Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen

Civil society united in condemnation of Budget 2020

Civil society united in condemnation of Budget 2020
Protestors from Cry of the Xcluded march to Parliament ahead of the recent budget speech. (Photo: Shani Reddy)

Some activists go as far as to argue that the Budget is unconstitutional and should be challenged in court should Parliament adopt it in a few weeks’ time.

The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Finance met yesterday, Wednesday 4 March, to hear public submissions in response to Budget 2020. One of the submissions came from the Budget Justice Coalition (BJC), an alliance of 14 prominent civil society organisations.

In response to the finance minister’s analogy of the aloe ferox which “survives and thrives when times are tough” the BJC retorted that “the people of South Africa deserve more than mere “survival”.

Civil society can be fractious and divided, but this year all the organisations contacted by Maverick Citizen spoke with one voice in their opposition to the Budget.

Their criticisms focus mainly on the effects of cuts in spending on key socio-economic rights, particularly to health care services and basic education, but they share the trade union movement’s criticism of the massive cutbacks envisaged for the public service.

They also reject President Cyril Ramaphosa’s attempt to deny that this is an austerity Budget, calling it a “denial of the current reality that plagues South Africans” and pointing out that even the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has termed the government’s policy austerity, and cautioned against its impact on the rights of the poor.

The BJC asks pointedly whose needs the Budget prioritises and who will carry the burden of the “short-term costs” alluded to in the National Treasury’s introduction to the Budget review. In economics, one often hears mention of cost-benefit analysis, but one wonders whether as it drew up this Budget the Treasury calculated the social and economic cost of its cuts: a “cut-benefit analysis” as it were.    

At a seminar held this week, Zukiswa Kota of the Public Service Accountability Monitor at Rhodes University (PSAM) described the reprioritisation of funds away from investment in the public sector as austerity measures which are “discriminatory because of its disproportionate impact on poor families and households”.

In short, civil society organisations like SECTION27, PSAM, the Black Sash, Equal Education and the Alternative Information Development Centre (AIDC) all argue in public media statements (their statements are worth reading, so follow the links) that it is those who benefit the least from our economy, or who are most vulnerable, who are being asked to sacrifice the most in this Budget. Their argument is borne out by none other than FNB, whose Private Wealth division informed its members that it was “an unexpectedly positive 2020 Budget speech for high net-worth individuals and, indeed, all South Africans” and continued “the 2019 trend of a Budget that is balanced and both bond and equity friendly. Importantly for high net-worth individuals, there are no meaningful tax changes.”

Because of this, and because the Budget unquestionably “regresses” on key rights, including gender-sensitive budgeting, some activists go as far as to argue that the Budget is unconstitutional and should be challenged in court should Parliament adopt it in a few weeks’ time.

Which, it seems almost certain, another executive minded ANC Finance Committee will ensure happens. 

For this reason, although the BJC’s primary concerns are with the substance of the Budget, its submission also raises serious questions about the parliamentary process. It levels charges that in recent years Parliament has “not fulfilled its key role to represent the public’s interest in Budget decisions” and complains that despite the BJC “repeatedly providing government with pro-poor economic policy options there is little evidence that Parliament and the National Treasury have adequately engaged with our proposals.”

In this vein, the BJC also takes umbrage at the truncating of timeframes for Parliament to process the Budget. It complains that whereas in the past the finance and appropriations committees had 30 days to report back to the National Assembly and NCOP, this has now been reduced to 15 days:

“This means that the public has an even shorter timeframe within which to participate and itself has limited oversight capacity to analyse potential changes to the Budget.”

This reduction in time for oversight, they argue, “fails to support the constitutional requirement to ‘encourage the public to participate in policy-making.’”

They have a point. A law that so profoundly affects the lives and prospects of the poor, that goes to the core of the Constitution’s promise of equality and social justice, at least deserves sufficient time for informed debate.

But despite the scepticism about whether the submission will be properly considered, what is notable is that the BJC does not limit itself to criticism. It welcomes the increased funding to the NPA and to SARS, the tabling of a Public Procurement Bill as well as the decision not to increase VAT. The submission also puts forward numerous detailed proposals for reforms that, they say, would ensure a thriving aloe.

The BJC submission, as well as the responses of other civil society organisations, all point to a growing divide between social justice organisations – many of which led in the struggle against State Capture – and the Ramaphosa government’s economic and social policies. This should worry the government.

On the other hand, it points to a growing recognition within civil society that engaging on and contesting economic, fiscal and monetary policy has become crucial to rights realisation. This, at least, would be welcomed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, who, in a 2015 report to the UN Human Rights Council, lamented the “quarantining of economics, finance and trade” from human rights and the “deep reluctance” of many human rights organisations “to bring issues such as resources and the need for redistributive policies into their research and advocacy”.

Better late than never! As a result, there is now a conscious effort to build capacity in social movements to address these issues.

How seriously the BJC’s submission will be considered will be seen when the Treasury takes to the committee’s stage on Friday to respond to public submissions and – after that – in what the finance committee and then Parliament does to respond to the tsunami of criticism this Budget has drawn from advocates of the poor.

Millions of impoverished people will be holding their breath.

The BJC’s submission is available here. Its members include: the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC), the Children’s Institute at UCT (CI), Corruption Watch (CW), the Dullah Omar Institute at UWC (DOI), Equal Education (EE), Equal Education Law Centre (EELC), the Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ), OxfamSA, Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity (PMEJD), the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM), the Rural Health Advocacy Project (RHAP), SECTION27, the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute (SPII) and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). MC

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