Since it was published, the 2021 Budget has been called out as unconstitutional and austere from many corners. More than 200 social movements, civil society organisations, trade unions and individuals, in an open letter to members of Parliament, have endorsed a call for MPs to reject the Budget and send it back to the drawing board. The current Budget will cut public spending by R265-billion over the next three years in areas which directly affect human rights.
The letter urges the members of Parliament to use their constitutional powers to send the Budget back to the executive. They should demand that it protects human rights and finds an alternative way of managing public debt, the letter states.
“This demand is made because of the scale of the attack the 2021 Budget makes on public service delivered by government, which will negatively impact the majority of people in the country,” Section27 said.
It estimates that public spending will plummet by R265-billion over the next three years. The cuts slice into health, social grants and basic education.
The letter was sent to the Select and Standing Committee on Finance on 9 March. This committee is the first to be able to send the Budget back and make recommendations on it, says Section27.
The committee noted the public submissions regarding “accountability to the Constitution” but did not make any recommendations on it.
“We say that this is an austerity fiscal framework that lays the burden of ‘fiscal consolidation’ firmly on the backs of the poor and working classes, attacking our constitutional rights while handing out tax breaks to corporates and high-income earners – and therefore must be rejected,” it explained.
The 2021 Budget has come under fire since it was published on 24 February.
The Black Sash and Budget Justice Coalition have been among the civil society organisations which publicly stated that the Budget fails to address the present humanitarian crisis and the cuts undermine the government’s constitutional mandate.
The 2021 Budget signals a further erosion of basic human rights to basic education, healthcare and social grants – all of which are protected by the Constitution, argued Michael Sachs before Parliament. He is the former head of National Treasury’s Budget Office and is the acting chairperson of the Financial and Fiscal Commission.
This is the first time a Budget has been tabled “that unambiguously envisaged a retrogression in socioeconomic rights set out in the Bill of Rights” – a regression “likely to extend beyond the three years of the medium-term expenditure framework until debt had stabilised”.
Senior researchers at the Developmental, Capable and Ethical State research division at the Human Sciences Research Council have also questioned whether the Budget can be justified. If not, then it is not only trampling on the Constitution but also on numerous international obligations.
This Budget “in effect upends 25 years of using government spending as a core tool for redistribution,” writes Dr Neva Makgetla, a senior economist at Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies. She argues that money is not being spent where it counts and will have dire consequences for social and economic growth.
The open letter is published in full below, along with the list of signatories.
Open letter to the honorable members of the Standing and Select Committees on Finance, Parliament of South Africa
As social movements, trade unions, civil society and 130 concerned individuals, we call on Parliament to reject the 2021 Budget and protect human rights.
The approval of the 2021 Budget by our elected representatives in Parliament will result in the widespread violation of many of the rights enshrined in the Constitution. The Budget proposes deep funding cuts to public services amounting to hundreds of billions of rands which will have negative impacts on the majority of people in the country, while taxes on high incomes and corporate profits will be reduced. The real cuts to funding for education, health services, social grants and other critical areas of service delivery are indefensible in light of the extreme levels of inequality, poverty and unemployment we are facing in South Africa.
Over 18 million people who rely on the income support provided by social grants face a real decrease in the value of their grants. The paltry R10 increase to the child support social grant will not even buy a loaf of bread! Millions of learners in rural and township schools face rising class sizes due to a lack of teachers because of the reduction in funding for education. The public health system will be weakened by cuts to primary healthcare services and to public hospitals, while 300,000 people will not receive access to vital antiretroviral medicines due to budget cuts to the HIV/Aids programme. The erosion of public services will further entrench the systemic discrimination against womxn, particularly black womxn, who will, again, have to step in to fill the ever widening gaps left by the state’s abrogation of its responsibilities.
The cuts to public services proposed in Budget 2021 break the Constitution’s promise to “improve the quality of life of all”.
The Constitution states that the Bill of Rights is the cornerstone of democracy in our country. It requires the state to “heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights”. These rights include the right to basic education, the right to healthcare services, the right to social security and protection, the right to food, the right to water and sanitation, the right to housing, the right to a healthy environment, the right to fair labour practices and the right to redress and restitution of land.
The 2021 Budget tabled by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni on behalf of the executive directly attacks these rights with severe funding cuts totalling R265-billion over the next three years, including:
The list goes on. In total, government has proposed that “consolidated non-interest spending will contract at an annual real average rate of 5.2%.” In rand terms, the austerity measures mean that government plans to spend R2,700 less per person on public services in real terms in 2022 compared with what it was spending in 2019.
Moreover, as the Financial and Fiscal Commission has noted in its submission to Parliament on the 2021 Budget, “the erosion of real budgets for basic rights set out in the Constitution may well continue, even beyond the tabled medium-term plan”.
We believe that the 2021 Budget is unconstitutional.
While many socioeconomic rights are subject to “progressive realisation within the state’s available resources”, this does not mean that government can simply assert that cutting funding for rights is necessary to reduce public debt.
The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which South Africa signed up to in 1994 and ratified in 2015, sets global standards for protecting human rights. The committee has said that for countries to justify cutting the funding for socioeconomic rights, they must clearly demonstrate that the cuts are:
We believe that the 2021 Budget fails to meet these standards.
We therefore, as social movements, trade unions, civil society organisations and concerned individuals, reject the 2021 Budget tabled by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni on 24 February 2021.
We call on Parliament to send the Budget back to the executive and require it to meet its socioeconomic rights obligations and consider alternative ways of managing our public debt.
This letter is endorsed by more than 200 signatories, including trade unions, social movements, NGOs and more than 100 individuals. If you would like to sign as an organisation or individual, click here: your signature will be added to the list. The full list which continues to be updated can be accessed here. A copy of this letter is available here. DM/MC
Civil society organisations
Individuals and academics
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