Lessons under a tree in Limpopo, where Grade 6 and 7 pupils await proper schools. File picture: Mujahid Safodien

If our civil service was as professional, efficient and clean as Sars and the National Treasury, we would have been a prosperous, model state by now, says Max du Preez.

One of the most striking features of last week’s Budget was the huge difference between the brilliance with which the government collects taxes and allocates them to departments, and the disastrous way those taxes are spent by government departments and provincial and local governments.

If our civil service was as professional, efficient and clean as the SA Revenue Service (Sars) and the National Treasury, we would have been a prosperous, model state by now, with low levels of poverty and inequality and few public protests.

I doubt if there would have been political space for the likes of the Economic Freedom Fighters and Numsa’s new United Front and Movement for Socialism.

My guess is that Sars and the Treasury were seen as specialist departments, watched by those we want to have confidence in our economy, and that’s why the best available talent was recruited to work there and standards are kept high.

Local government, on the other hand, is a place where local branches of the ANC had to be pleased with power, privilege and contracts, so it was ideally suited for the lowest form of cadre deployment. To a lesser extent that also applied to provincial government and other state departments.

And so it happened that one of the most important departments, the Department of Education, was also staffed by administrators and clerks not out of the top drawer, not always properly qualified, not with the best track records.

The result was an education that catastrophically failed our youth, especially our black youth in townships and rural areas – exactly the people who needed most to be served properly by our post-apartheid governments.

(Some teachers and their trade union should also get some of the blame, of course.) We have been warned for years that South Africa is “sitting on a time bomb”. If that’s true, the time bomb is made up of the frustrated youth who were failed by the education system.

Take school infrastructure in the Eastern Cape, for instance, where more than enough money has been pumped into since 1994.

In 2004, then president Thabo Mbeki declared: “By the end of this year, we shall ensure that there is no learner learning under a tree or in a mud school.”

Two years later, former Eastern Cape Education MEC Mkhangeli Matomela stated: “I’m confident that we will eradicate mud schools in the next two financial years.”

In 2007, former education minister Naledi Pandor said: “Fifty percent of the mud schools will be rebuilt between 2007 and 2009.”

Former Eastern Cape education MEC Mahlubandile Qwase, 2008: “It is my plan that the eradication of mud schools must be fast-tracked in the 2010/2011 financial year.”

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, 2011: “By 2014, we will have eradicated all mud schools in the province.” Motshekga again, last year: “By 2015, in terms of mud schools, we should be done.”

What is the position today? There are still more than 400 mud schools in the Eastern Cape.

The same angry youth have also been in the front line during the hundreds of protests in townships since the beginning of the year. They have been joined by some of their parents, who are tired of waiting for a decent life with houses, potable water, flush toilets and decent streets.

Citizens feel weak governance most painfully at local level; maladministration and corruption affect their lives first where they live and spend time with their families.

My disappointment in Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s budget was that he did not address the massive failure in local government head-on.

I thought it was about time central government intervened decisively to whip local governments into shape. That’s the part of our country that is on fire. Honestly, how much sense does it make that billions are spent on the failing state airline, the perpetually faltering state broadcaster and other state enterprises and on vanity projects like the upcoming presidential inauguration while we don’t have funds to fix local governments and pay specialist administrators to put them on a sound footing?

In fact, the whole government machinery was employed to defuse the negative reaction to the spending of more than R200 million on the president’s private villa at Nkandla.

The positioning of our economy in the global arena and economic realities make it too dangerous to fiddle too much with the free market system and restructure the economy beyond serious tweaking. That means we have to reprioritise, re-energise and refocus our efforts to make our tax stretch further to keep the promise of a better life for all. Actually, that’s what the National Development Plan says. The official ANC blueprint that we’re not implementing.

* Max du Preez is an author and columnist.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.

Pretoria News