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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