Towards a People’s Budget

Thursday 1 January 2004 by APF

Late last year, National Finance Minister Trevor Manuel unveiled his ‘Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS)’. The MTBPS is designed to provide a longer-term policy framework for the next several annual budgets. As part of the MTBPS, Manuel announced that the ANC government would be spending an extra R37 billion over the next few years, most of which is supposed to go towards social services and public works programmes. All the mainstream media and most political leaders and commentators fell over themselves to congratulate Manuel and the ANC government. No one asked whether this money even comes close to making up for the huge budget cuts that Manuel and the ANC government have made since the introduction of GEAR in 1996 or what real impact the expenditure will have on all those who have lost their jobs and are struggling just to survive. Crucially though, no one questioned whether the people who are supposed to benefit from this expenditure were actually involved in deciding how public monies are going to be spent.

It would seem as though we have entered a stage in South Africa where most people have forgotten exactly what the people’s struggle was all about. Has the character of capitalist globalisation numbed us to such an extent that the space for more radical critique and struggle no longer exists? Have we entered into that classic ‘post-independence’ phase where long-time critics and activists are either too afraid or too co-opted to make any real effort to contest the power of the day? The truth is that the generalised silence that greeted the MTBPS is rooted in the uncritical acceptance of a patently undemocratic budget process. Like in other capitalist ‘democracies’, a few powerful politicians and economic technocrats who decide what is best for the people and then merely inform them of the outcomes, have defined South Africa’s budget process. Any real democracy, particularly when it involves fundamental decisions about how the wealth and resources of a country are utilised, depends on the extent to which the democratic mandate given to the government is practically sustained and not simply counted formally (i.e., electorally) every few years. Without a radical shift in the character of democratic participation by the majority of South Africans, budget processes will continue to remain peripheral to the lives of the poor majority of South Africans who, after all, give democracy meaning. Practical examples of effective participatory budgeting already exist in countries like Brazil. Municipal and provincial budgetary processes revolve around communities deciding, in popular assemblies that are open to all community members, the priorities for the public budget allocated to their locality. In other words, it is the people themselves who determine the content of the budget. Subsequent assemblies then allow people to monitor the implementation of the chosen budget priorities, while a council made up of delegates elected by the assemblies, manages the distribution of the budget to the different communities. While not without their problems, the budget assemblies are open and transparent and thus the system generally enjoys a high degree of legitimacy and popularity.

Even with the difficulties of implementing such a participatory process (that can then shape and frame the national budget), creating opportunities for ordinary people to make budgetary decisions that affect them most directly is the essence of meaningful democracy. Indeed for most South Africans, the necessary shift to a truly participatory budget process would come almost naturally, especially given the rich and varied history of participatory democracy in people’s organisations and movements.

South Africa has a long history of collective, progressive struggle for socio-economic equality and justice. The ANC government that has been entrusted with ensuring the realisation of those struggles owes its existence to the poor majority that continues to suffer from massive economic inequality and social injustice. What is needed above all then is a political commitment to utilising the budget as a transformative tool to address such inequality and injustice, not simply as a technocratic tool to count the numbers and measure the ratios. Merely playing with numbers and percentages, or arguing about redirection of surpluses is not going to make a sustained difference in dealing with the inherited and contemporary socio-economic problems experienced by South Africa’s majority. A truly relevant and democratic budget process must be unapologetically used in order to alter the productive side of the economy, which is, after all, the real point to any meaningful empowerment of the people. Instead of acceding to the demands, and continuously worrying about the deep pockets of the capitalists, the ANC government must be forced to embrace its professed democratic vision by listening to, and involving the poor majority of South Africans in making budgetary decisions. Doing so will begin a process of giving democratic content to the basic rights and needs of South African society and to a politically fundamental and economically necessary commitment to the poor majority.

BY Dale T. McKinley.

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