Opinionista Belinda Bozzoli 15 May 2018

Listen to Parliamentary Budget Speeches and Weep

While South Africa’s media are waffling on in a solipsistic bubble, a very important set of debates – the annual Budget debates – are happening during May in Parliament. They warrant our diligent attention.

Budget speeches are performed, not spoken, in what amounts to a highly theatrical moment for Parliament. In the course of 41 such visual and oral performances, each lasting two hours, each government department presents itself to Parliament and the public, with glossy annual reports, professional looking strategic plans, carefully set out targets and their own, often excitable invited audiences. 

So far this year each minister has prefaced his or her speech with a paean to Nelson Mandela and Albertina Sisulu, sometimes at considerable, saccharine length. (Little of what follows will live up to the ideals espoused by these revered people.) But the key theatrical moment comes when Budget debates provide opposition parties with the opportunity to challenge these sermons, and to tear away the carefully constructed, bland self-images of the departments. What do they reveal?

The first eight Budget debates have made it clear that the layer of reform in the ANC is very superficial. It is but a nanometre-thin veneer, under which lies a mile-deep mess of sordid, chaotic indecisiveness, theft, anarchy, waste and disorganisation.

The mile-deep sordid mess was fully revealed in the Budget session on Basic Education last week. Here we saw an ANC that is in denial about its own failures. While Ramaphosa might be cautiously addressing State Capture and the Zuma faction, there was very little indication that the party is truly prepared to acknowledge that the most fundamental building block of our society – Basic Education – is rife with incompetence, violence, rape, murder and theft; and that it is entirely failing to prepare our children for the 21st Century. Our kids cannot read, write or add. They are not socialised. Their role models are resentful, angry, often absent teachers. But to Minister Angie Motshekga, it’s all “in hand”.

In fact the Budget discussion was worse than that. When the DA speaker, Ian Ollis, described the litany of disasters that he had seen in the many schools he had visited, he was dismissed casually, as if the matters he had mentionedincluding murders – were insignificant and he was unfairly diverting the debate from “strategic plans and targets”.

We saw a similar contrast in the Justice debate. After the minister had congratulated himself, (plus Mandela and Sisulu) at length on meeting this, that or the other target, opposition speakers exposed his own ministerial pusillanimity: here was a man who had sat passively through the destruction of the NPA, the escape from answerability of Arthur Fraser and multiple other examples of shameful collaboration with the corruption of the Zuma years. And not only that: his claims of meeting targets were shown to be thinly based – his most important targets had been adjusted downwards to disguise failures such as those in obtaining convictions.

The upcoming Budget speeches are likely mainly to show a similar pattern: Ministerial self-congratulation and disingenuousness plus copious tributes to Mandela and Sisulu, followed by opposition plain speaking. Thus is the underbelly of this troubled society revealed. No more convincing evidence is needed that the “new dawn” promised by Ramaphosa is a physical, ideological and cultural impossibility under the ANC.

But this is not the only matter that should be concerning us in these budget debates. The R84-billion Budget cuts – affecting every government department except one – over the next three years represent a story so big that it is scandalous that so few media outlets have seriously addressed them. They should be asking: What do these cuts mean? Are some of them justified? If so, which and why? What have their effects been on the departments which have been cut most vigorously? Was it right for R57-billion of the savings generated by these cuts to be used to pay for Free Higher Education for the poor? What is the price being paid by society for this massive adjustment in spending?

From this perspective the Science and Technology debate has been one of the most worrying so far. Here we have a small but crucial department that is one of the few that is well run, and that is the country’s primary pump for R&D. Through this department, funding is provided for industrial research, academic research, scientific research, innovation, training of Masters and PhD students and a variety of other essentials for any contemporary economy. And yet it is being cut – a nearly 3% reduction in real terms has been applied this year, and this is to be added to a sustained series of cuts in previous and future years. Its core functions are all going to be damaged by these cuts. While undergraduate students have been somewhat relieved of the financial pressures they suffer, there will be fewer grants for researchers, less money for postgraduates and fewer jobs for people with PhDs and MScs to go to in academe or high-level R&D. The damage this will do to the Higher Education sector, to Industry and to economic growth is very serious. But long-term consequences are not on the ANC agenda.

In many departments it has been infrastructure that has been most seriously cut – with different implications in each case. To truly assess the long-term consequences of this will require a drilling down into each Department’s mandate. In schooling it might mean a slowdown, or halt, in the replacement of mud schools or pit toilets; in public enterprises we risk a dangerous stagnation in already-seriously damaged institutions.

The ANC is delighted, no doubt, that while department after department is exposed once again as inadequate, ineffective, underfunded or undermined, the media are wrapped up in dissecting the politics of concocted “race war”, invented celebrity and the exaggerated and the sensational. Shame on them. DM

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