‘Some Gaps, Some Omissions and Some Opportunities’
Following the State of the Nation Address (SONA) presented by President Jacob Zuma, the Budget Speech presented by Minister Nhlanhla Nene which was eagerly awaited by South Africans for several reasons. Not least of which was the opportunity to determine the extent to which outlined priorities would be meaningfully committed to through allocations from the public purse.
This brief analysis is an attempt to highlight key aspects of the 2015 National Budget in relation to education. It is also an attempt to question what appears to be a recurring silence around natural resource governance and environment protection. The reflection also casts a retrospective eye on the SONA and highlights some opportunities for us all to continue to engage on vital issues.
Environmental Protection and Natural Resource Governance
It is generally accepted that South Africa’s economy is heavily resource-driven. The country’s exploitation of its rich mineral resources with ‘little or no regard for the environment’ since the 19th Century is highlighted in the National Development Plan (NDP). Alongside this is the recognition of a need to quickly and effectively respond to these challenges for the protection of natural resources and mitigation against the effects of climate change. Such responses must be clearly and boldly articulated on platforms as the SONA and national budget.
If there was ever an indication of the need to place emphasis on principles of environmental sustainability, protection and improved energy efficiency - it is now. In outlining key tax proposals, Nene outlined the intention to temporarily increase the national electricity levy from 3.5c/Kwh to 5.5c/kWh in order to ‘assist in demand management’. It is also an opportune time for the government to introduce policy and budget measures to respond to the growing need for cleaner energy and creative, combined solutions to job creation and environmental protection. Missing from both the SONA and Budget Speech were clear outlines of the state of the environment despite it centrality to the country’s economic prosperity not only in the present but in the future.
Critically, Outcome 10 of the South African government’s medium term strategic framework (MTSF) has the objective of protecting and enhancing the country’s environmental assets and natural resources. Treatment of issues pertaining to environmental protection in the 2015 SONA was disappointing in its superficiality. The primary content addressing this in the speech is as follows:
“Cabinet has adopted vigorous and integrated interventions to combat the vicious rhino poaching in the country. The interventions include continuous joint operations with key neighbouring countries, improved intelligence gathering as well as enhancing protection in parks and provincial reserves where rhino are present.”
The focus on a single issue (notwithstanding its acute significance) within the sector underplays the myriad of significant challenges including the protection of hundreds of kilometres of marine and coastal ecosystems. It is also lamentable that there was no clear outline of the overall cost and outcome of the integrated interventions against rhino poaching thus far.
Similarly, Nene in the 2015 Budget Speech indicated that there would be an allocation of R296 million over the medium term as support for the oceans economy. A glance at the 2015 Estimates of National Expenditure for Vote 17 (Environmental Affairs) indicates that while this programme is set to create valuable employment, R296 million is effectively set to be ‘reprioritised’ away from South African National Parks. Fundamentally, this shifting of funds from conservation and protection programmes mirrors the overall lack of significance placed in both the SONA and the National Budget on environmental protection.
As in his 2014 address, the President also outlined- in response requests from the business sector-that:
“Government has synchronised environmental impact assessments, water and mining rights applications and has set a maximum of three hundred days for all of these authorisations to be issued.”
The Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) is concerned by the implication of a trade-off between undertaking thorough assessments where environmental impact is concerned and the expediting of the issuing of authorisations particularly in the mining sector. There is also no mention of the progress made by mining companies to comply with 2014 deadlines as outlined in the 2014 SONA to meet the needs of miners for decent housing and living conditions. Each of these omissions downplay vital components in meaningfully fostering sustainable development that recognises the importance of human and environmental wellbeing.
Education continues to be a key government priority and is reflected as such in both the SONA and the National Budget. In his SONA of February 2014, the President indicated that;
“(A) Draft Policy Framework towards Universal Access to Grade R has been gazetted for public comment, with a view to making Grade R compulsory…
And in relation to the matric that the overall pass rate;
“… has gone up from around 61 percent in 2009 to 78 percent last year and the bachelor passes improve each year.”
In the SONA 2015, however, there is no mention of the progress towards the proposals around Grade R. In addition- the President did not address the decrease in the matric pass rate between 2013 and 2014. This, coupled with the decrease in the percentage of learners passing mathematics and physical science is worthy of attention.
The PSAM is particularly concerned by the President’s silence around repeated failures in the provisioning of safe, adequate scholar transport following the recent fatal accident involving seven learners in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal. The President’s speech is silent on progress towards addressing the policy and budget vacuum in the transportation of learners across all provinces.
Encouragingly, however; an Annexure to the Minister’s Budget Review tabled in Parliament reveals that National Treasury has taken note of the recommendation by civil society to ‘consider the formulation and development of a conditional grant for the provision of scholar transport’. While this is by no means signifies a binding budget or policy commitment, it is a reassuring recognition of the importance of finding a solution to the currently unacceptable scholar transport provisioning in South Africa.
School infrastructure continues to be articulated as a national priority. In June 2014, the President promised that school furniture would be delivered to “…all Eastern Cape schools by the middle of August 2014”. This, according to the Legal Resources Centre, was not achieved. The subsequent- and repeated- failure by the Department of Education to complete thorough furniture audits and to follow through on their commitments to ensure furniture delivery to all schools was another telling silence in the President’s 2015 address.
A comparative look at the President’s June 2014 address and the February 2015 address does not allow one to gauge accurately what progress has been made in addressing the most pressing of infrastructure needs in South Africa; mud and inappropriate structures in particular. In the former SONA the following was announced;
“To produce a decent learning environment, we have delivered 370 new schools replacing mud schools and other unsuitable structures around the country.”
While in the latter the President stated that;
“Through the Accelerated School Infrastructure Delivery Initiative which is part of the national infrastructure plan, 92 new schools have been completed to date and 108 are under construction. About 342 schools have received water for the first time. Three hundred and fifty one schools have received decent sanitation while 288 have been connected to electricity.”
If one is to assume that the ASIDI focusses on the eradication of mud and other inappropriate structures- the delivery numbers reflected in the current and previous SONA are confusing at best.
In scrutinising the 2015 National Budget for some clarity, two key things were noteworthy. Firstly, Nene spoke of “the replacement of over 500 unsafe or poorly constructed schools” but did not outline expenditure and performance trends in this specific programme (ASIDI) since his last speech. This would have been a useful piece of information to allow the public to understand the key decisions around allocation decisions over the next three years. Secondly, the Finance Minister stated that;
“The Education infrastructure grant of R29.6 billion over the medium term will enable all schools to meet minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure by 2016”.
This statement, ostensibly positive, is also rather ambitious. However, given that there is no indication in the SONA or in the National Budget of performance and expenditure to date since the gazetting of the regulations for minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure, this requires further scrutiny.
While the government’s concerted efforts to ensure the basic education is prioritised are well-considered; recent performance does not bode well for the fulfilment of the learners’ needs as outlined in the South African constitution.
Additionally, the limited prioritisation of environmental protection illustrates a failure to ‘walk the (sustainability) talk’ as outlined in the NDP.
In the weeks and months to come it will be imperative for us all to engage on these proposed budgets through all the opportunities availed us by the Constitution and parliamentary budget processes. As learners, educators, parents and interested citizens we can seek to support campaigns to monitor the rollout of the norms for school infrastructure. We can raise questions when planned infrastructure projects are delayed or not delivered at all. We can raise the alarm when learners’ lives are endangered by roadworthy vehicles and their rights blighted when they have to cross rivers and walk long distances just to get to school.
We can contribute to energy efficiency in our homes, businesses and places of worship. We can raise the alarm when there is evidence of failure to protect our natural resources. Lastly- and perhaps most importantly we can seize opportunities for promoting social accountability by proactively participating in public hearings and monitoring the use of public resources and service delivery as a democratic right.