Christi van der Westhuizen
Christi van der Westhuizen

Forget Mangaung. Budget politics is where it’s at

Xolela Mangcu in his latest book Biko – A Biography writes about a “big-chief syndrome” that exists among the current ruling elite, in which followers are placed at the mercy of the “chief”.

South Africans arguably suffer as much as politicians from big-chief syndrome, in that we imbue leaders with inordinate power. This has to do with how we approach political power.

With the ruling party’s elective conference in Mangaung around the corner, South Africans who bother to read are swept along in a deluge of speculations about anticipated leadership changes. These speculations provide only temporary respite from the usual incessant musing about the minutiae of factionalist infighting in the ANC.

Questions such as “who has power?” and “what is going on in the president’s head and what is he trying to do?” merely lead into “a labyrinth from which there is no way out”, French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote. Needless to say, reams of descriptions of internal ANC games of musical chairs, passing as “analysis”, produce a similar result.

Power is best analysed in how it is exercised and the effects it produces, Foucault argued. He was talking about how identities are formed. We can apply this line of thinking to ask how the exercise of political power, through the adoption of laws, affects the lives of people.

Speaker of the Gauteng legislature Lindiwe Maseko explains this question in the form of an interlinked chain of political actions that end in an equation: “Policy > inputs (budget) > outputs (service delivery) = outcome (better life).”

Translated into words, the formulation means “the evaluation of the efficacy of public-service programmes and the appropriateness of financial resource allocations and management, and the relationships between these key elements”. This is the focus of a legislature sector oversight model adopted earlier this year.

This new model ostensibly “builds” on parliament’s oversight and accountability model of 2009. But it seems rather that the 2009 model has been shifted sideways, probably because of its genesis in the Mbeki era. Whatever the case may be, the new model provides a more detailed engagement with oversight.

The models mark a shift in parliament and the provincial legislatures’ focus: between 1994-2009, apartheid laws had to be replaced with laws fit for democracy but now the legislatures should be overseeing their implementation and impact.

Implementation of laws hinges on budgets, which are key instruments in the exercise of power. The 2009 oversight model provided for the adoption of the Money Bills Amendment Procedure and Related Matters Act of 2009.

This law empowers parliamentary portfolio committees to intervene when government departments use financial resources ineffectively and fail to deliver, in Maseko’s terms, “a better life”.

During the month of October, committees should be drafting budget review and recommendation reports. These reports have to be based on critical comparisons with departments’ strategic plans, estimates of expenditure and other relevant reports.

The reports feed into the national budgeting process as, come February, the finance minister has to explain if and how their recommendations have been given effect.

The money bills law should loosen the clammy grip of technocrats on national budgeting and democratise the process, also by allowing direct inputs from the public. But, three years after the adoption of the act, parliament is yet to actualise its potential.

Public finance economist Tania Ajam told the “People’s Power, People’s Parliament” conference that parliamentary committees do not draw on independent sources of information to validate departments’ claims and rely on departments’ assessments of themselves. This surely defeats the purpose.

They do not measure the budgets in terms of job creation or the rights of children, disabled people and women.

Ajam also pointed out that the committee’s budget reports describe instead of analyse, and are retrospective rather than prospective. While it is almost impossible to influence the current budget, committees should be looking at the medium-term budget framework period and make recommendations on forward allocation of resources.

For democratic budgeting to reap fruits, parliament needs to be as good as treasury, Ajam asserted. But, as in other sectors, capacity is a challenge. This has been exacerbated by an inexcusable delay in creating the budget support office at parliament that the law provides for.

Equal Education’s (EE) attempt to contribute “critical information” to strengthen the budget report prepared by the portfolio committee on basic education in 2011 exposes the failures of the process as its stands.

In new research compiled by Keren Ben-Zeev and Samantha Waterhouse, EE found the committee’s budget report for 2011 to be shallow and too technical. The committee’s report also set ridiculously low standards, for example citing as a “success” a project that was two years overdue, and omitting that the department had only spent 28% of its budget in the reporting period.

Countries such as Brazil show that democratising budgets can have direct positive effects on poor people’s lives. Fundi Nzimande from the National Labour and Economic Development Institute also points to Ecuador where a significant reduction in infant and maternal mortality rates has been attributed to public participation in state budgeting.

South Africa, in contrast, has produced the ignominies of a maternal mortality rate that has quadrupled over the past few years, while infant mortality has risen by at least a third. These results expose the real workings of power, 18 years into democracy. It is an indictment that ever more tools are available to improve and save lives but are not being used.

This monthly column first appeared in the Independent Group’s daily newspapers and is made available by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa to monitor the health of our democracy.

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    • Tofolux

      @Christi, I really dont know why you had to come up with all this mumbo-jumbo and linked it to Mangaung. You did point out this thing of speculation and I wonder if you have reflected on this word and resolved that maybe some amongst us have become speculators of note. I also wonder if you ever refer to the Codesa negotiations and reflect on how much damage the Nationalists govt continue to wage on this relatively new and developmental democracy. You see, any person in the kasi, with no credentials or doctorates will tell you that history will present you with a starting point 2 get to smwhr. Hence if we are to promote this thing of peoples parliament, participative democracy why is it that the stranglehold of processes as negotiated in Codesa is not pointed out as a major fault line? Also, in terms of a developmental state, we know that our Constitution is strangling us in terms of delivery. Why is it that these elevated intelligentsia do not point out these constraints in our const for instance. I will make an eg. in the advent of the 2010 World Cup, there was a group of peeps in WC who didnt like this idea of a stadium in their neighbourhood. They together with the Madam, fought tooth and nail to prevent this stadium from being built and they used our very progressive legislation to fight their case. They lost but clearly they did not give up. Our processes in terms of the ACTS are problematic and maybe Mangaung should resolve to make Const changes.

    • WOW


      You are dreaming if you think that constituitional changes will suppress the spirit of those who still are able to differentiate between right and wrong. I cannot fathom how the constituition is now responsible for service delivery failure. That is the most bizarre thought.

      How can the constitution be held liable for textbooks not reaching Limpopo, or drugs not reaching our hospitals?

      PS: Even now, when the economic future of SA is under threat and almost all the WC stadiums have become white elephants, you doubt the madam’s wisdom. That money could have transformed a township by the way. Let the people eat football i suppose.

    • Dave Harris

      Juxtaposing “big-chief syndrome” next to Biko’s name is shameful trick of unethical journalism to give your outlandish claims credibility. The term “big chief” is a racist term used by white supremacists to undermine black leadership.

      Your simplistic fixation on money and corruption in this confusing blog totally ignores the amazing strides we have made in expanding BASIC services from the 10% white minority to the 90% black (African, Coloureds, Indians) majority in a mere span of 18 years!!! I wonder why you’ve never acknowledged this fact in any of your blogs or even credit our government for being the most transparent in the history of our country?

      Its great that you demand transparency, expose flaws in the budget and hold people accountable since this is what democracy is all about! However, you seem to lose sight of the bigger picture since this should apply not only to government but across the board to our entire democracy! Rampant corporate corruption e.g. non-profits and public corporations abuse of public money and investments to enrich the 1% while undermining our democratic processes with its media mafia, are the root causes of inefficiencies and unemployment in our society.

    • Dave Harris

      Why is it that you choose to create hysteria about “big chief syndrome” yet NEVER speak about corporate fatcats feeding at the trough, that deeply affect every aspect of our lives on a DAILY basis? Why is it that over 80% of the spoils of apartheid are still largely controlled by the white minority yet our media prefers to turn a blind eye to it but constantly fingers the government to deflect from the real causes of the growing inequality in our polarized society? Now they have the gall to blame the government for the increasing strikes and growing unrest in the WCape.

    • Tommy Madikoto

      @ Dave Harris

      I too was a blind loyalist. In my case, I assumed that they would act in accordance with the values, principles, moral conviction and ethics they espoused during the liberation struggle. When I concluded that these were thrown out the window, I removed my blinkers and decided that for the sake of the future of my children I had to speak out. Why do you continue influencing people to keep their blinkers on through your warped and absurd logic? Do you benefit materially from the current state of affairs?

    • Economist

      “South Africa, in contrast, has produced the ignominies of a maternal mortality rate that has quadrupled over the past few years, while infant mortality has risen by at least a third.” It is interesting that these appalling trends have happened at the same time as an enormous growth in state spending, huge state salary bills, and massive budgets for health and education. So why the disconnect between the huge resources used and the shocking results? Simple. State spending is not directed towards a better life for ordinary people. It is directed towards a tiny political elite, operating as an extortion club, for its own benefit only. This needs to be said clearly and openly. The state is just a massive extortion racket, run for the benefit of this club. Until this changes, the trends you mention will continue to get worse.

    • Kreef

      Great article Christi . Until the communists and revolutionaries in government understand and implement what you pointed out we can forget about ever becoming a true democracy where every person including the poor and frail also experience it’s benefits etc. The arms deal set the warning bells ringing that this anc government had no intention what so ever of turning SA into a democtacy to create a better life for all . Think what you want about the old nats like P.W . , Pik Botha ….etc. but they saw this coming .

    • Graham

      The big difference is that government on a monthly basis take 35% of my salary to spend as they like. I have no say.
      ‘non-profits and public corporations abuse of public money and investments’ – what hogwash. If you don’t like how a corporation operates, don’t shop there… Very simple.

      ‘maybe Mangaung should resolve to make Const changes.’ please go read the constitution to understand when changes can be made. It’s not when the ruling party only wins 60% of the vote.
      Please explain how the constitution strangles us in terms of service delivery?

    • Ashley Seidle

      We have some of the best policy frameworks, legislation and delivery models, and the ANC government is an acknowledged leader for its profundity in these domains. However, without a professional delivery capability and direct accountability for success all the policy, legislation and models come to naught. When political allegiance trumps capability and accountability you have the recipe for a failed state.

    • The Creator

      Mangcu, of course, has always been one of Zuma’s praise-singers, so for him to blather about “big chief syndrome” just shows his lack of self-awareness and intellectual vacuity. It’s a silly and decidedly racist concept.

      We certainly need more sensible and better budgetting, but accountants are hired to make sure that nobody can understand a budget. And, really, not much can be done while the corporate powers behind the scenes are the ones who really make the decisions. Especially since they are the ones who insist that all spending should be judged, not by its outcomes, but by how well the forms were filled in. (Which is what the “clean audit” syndrome is all about.)

    • Jon Story

      @ Dave Harris

      quote:Xolela Mangcu in his latest book Biko – A Biography writes about a “big-chief syndrome….”(Christi van der Westhuizen)

      ‘Juxtaposing “big-chief syndrome” next to Biko’s name is shameful trick of unethical journalism to give your outlandish claims credibility. The term “big chief” is a racist term used by white supremacists to undermine black leadership.’ (Dave Harris).

      (jux·ta·pose (jkst-pz)
      tr.v. jux·ta·posed, jux·ta·pos·ing, jux·ta·pos·es
      To place side by side, especially for comparison or contrast.(the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language)

      Let’s see: Xolela Mangcu is a white supremacist? And probably DA too.

    • Tofolux

      @Jon Story, why is it that you go to these lengths to defend something which is indefensible? You impose a nonsensical explaination on something which is so clear and so intentional. But this is the problem with our oppressors and this is so articulately explained by the very Steve Biko who is being insulted intentionally. Your preferential treatment against clear evidence of this insult cannot warrant protection or explanation from anyone. At some point, this type of underlying overtones needs to be dealt with. This is unacceptable and unconstitutional. By the way, why are you overstating your explanation? @ Dave, “an injury to one, is an injury to all” (always remember that) Continue to call upon the conscience of those who have lost their humanity.

    • ntozakhona

      The question raised by Madikoto as to whether Harris benefits materially from the current state of affairs is revealing. It exposes a type of mentality that thinks one must massage the hands that feeds one.

      Madikoto clearly writes to please the master. His language varies from the incomprehensible to the polished. I can only surmise the latter is written by the master himself.

    • The Critical Cynic

      You don’t give up do youI The WC stadiums are now a money drain, costing money instead of generating it, as a result of poor economic forecasting, but hey, we had to have them didn’t we?

      The mining and transport sector strikes are now predicted to wipe out a huge amount of tax revenue (that could, but probably wouldn’t have been used to uplift the poor) as well as lead to serious job losses in and beyond the mining sector.

      You patently ignore facts and questions, such as WOW and Economist give you. Yes, Dave Harris points out the “amazing strides we have made in expanding BASIC services from the 10% white minority to the 90% black (African, Coloureds, Indians) majority in a mere span of 18 years” and this should be acknowledged. However, this should be aknowledged in the contect that most of this was done with existing resources and without bothering to create an increased capacity for future requirements. Hence Eskom now build inefficient old technology power stations too late at massively inflated costs and highways get upgraded only when they are choked etc ANC planning, like town planning, is an oxymoron!

      So you “really dont know why Christi had to come up with all this mumbo-jumbo and link it to Mangaung” – are you serious? She’s merely pointing out a lot more money, time, and energy will be misdirected and spent on Mangaung than needs to be, just like most ANC actions. The good results are good, but at such a cost they’re not!

    • The Critical Cynic

      Dave Harris makes a valid point that I partially agree with and should be addressed when criticising ANC dishonesty.

      TL articles attack government on a regluar basis (hey, they wanted the job, they shoud deal with the responsibility that goes with it) but rarely “…speak about corporate fatcats feeding at the trough, that deeply affect every aspect of our lives on a DAILY basis? Why is it that over 80% of the spoils of apartheid are still largely controlled by the white minority yet our media prefers to turn a blind eye to it but constantly fingers the government to deflect from the real causes of the growing inequality in our polarized society?…”
      This is a very valid point Dave and it begs the question how it is that after 18 years in power this untenable situation remains. The white minority do NOT control 80% of the spoils of apartheid, a very small (and mostly white male) minority control it, and the 20% they no longer control is the price the political connected elite have charged them to allow this continuation.(Aurora, Khumba, Implats!) The growing gap between rich and poor is still something the ANC govt should have dealt with more directly (the people mandated them this task) – to expect big business or the connected elite to reduce their fatcat share voluntarily is expecting people to go against their greedy nature. it’s easier for them to pay someone off, guess who they paid Dave….
      BTW, not all media turns a blind eye….read noseweek!

    • Tofolux

      @CritCyn, get a grip. How is it that the only stadium that is experiencing problems is in WC? Also, not only is this a DA Province it once again proves how far people will go either to prove a point and to discredit a national asset in this deplorable way. We know that they wanted some big business to manage(bailout) that stadium and we know that they do NOT want any locals near the stadium. What we are dealing with is a clear overt and covert programme of action by DA and those very people who objected to the stadium in the first place. Now noting that you paint yourself as some holy ghost, please tell me in principle, how you condone this?
      Also, BTW some of us are poor and do not read noseweek(!)