The Socio-economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) is a new NGO set up to provide individuals, communities and social movements with legal, policy, research and advocacy assistance around housing, basic services, and migrant rights and livelihood issues. We have chosen to comment on some of the aspects of the 2010 Budget speech which are relevant to our thematic areas of work, and which we view as being critical to ensuring the maximum positive impact of government spending in economic and social policy implementation.
Minister Gordhan’s call for a “common purpose”, along with his acknowledgment that “economic development and public service delivery are about much more than the numbers through which we measure progress”, is refreshing. There is no doubt that "national identity, social cohesion and responsible citizenship – through building social capital that reinforces trust and cooperation, in the place of conflict and fragmentation” are important. The latter issue is particularly critical given the increasingly antagonistic relationship between the state and communities and the growing dissonance between expectations and public service at the local level, as well as the heavy-handed way in which law enforcement is used to silence dissent and protest about such issues.
In 2010 and beyond it will be critical for government, particularly at the local level, to engage with communities, CSOs, social movements and individuals in the spirit of the “common purpose”, and listen to the people and their representatives. Government spending without the involvement and buy-in of the very people it seeks to transform, will never achieve as much as it could if real participatory democracy, as envisioned in the Constitution, is practiced.
Secondly, it is encouraging that industrial policy is being prioritised so heavily. One of the challenges in 2010 will be how to coordinate this between (at least) three ministries (Trade and Industry, Economic Planning and Finance). Further, the prioritisation of tackling unemployment and job losses, particularly amongst young people, is critically important. As Minister Gordhan states however, this transformation - whereby opportunities to be productive in the economy and earn a decent living abound - will not happen overnight.
SERI is aware that throughout the country, particularly in the urban hubs, there are hundreds of thousands of people desperately trying to survive by engaging in informal activities, for example informal street trading, who are being harassed constantly and having their meagre livelihoods compromised by misguided and pernicious local government policies and corrupt law enforcement officers. Unless and until alternative income-generating activities are provided and decent work is made available for poor people, they should be allowed to engage in informal survivalist activities and not be criminalised.
Thirdly, it is positive that the government is spending more each year on housing and basic services. The identification of the ‘gap market’ with regard to housing, and the exploration of interventions to address this housing policy black hole, is important. However, there is also a crisis occurring at present in cities around the lack of affordable, well-located rental housing for those accessing the city for its economic and social amenities. The critical importance of providing affordable, subsidised accommodation in well-located urban areas, as opposed to only providing bonded or RDP-style houses on the periphery, needs to be recognised and addressed by the government. Likewise, the national informal settlement upgrading programme should become a government focal point, with in situ upgrading prioritised and rolled out countrywide.
Finally, the billions of rands in local government equitable share (ES) that is allocated to municipalities to “cushion poor households for the rising cost of electricity and water” is critical, however municipalities need to be held accountable for exactly how and why they are (or are not) spending this grant. Too much money has been wasted, misspent or siphoned into other areas in the past. At present, the ES is an unconditional grant which means that municipalities cannot be penalised if they misspend it on interventions that do not improve basic services delivery, and that they are not accountable to national government.
Municipalities should know, and make available, information on exactly how many households are receiving subsidised basic services (e.g. free basic water and electricity), the costs to the municipality of providing these services, and whether the ES could, in theory, cover the costs of free basic services provision.
With this information, civil society can act as a watchdog and map exactly what municipalities are currently doing in terms of service delivery against what they could be doing with their ES grants, and hopefully influence the municipalities’ service delivery targets by insisting on greater transparency in the reporting of the ES grant.
Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa