SOUTH AFRICA: Towards a people's budget

Wednesday, December 3, 2003


JOHANNESBURG — If the public analyses of the African National Congress (ANC) government's November 13 "medium-term budget policy statement" are anything to go by, economic debate in South Africa is in a sad state. There has been little meaningful debate since finance minister Trevor Manuel triumphantly announced an extra R37 billion (A$8 billion) in public expenditure.

The generalised sycophancy that greeted the statement is rooted in the uncritical acceptance by the ANC of a patently undemocratic budget process. Like in other capitalist "democracies", a few powerful politicians and economic technocrats decide what is best and then merely inform the people of the outcome.

Real democracy, particularly when it involves fundamental decisions about how a country's wealth and resources are utilised, depends on how the democratic mandate given to a government is practically sustained, not merely on how it is numerically formalised (electorally) every few years.

Without a radical shift in the character of political participation by the majority of South Africans, debates over budgetary pronouncements and allocations will remain peripheral to the lives of the poor majority.

Practical examples of participatory budgeting already exist in Brazil. In Porto Alegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul province and one of Brazil's most populous cities, the 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 problems, the budget assemblies are open and transparent and thus the system generally enjoys a high degree of legitimacy and popularity.

Even with the inherent difficulties of implementing such a participatory process (that can then shape and frame the national budget), there is an impeccable democratic thrust and logic to creating opportunities for ordinary people to make budgetary decisions that, after all, affect them most directly.

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, as a means to overcome the divisions, inequalities and injustices that now threaten to tear apart the economic and social fabric of our society.

South Africa has a long history of collective, progressive struggle for socioeconomic equality and justice. The present government that has been entrusted with ensuring the realisation of those struggles owes its existence to the poor majority that continues to suffer from gross 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 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 socioeconomic 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 equation, which is, after all, the real point to any meaningful empowerment of the people.

Instead of acceding to the demands of international and domestic corporate and finance capital, the government should practically embrace its professed democratic ideals by listening to, and involving, the poor majority of South Africans in making essential fiscal and monetary decisions.

Such an approach does not represent "fiscal irresponsibility" or unmanageable "populist sloganeering". It is, rather, a concrete and viable way 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.

[Dale McKinley is an activist with the Johannesburg Anti-Privatisation Forum.]

From Green Left Weekly, December 3, 2003.

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