As calls grow for budget reform in South Africa, National Treasury’s pre-budget consultations create an opportunity to improve financial transparency and enhance public participation in fiscal policies.
There are two points on the national financial calendar that have increasingly gained prominence in the public domain: one is the tabling of the Budget, which is held in Parliament in February; and the other is the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement, which is held in October.
Each of these constitutes an important opportunity not only for Cabinet to signal fiscal priorities, but also for members of Parliament to exercise oversight over budget decisions and execution. However, the opportunity for members of the public to meaningfully participate in such processes has traditionally been neglected.
Improved public participation has been shown to enable governments to respond more effectively to people’s needs. In addition, civic participation in the budgetary process can improve efficacy in the allocation and use of public resources.
Over several years, the results of the International Budget Partnership’s Open Budget Survey have lauded South Africa as a global leader in fiscal transparency. At the same time, however, the survey has highlighted South Africa as one of several countries that does not provide adequate opportunities for those affected by fiscal decisions to inform relevant discussions. This includes making available opportunities for public comment before, during and after public funds have been allocated and spent.
Civil society’s constrained space
Parliamentary budget hearings constitute the primary formal space for civic actors to engage committees on tabled or enacted budgets. However, this space is constrained — first, by the limited scope for informing the Budget before it is “too late” and decisions are finalised; and, second, by the intermediary role of parliamentary committees.
Since 2019, National Treasury has worked with an advisory group comprising civil society representatives, other government representatives, the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency and the International Budget Partnership to identify a mechanism by which the public can participate in fiscal policy processes. This multistakeholder partnership is part of a five-country initiative called the Fiscal Openness Accelerator (FOA) project.
This year is National Treasury’s second year of pilot pre-budget consultations. South Africa is well placed to leverage its advanced public finance environment, progressive policy and high-ranking budget transparency scores in the Open Budget Survey to enable more participatory, democratic budget processes.
To inform systemic, sustained reform, Treasury must continually consider ways of partnering with civil society beyond the conclusion of the FOA pilot in September 2022. Although the outcomes are positive so far, as with most pilots, there is room for improvement.
Participation exists on a continuum and the pre-budget consultations in the current format can do with some enhancements. If effectively enacted, this may be a significant opportunity to effect budget reform and foster more accountable decision-making where public resources are concerned.
The deadline for public submissions in response to a call from the National Treasury for inputs on the medium-term budget was on Friday, 19 August 2022.
This second call invited the public to submit written proposals containing key recommendations under the following guiding themes: unemployment, social security funding, energy choices and fiscal subsidies, safety and security, health and food security. These written inputs will be analysed, and the recommendations shared with the Medium-Term Expenditure Committee.
The opportunity for the public to contribute to these deliberations in advance of the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement is significant given that Medium-Term Expenditure Committee hearings interrogate the links between departmental budgets and government’s policy priorities.
It further involves key government role players, such as the National Treasury’s director-general and deputy director-general, senior Treasury officials and directors-general from other departments including the Presidency.
The Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement itself provides an opportunity to review the country’s fiscal policy positions and is an important participatory space. Following deliberations of the National Treasury and the FOA Advisory Group, the 2022 pre-budget consultations were designed to align with the medium-term allocation process, which is driven by the Medium-Term Expenditure Committee.
How has the pilot changed in its second year?
Provincial treasury offices were called on to promote the call and to receive handwritten responses from members of the public who do not have access to technology or the internet.
Although the first year of the pilot afforded participants the opportunity to engage in a live dialogue between participants and senior National Treasury officials, this second iteration of the pilot limited feedback to written submissions.
Although this option may allow officials more time to prepare more considered responses and produce a more comprehensive (written) public record, this change constrains the opportunity for robust engagement because there are no direct exchanges between participants and officials.
But there is scope for submissions received from participants and official feedback in the form of response to contribute to later iterations of the pilot that are more interactive, as well as for further innovation.
The pre-budget consultations are a welcome and necessary step towards budget reforms envisaged in section 215 of the Constitution; section 195 of the Constitution, which obliges the government to encourage public participation in policymaking; in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 16; and in the objectives of the National Development Plan to ensure the participation of all South Africans in the process of achieving their own development. Public feedback from the first pilot informed key aspects of the second pilot.
More direct links needed
The proverbial ball is now in the hands of National Treasury about how and whether this participation mechanism will be further developed to become an integral part of engaging civil society around the Budget.
This will hopefully include heeding some past suggestions from civic actors. For instance, pre-budget consultations should be progressively deepened and institutionalised within fiscal policy and budget processes.
The potential for forming more direct links between public inputs and critical decision-making structures such as the Ministers’ Committee on the Budget Technical Committee, for one, is significant, because these deliberations inform key executive structures, such as the Ministers’ Committee on the Budget, and ultimately have an impact on national policy and planning priorities.
Providing citizens a lever to access resource allocation in decision-making is an astute governance choice and mechanism for balancing the power differential between state and citizenry. Moreover, it is a critical tool in democratic participation for keeping and holding the government accountable.
As we approach the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement in October, it is worth reflecting on how the second iteration of the pre-budget consultations can promote participation in fiscal policy in South Africa.
Increasing opportunities for public participation in the Budget is not only necessary, it has the interest and support of a cross-section of government and non-governmental actors. This level of public consultation can serve as an opportunity for budgeting and policymaking processes to centre on the country’s most vulnerable citizens and to ensure allocation of resources in a participatory and human rights-based manner.
This moment is an important opportunity for improving engagement and building trust between the government and its citizens. DM/MC
The authors are members of the advisory group of the National Treasury’s FOA.
Zukiswa Kota is programme head: South Africa at the Public Service Accountability Monitor. Matshidiso Lencoasa is a treasury researcher at Section27. Gary Pienaar is a senior research manager in the Human Sciences Research Council’s Developmental, Capable and Ethical State research division. Celeste Fortuin is a member of the FOA administrative support team. Kailash Bhana is the FOA lead consultant to National Treasury.
It is a chilly night in Mondeor, south of Johannesburg and a large group gathers outside a quaint home, candles in hand, to mourn and reflect on corruption fighter Babita Deokaran’s gruesome death, a year later.
The group gathered to honour Babita Deokaran is comprised of activists from organisations such as the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, Action for Accountability, and Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) along with her friends and family. As the director of financial accounting, she flagged the siphoning of millions from the public purse at the Gauteng Department of Health, through activities such as Covid-19-related tenders for personal protective equipment.
Deokaran’s sister Sharlene Ramgoolam said that while the nation mourned her as a corruption fighter and a hero, her family mourned the person behind the name, the mother, daughter, sister and aunt. “Babita’s life revolved around her commitment to work, her family, and her only child; they spent every waking moment together,” said Ramgoolam.
Ramgoolam said Deokaran was the person cooking at family gatherings, the one who initiated weekly Zoom meetings for the family during lockdowns, and the nurturer of even strangers. She had seven siblings. Ramgoolam said they “grew up thinking we were invincible because of our bond, but now we see that we are not.”
Ramgoolam encouraged other whistle-blowers to stand strong and remember fighters such as Deokaran who stood for honesty and integrity till the end.
Wayne Duvenage from the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) spoke at the memorial in the Mondeor Baptist church. “We cannot be sitting here a year later, and nothing has been done about it; where is the real investigation that should have started the moment after Babita’s death? We need the government to investigate suspensions as this is a way to move whistle-blowers out. Since Babitas’s death, we have had several cases where people pulled out because they were afraid to go down the same road as Babita…We can not allow this to happen any more, the lip service is there but not enough is being done,” said Duvenage.
Acting Director-General in the Treasury Ismail Momoniat said it was easier to be a hero during apartheid than it was now, without minimising that experience.
He said he looked at matters in the context of fighting a deeply entrenched system of corruption.
“When we speak of corrupt countries, we think of Pakistan, we talk of Nigeria, but let us be clear, we are probably more corrupt than those countries. We have to look at ourselves… The difference in us is… those who loot and still don’t think they have to stop at 10% or 20%, they want 100%,” said Momoniat.
He attributed widespread corruption to cadre deployment, and that some civil servants were political figures first and servants second.
‘A form of treason’
“We started as a crippled state and we are unable to meet the needs of our people; even in times where there is a crisis, disaster, people were too busy stealing during Covid. It is not just disgraceful, it’s a form of treason,” said Momoniat.
Other speakers echoed their disappointment in how slowly the wheels of justice were turning for Babita Deokaran and other activists under siege, such as those in Abahlali baseMjondolo.
Sekoetlane Phamodi, Country Director for South Africa at the Accountability Lab, said:
“She said ‘not on her watch’ and showed the rest of us we can’t let it be on ours. Our collective outrage at the loss of Babita’s life can be redirected towards real action for accountability and our moment has long been waiting for us. We must and can galvanise for not only the strengthening of whistle-blower protection laws, but the effective implementation to prevent what never should have happened to Babita and many others.” DM/MC