By Justin Brown
Civil society organisations alarmed at presence of Sfiso Buthelezi on selection panel
- A new director for the Parliamentary Budget Office is in the process of being appointed, after two years.
- But civil society organisations have raised the alarm about the composition of the selection committee and about some of the shortlisted candidates.
- The mandate of the office is to provide MPs with independent advice and analysis of the national Budget and other money bills.
The Parliamentary Budget Office is tasked with providing MPs with independent advice and analysis about the national budget. But the office has been without a permanent director for more than two years and the last Budget speech analysis on its website dates from 2016.
Parliament established the office after the promulgation of the Money Bills Amendment Procedure and Related Matters Act of 2009. It started operating in 2013, and according to its website, the objective of the office is “to provide independent, objective and professional advice and analysis to Parliament on matters related to the budget and other money Bills.”
The unit has a staff of 12 and a budget for the 2020-21 financial year of R16.2 million.
Matthew Parks, COSATU’s Parliament coordinator, told GroundUp that the office provided good work to MPs, in particular the finance and appropriations committees of Parliament, but needed to provide support to all the other parliamentary committees too. “This is a major weakness about Parliament’s oversight work,” Parks added. He said the office should share its work with the public “to help hold National Treasury and government accountable”.
The public seldom heard the voice of the office, said Parks. He said the state budget was a very complex document and many members of the public would struggle to understand it. Access to the Parliamentary Budget Office’s analyses would “help make the budgetary processes less opaque”.
“It should not be afraid to irritate National Treasury, the government, or the ruling party”.
“It needs to expand the work it does because of the massive turnover of MPs, especially among the ruling party after each election,” Parks said. “This causes a massive institutional knowledge vacuum. This places Parliament at a disadvantage when it holds the government to account,” Parks said.
Jay Kruuse, the director of the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) told GroundUp that the extended absence of a director had impacted upon the office’s mandate and weakened parliamentary oversight.
Zukiswa Kota, PSAM head of monitoring and advocacy, said the office had experienced a high rate of staff turnover in key positions. Critics of Parliament’s process of appointing directors had termed it “irregular at best and politically driven at worst,” Kota said. She highlighted the troubled history of the office under previous director Mohammed Jahed, where staffers alleged that in 2014 and 2015 they had assisted former finance minister and Gupta collaborator Des van Rooyen with academic homework.
Concerns have also been raised over the appointment of a new director. The appointment is imminent according to ANC MP Cedric Frolick, who is House Chairperson of Committees, Oversight and ICT in the National Assembly. Frolick said it was important to have the post filled before Finance Minister Tito Mboweni presented the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) on 21 October. The MTBPS provides a forecast of state finances over a three-year horizon.
A sub-committee of the Standing and Select Committees on Finance and Appropriations interviewed six shortlisted candidates on 29 September and is to meet on 13 October to decide which candidates to recommend to Parliament. Candidates interviewed are Dumisani Jantjies, Seeraj Mohamed, Nelia Orlandi — all of whom are deputy directors of the office, Bongani Khumalo, Willem Mostert, and Daniel Plaatjies. Plaatjies has since died. Mostert is Limpopo Treasury Director of Macroeconomic Analysis, and Khumalo is a former Financial and Fiscal Commission CEO.
Kota expressed reservations about Khumalo, who left the Commission in August 2016 following a scathing forensic investigative report into allegations of irregularities and corruption while he was CEO.
The chairperson of that joint subcommittee is Sfiso Buthelezi, who is an ANC MP. Other members of the sub-committee are ANC MPs Noxolo Abraham, Dipuo Peters and Joyisile Njandu; DA MPs Geordin Hill-Lewis and Denis Joseph; and EFF MP Moletsane Moletsane.
Kirsten Pearson, a member of civil society group Budget Justice Coalition, said Buthelezi should not chair the committee because of allegations levelled against him about his tenure as a Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) board member from 2004 to 2014, including six years as chairperson. He has been accused, with his brother Nyanyiso, of benefitting from contracts worth at least R150 million from PRASA. Both have denied this.
The directorship of the office post was advertised by Parliament the position in late 2019, and the closing date for applications was 22 November 2019. Asked whether in view of the long period since the post was advertised, the appointment process should not be started again, Buthelezi told GroundUp the sub-committee believed that the six shortlisted candidates, out of 56 applicants, were suitably qualified. The minimum requirements for the position are that the candidates have a master’s degree in either finance, economics or public finance.
Pearson said that the new director needed to be a person of strong character and impeccable ethics.
The job advertisement issued in 2019 shows that the director will earn just over R2 million a year and Parliament will appoint that person for a five-year term.
Opposition MPs have accused the office of a lack of independence.
DA MP Ashor Sarupen, who is a member of the Standing Committee on Appropriations, said the office produced reports with “an ideological slant”. Rather, the parliamentary budget office should provide MPs with feedback that showed how the government budget should be amended, he said.
“You ultimately get reports that are not critical of the state of government finances,” Sarupen said.
He said unlike the Financial and Fiscal Commission, which had “shown its teeth”, the budget office had never made any recommendations about amending the budget. A parliamentary spokesperson confirmed this. This was because the office was an advisory body, he said.
EFF MP Nazier Paulsen has been reported as saying that the office had been reduced to babysitting the Standing Committee on Finance instead of giving independent, objective and professional advice. Follow-up questions sent to the EFF’s communications department and to MP Elsabe Ntlangwini, who is a member of the Parliament Standing Committee on Appropriations, have not been answered.
UDM MP Nqabayomzi Kwankwa, also a member of the Standing Committee on Appropriations, said the office’s 2019-2020 operational plan had not yet been approved, and the UDM was concerned that the position of director had remained vacant for so long.
He said that Parliament’s committees could make better use of the office by assigning it specific study tasks.
IFP MP Mzamo Buthelezi, also a member of the Parliament Standing Committee on Finance, said he believed that the office was fulfilling its mandate and operated in an independent fashion.