a mobile network. The same applies to Non South African citizens or individuals who do not permanently reside in South Africa. In order to activate a SIM, a customer must provide his or her full names and surname, identity or passport number and address where the person will reside while in South Africa. If an employee is found to be in breach of this process, the necessary action will be taken. In order to investigate this matter, we require the MSISDN of the affected customer.”

I did put them in touch with the customer.  I also asked why the plastic on which details of the SIM were printed had not been given to the customer, and this is what they replied:

“The customer should be given the choice to keep or discard the Sim card holder, The store employee should therefore have asked the customer if he wanted to keep the card holder. We will investigate this matter further.”

So, Cell C, is there a scam?

“We are not aware of any such scams. The information printed on the card alone cannot give you direct access to information as the cell number is not printed on the card. Nonetheless, we will investigate the matter further.”

It has been a week or two but I have heard nothing further from Cell C.

As I said earlier, I am told that if you are on the inside, and a crook, you can do a lot of things with just the PIN and PUK numbers.

As a footnote, my mate was back at the airport later in the same week, topped up his data, but was again not asked to identify himself.

He had been asked on his initial visit to the shop how long he was staying in the country.  This may have been polite chit chat, but it might have been more sinister.

George and I smell a rat.  If it is just Micky Mouse inefficiency, it is still a worry.

Tweet of the Day:

Mark Twain (@TheMarkTwain):  A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.

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Can we Toque. Marble Restaurant, Rosebank

For a sex maniac, the thrill is the next liaison; for the serial killer, it is the next victim; and for me it is the next new restaurant.   I too often get set in my ways, and too rarely venture out to new places.  It doesn’t help, either, that I am always broke.

So when my foolish corporate communications chum Axxx offered to make up for a cancelled meeting by offering me lunch in a venue of my choice, I drooled a bit, and then opted for Marble.

I had heard about it, as a trendy spot in Rosebank for the well-heeled, and had read a number of differing reviews of the place, which had almost put me off.   However, I always like to see for myself how well a restaurant delivers.

Getting to it is a challenge.  Unless I was missing something, there is no on-site parking, and the street outside the building had no space.  Even though I circled the block, I saw no parking entrance, so dumped the car a short distance away.  This was fine by daylight, but I would be nervous after dark.

After a short lift ride with a charming lady who did not allow my presence to disrupt her cell-phone call, I was greeted and shown to a very big bar area, with outside wrap-around smoking tables on the terrace.   It is a good, vast space and I assume it throbs in the evening, as do many of the clientele.

The barrier between the bar and the restaurant proper is filled by a pornographic glass-sided wine cellar, and there was an excellent array of spirits behind the bar.   No problems in choosing something brilliant, even if you might need to invite along a bank manager to fund it.

The service was attentive, as it should have been as I was the only customer, but the music was loud and unpleasant – putting the ‘din’ in dinner.  I had not stepped out of an elevator to be tormented by elevator music, albeit with an African groove.

As Bxxx was late, I asked for a glass from the extensive offering of sparkling wines, would not risk funding one of the French champagnes, and settled for a local bubbly.  It was not chilled enough for me, was a bit heavy, and not very refreshing or nice.    It tasted like one of those drinks you get at a wedding or party when the hosts ran out of budget before they chose the booze.  I did not finish it.  Sorry Cxxx.

The attire of the clientele ranged from smart business suits to the clothes one would wear for a heavy session of gardening.  There was a good mix of black and white customers, and people of several sexes.

Dxxx finally pitched, and we were shown to our table in a really vast space, a bit like an airport waiting lounge, or hotel lobby.   However, I had a good view of the wine cellar, and was happy.

The waiter brought some bread for the table, and did not giggle when I jokingly asked into which orifice of the table I should insert it.  The bread was indistinct.  A bit naan-ish, a bit pita-like, and it was served with a pool of yogurt and a lump of butter.  OK, but not memorable.

The chef came to say “hi”, seemed friendly, but was a scruffy bugger. Better that, though, than some so-called celebrity chef who is never in his restaurant, and instead wanders the globe making crap TV travel and cooking shows.

The menu was limited, but the choice was fine.  I selected the prawn starter.  The prawns were very well cooked, but they were overpowered by a spicy sauce and too much salt?  Too much something, anyway.    There was some lovely stuffed Indian-ish bread.  I would happily have had that alone, but it really was FAR too salty.  By far.  A lot of salt.  Too much.  Heavy handed with the salt.  An a-salt on the senses.  You get what I am saying?  Don’t chefs taste their food before they send it out?

My hoist Exxx had the tuna starter.    There was again a reasonable quantity of food, with avo, some sort of jelly and cream cheese.  He said he would order it again.  So would I, from the look of it.

I, of course, demolished my starter in seconds while Fxxx lingered over his.  Waiters twice tried to pluck away my redundant plate while he was still eating, but I put up a noble defence.   I find this practice rude, but I know some customers don’t understand that polite service does not involve highlighting the greed of people like myself.

One five-star element to the service, which I wish one found more often when dining out, was the waiter approaching us after the starter to ask when we wanted him to serve the main course.  Redemption.  Brilliant.

As we were both driving, and there was no prospect of mutual seduction, we each had just a few glasses of wine.  My white was perfectly chilled, and the red recommended by the sommelier was at a perfect temperature.  I had asked for a few ice cubes just in case, but was able to send them back.   I wish more restaurants had brilliant sommeliers like him.   I wonder if he is available for adoption?   Gxxx had a few glasses of a different red, and enjoyed them.

His main course was a superb ribeye steak, which he raved about.   It was generous, and he had some to take home to the dog, or the wife.  Not sure which.

I had some delightful seared tuna on a bed of thinly-sliced pineapple.  It came close to brilliance, but again it was overpoweringly spiced.   It was also not very warm, but I suppose if you hardly cook a lump of tuna it is going to stay cool.  I, too, could not finish all that was offered.

I opted for the cheese board, as a canny way of getting Hxxx to buy us a few ports, or whatever the EU allows us to call our superior fortified wine.  A real treat on both counts.    Four slices of delicious local cheeses.  The relishes were interesting, but really not necessary.  And it was served with the naan-pita bread from earlier.  Why?  And why not a cheese trolley in a restaurant of this size?   I know there are expenses in keeping a stock of perfectly aged cheeses, but the rewards are immense.

He gorged himself on desert, and purred with contentment.

So what do I make of Marble?    I enjoyed the experience but there are flaws in the cooking.  I suspect this could be because it is regarded as a place to see and be seen, not to eat and be eaten.  Well, you know what I mean.

Would I like to return?   Happily.  If someone else is picking up the bill, and I can pick up the sommelier.