South Africa

#Budget2020 Op-Ed

Budget doublespeak and dead weight: A case for public participation

Budget doublespeak and dead weight: A case for public participation

Sitting inside the Budget lockup, I couldn’t help but think of the symbolic resonance between this privileged access and the ways in which language is used within these spaces to create similarly small rooms of ‘engagement’.

In advance of the Budget speech on 26 February 2020, I got access, as a civil society member working on budget advocacy, to the “lockup”. Attending the lockup means that you hand over your cellphone and any other transmission devices, in order to enter a room at National Treasury, where you get advanced access to the Budget Review, the Estimates of National Expenditure and other important Budget documents tabled on the day, including the Budget speech. 

All of this information is embargoed, until the Minister of Finance officially begins his speech, the lockup participants are released and the volume dials on South African radios everywhere inch upwards.

Working in budget advocacy, thus far, has meant, to a large degree, learning the language to be able to speak back to economists and to be taken seriously within spaces of fiscal analysis. Terms like “pro-cyclical” and “counter-cyclical”, “fiscal consolidation” and “expansionary stimulus” mark the terms of engagement. What does it mean to be working for social justice through the taking-up of a particular language which remains totally inaccessible to the majority?

Sitting inside the lockup, I couldn’t help but think of the symbolic resonance between this privileged access and the ways in which language is used within these spaces to create similarly small rooms of “engagement”.

When many of those who work in budget advocacy try to “open things up” by thinking through, and breaking-down, the implications of complicated tables and graphs, to what these things actually mean for the lives of ordinary South Africans – for example, what do the massive budget cuts mean for those without access to decent schools or healthcare? – this still remains, to a large extent, an imaginative exercise, verging on the problems of “speaking for”. This is because many of us well-intentioned, civil society members, are still the minority; with access to those special rooms, to a particular language and to our nice civil society jobs, now with personal income tax relief.

The point is that many of us can’t even begin to imagine that life in South Africa – the most unequal country in the world – looks immeasurably different for the majority. Those of us with privilege can only continue to enjoy this (which we do, every day), by staving-off the horrific realities and blurring them into an innocuous landscape; where paths only briefly cross, and people don’t properly have to encounter each others’ lives.  

I’m thinking about access and the need to foreground our inability to fully understand the implications of the Budget because I don’t want to create another special room here, where what I might say is too complicatedly entangled in an exhibition of how much of this language I can grapple with. I feel like this is particularly important when I am a white, employed, middle-class person, who can’t even begin to truly understand the worst ramifications of the hardest blows dealt by Budget 2020.

My point is that the ways in which we engage are sometimes as important, as political, as what we are engaging with. Something I am worried about here is the difficulty of creating any kind of social justice reality when our tools for doing so mimic so closely that which oppresses and excludes.

What I will say, in relatively simple terms, is that it is incredibly disorienting to come out of the lockup, having engaged with the Budget documents, to, for the first time, hear Minister Tito Mboweni delivering his speech. The speech is thickly loaded with doublespeak, so much so that it is largely disingenuous.

Doublespeak can operate so well here, because most people won’t read the Budget documents, and so won’t have the basis on which to challenge assertions made.

In the speech, the minister can foreground the importance of “Learning, Health and Social Development” by boldly stating things like: “In the education sector, investment goes to new schools, replacing schools constructed with inappropriate materials and providing them with water, electricity and sanitation”, without mentioning that in the Budget Review: “Reductions in basic and higher education infrastructure allocations amount to R5.2-billion over the medium term”, or that: “Spending in the National Department of Health is reduced by R3.9-billion over the MTEF [Medium Term Expenditure Framework] period.”

Mboweni points out that: “transfers to provinces support schooling for 13-million children and healthcare for 49.1-million South Africans”, while not revealing that allocations to provinces are one of the areas worst hit by cuts with huge reductions over the next three financial years.

The Budget speech proclaims, to great applause, the importance of infrastructure development and of strengthening municipalities – going so far as to emphasise that: “For all South Africans, the ‘state’ is their municipality”, and that “allocations to local government help municipalities provide basic services and are a powerful redistribution tool”, – while simultaneously massively reducing allocations to municipalities. 

These incredibly damaging measures include a reduction to the Municipal Infrastructure Grant by R2.8-billion, which the Budget Review actually admits will have the effect of “slowing the provision of infrastructure such as water and electricity connections to poor households”.

The Budget speech, which constitutes for many South Africans, the full extent of their engagement with the Budget, is littered with examples like these.

All of this doublespeak, actually enabled by particular exclusions, as well as the cuts themselves, which definitely very disproportionately over-burden the poor majority, show a particular relationship between the state and violence, where the state predetermines who is worthy of being included and who can be deliberately misled, marked as disposable, or debilitated.

In an extended metaphor throughout the Budget speech, Mboweni likens the South African economy to a hardy aloe, able to survive through the hardest of times. At one point in the speech, he points out that this plant will unsentimentally shed “dead weight” when faced with a scarcity of resources. If the aloe is likened to the South African economy, then the poor majority are positioned as the dispensable “dead weight”.

What I am circling back around to is a question: When those the Budget affects the most, are excluded from understanding or engaging with it, through their lack of access to special rooms, through the over-circulation of difficult economic language, or through the deliberate misrepresentations of doublespeak, and, when budget advocacy work is too often reduced to an exercise in taking-up exclusionary language and/or imagining for; is it really surprising that South Africa can so brazenly continue on its trail of harmful and regressive economic policies?

As Shaeera Kalla pointed out in a recent article: “We cannot afford to not give economic growth a more human face. We must pursue growth in what is good for us and the surest measure of when something is good is when it positively affects the most marginalised.”

In order for budget advocacy work to create any kind of positive change in this country, it is essential for that work to acknowledge who is relegated to the category of “dead weight” and to viciously undo such designations by refusing to imagine or speak for; opening up to far more radically inclusive participatory processes, where people are properly encountered and can speak for, and about, themselves. MC

Sacha Knox works as a Senior Researcher and Budget Analyst at Studies in Poverty and Inequality Studies (SPII).


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