Minister Pravin Gordhan has done a magnificent balancing act, managing to delay raising taxes at a time when both the global and local enonomies are struggling. Well, great. We should clap hands, right?
Well, I weep. This is why.
The thing I have against the budget announcement and related activities is that our focus is completely misplaced.
In my world, before Gordhan’s trite, annual ritual, there must be a review of the Budget he presented last year, or the year before last, if that is more practicable.
We need a forum similar to the Budget statement, complete with the “made-for-cameras-walk”, at which Gordhan gives us his impressions about how the money he allocated the previous year has been spent by various government organs.
His betters in opposition benches too must then get an opportunity, as they do with the Budget speech and the State of the Nation address, to critique expenditure patterns and offer solutions. Gordhan should then respond and tell us how the misappropriations and under-expenditure are forcing him to change his allocations to reward those who spend money rightly allocated to them and punish those who don’t.
As Gordhan threw figures around, pensioners getting excited with the knowledge that that extra R60 is, for them, a lifeline, other people, the people who must make us weep, were also rubbing their hands with glee.
Think of consultants who, just last month we were informed, pocketed R33.5 billion over three years providing substandard work overseen by equally clueless public officials.
When consultants, listening to Gordhan, clap in anticipation of the great year ahead for them, we, meanwhile, clap right along.
The annual reading of figures, our excitement at the pomp and ceremony, our preoccupation with how much Father Christmas is giving back to taxpayers mask our historical amnesia. It takes away our attention from what should matter the most – accountability – if we are indeed to get our money’s worth. Our institutions need a major test of accountability. Each rand, each cent allocated must be accounted for.
How do we lose R600m in a municipality in the Northern Cape, for example, and everybody forgets about it? How does this sort of thing happen, in a normal world? I bet the idiots who looted this money five years ago were also clapping hands on Wednesday.
How does a hospital that was supposed to cost R290m in the Northern Cape end up costing taxpayers more than R1 billion? Ditto Jabulani Hospital in Soweto. Do you picture these palookas clapping too?
Thank God Julius Malema is now before court, but he sticks out like a sore thumb, punished, perhaps, for daring to speak out against his former handlers, when others who are as corrupt as he is know better to keep their mouths shut in order to prosper – and clap hands – every time Gordhan reads his speech.
When are we going to see Pravin and his colleagues doing the famous walk to the chambers not to bedazzle us with allocations, but to tell the nation how the leaks will be stopped?
How do we make sure these greedy consultants don’t lay their dirty fingers on the Budget read out this week? Or are we just too helpless because we have a skills crisis of which Deputy Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu spoke about when he released the R33.5bn statistics?
Parliamentarians, from both the ruling and opposition parties, are big on the vain and ostentatious display of funny hats and clothes. They revel at the big celebrations. Most never miss the State of the Nation address – not because they are dying to be inspired through the great speeches delivered with admirable precision, but because for them this is an opportunity to be featured in society pages in newspapers and magazines.
The point though is not that there are no institutions to monitor accountability, nor that all the money allocated by Gordhan last year has gone to waste. It is, rather, that they give us pomp on frivolity and organise no “big events” for accountability. We value the frivolous over what must matter. You’ve got to feel for Themba Godi, chairman of the public accounts committee. His committee will summon politicians and technocrats to come and account and write reports which, in the end, gather dust. Remember any of Godi’s reports of five years ago? Exactly my point.
Auditor-General Terence Nombembe’s exasperation is best captured in this quote: “The accountability for the (audit) results is not taken as seriously as it should be. Bad results are regarded as a norm, and when people get a disclaimer or qualified reports, little happens to them to show that this is unacceptable. That is the culture that we need to be concerned about,” he said last year.
He said words to the same effect a year before last, and so on. Anybody listening? We are just too captivated with how Gordhan allocates pensions and gives something back to taxpayers while much of the money is looted by consultants without anybody lifting a finger.
Democracy, writes Harvard University professor and author of The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama, “is more than majority voting in elections; it is a complex set of institutions that restrain and regularise the exercise of power through law and a system of checks and balances”.
Accountability is the motif that should run through our government like a steady current, especially now when the pickings are slim, debt levels are rising, tax revenue flagging and budget deficit widening.
We owe it to future generations, to ourselves even, to create a country in which those with a yearning to study, to start a small business, to get a job or break centuries-old chains are not limited by the size of their parents’ pockets. Without the checks and balances of which Fukuyama spoke, this will be difficult to attain.
A good start should be deserting the pointless pomp and ceremony for “big” accountability sessions.
* Sefara is the editor of The Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak