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Key task for 7th Parliament is to use the Budget to turn SA around

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OPINION: Parliament is an equal partner to the national executive, yet all too often it has been content to simply await the Budget and government programmes from Cabinet, writes Cosatu general secretary Solly Phetoe.

Solly Phetoe is the general secretary of Cosatu. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo, Independent Newspapers

By Solly Phetoe

PARLIAMENT is an equal partner to the national executive, yet all too often it has been content to simply await the Budget and government programmes from Cabinet.

Parliament is entitled under law to not only pass or reject the Budget, but also to amend it. Both Houses of Parliament hold extensive public hearings for the Budget in February, as well as the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement in October.

During these hearings it receives substantive proposals on matters that should be included in the Budget; yet rarely, if ever, has Parliament exercised its constitutional authority to amend the Budget.

While one would want to avoid the chaos, brinkmanship and pork barrel politics that have come to characterise budgetary processes in the US, there is value in Parliament asserting its leadership role and acting as the voice of the public, in particular working-class communities, in South Africa’s budgetary processes.

This is more so when the Budget fails to provide for urgent allocations that have a direct and painful impact on the ability of the state, to provide key public services society depends on, or, most importantly, the poor and the vulnerable.

Part of the challenge Parliament faces is the format of the Budget itself. It is usually more than 1,300 pages long, crammed with numbers only an expenditure expert can understand, and contains little explanation as to the impact it may have on nurses in Ceres or on farmworkers in Dundee.

Government often does good work and makes important strides in improving expenditure, and yet the Budget fails to communicate this.

This has often disempowered Members of Parliament, leaving them having to simply resort to the party line of rejecting or supporting a Budget.

The Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement normally highlights worrying expenditure trends, with many departments and municipalities failing to spend large amounts of their Budget halfway through a financial year.

Yet all too often these matters are often skimmed over, while working-class and rural communities are in dire need of spending on roads, water and sanitation, electricity, schools, clinics and housing.

The Auditor-General, one of the most outstanding success stories of the ANC-led government, consistently highlights horror stories of wasteful, fruitless, irregular and corrupt expenditure.

The alarming downward trend in the state of local government, as well as certain public entities such as the Road Accident Fund, South African Post Office and the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation, among others, is a painful reminder of the need for strict and proactive parliamentary oversight of the Budget.

In the 2024/25 Budget, Treasury has pencilled in capacitation programmes for 140 struggling municipalities. It would be critical for parliamentary committees to monitor these and interrogate government on their implementation and results.

During Cosatu’s submissions on the Budget to Parliament, we consistently cite municipalities that continuously fail to pay their employees. This is done not to score points, but to empower our elected public representatives to intervene, to engage government and the municipalities on why this is happening and what is being done to resolve these crises.

The crisis of corruption at key state-owned enterprises, eg Eskom, Transnet and Metrorail, among others, are well known. These require Parliament to keep a hawk’s eye on them and to hold government, including law enforcement, accountable for addressing these cancers.

Parliament needs to interrogate the Budget to push state institutions to see where they could save badly-needed resources and spend monies more effectively. Despite the fiscal pressures facing front-line services, eg health and education, all too often we witness politicians gallivanting off to New York or Europe with large entourages, when smaller delegations could have been adequate.

Public procurement at R1 trillion per annum is the largest source of expenditure in the economy. It can play a powerful role in supporting emerging businesses and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment as well as local industries and jobs.

Yet when Cosatu and our affiliates ask various provincial departments and municipalities the extent to which they are using their procurement budgets to support local businesses, we are often told, without a hint of sarcasm, this is not a matter that they (departments or municipalities) should be concerned about.

A cursory look at the world’s economic and industrialisation success stories shows how state procurement was used to build local economic sectors and value chains, and to create decent permanent jobs and export capacity.

The 6th administration led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, and specifically under the brief of former Trade, Industry and Competition Minister Ebrahim Patel, did groundbreaking work in nudging the private sector to support employee shareholder and ownership programmes, enabling more than 530,000 workers to become shareholders in their companies and thus boosting their salaries and simultaneously company productivity.

The 7th Parliament would do well to push government at all levels to invest in this invaluable empowerment programme if we are to overcome our still dominant levels of inequality and poverty. Capital on its own won’t bring about reform.

The Public Investment Corporation, with R2.3 trillion worth of workers’ pension and insurance assets, has a key role to play in growing the economy, creating decent jobs and uplifting the poor. Yet time and again we have seen a parasitic business elite treat it as a slush fund for their extravagant lifestyles.

Again, this is an entity required to account to the legislature, and which Parliament must push to do more.

South Africa is turning the corner under the leadership of President Ramaphosa and the ANC after a painful decade of state capture and corruption. Yet we are not out of the woods, and neither can we afford to continue along a path of 1% GDP growth and 42% unemployment.

The 7th Parliament has a key role to ensure government uses the Budget to turn South Africa around and deliver that Better Life for All.

* Solly Phetoe is general secretary of Cosatu.

– BUSINESS REPORT

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