Every year, the South African Minister of Finance presents the Budget and the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement to Parliament. In approving or amending these plans, members of Parliament have a unique opportunity to influence how resources are allocated and how this will impact the lives of ordinary South Africans.
To engage assertively and effectively with the budget, parliamentarians must understand the budget process and players, its legal framework, and must acquire the basic tools to make sense of the numbers.
This seminar launched ISS Budget Guide for Members of Parliament. It aimed to demystify the budget and presented all the key techniques and concepts in an easy to use format. The launch was chaired by Gareth Newman, head, Governance, Crime and Justice, ISS. Speakers were Len Verwey, independent public finance specialist and Michael Sachs, National Treasury Deputy-DG: Budget Office.
Verwey focused on the notion of a fiscally assertive legislature, and how South Africa’s budget amendment legislation sought to establish this. He noted that the legislative framework was good but that the analytical capacity of ‘rank and file’ members of Parliament could be much better. The budget guide is one initiative to address this challenge.
He also emphasised the necessity, for any democracy, of informed, credible but non-technocratic debates about economic policy. Parliament and the provincial legislatures remained key sites for such debates, and public finances should continue to be ‘demystified’.
Sachs gave an overview of budget reforms in democratic South Africa with a particular focus on budget transparency and the New Public Management Approach. He noted successes achieved, but also pointed out that despite the transparency around the budget, the limited engagement with it is disappointing. The next phase of budgeting for South Africa would have to try to address challenges in budget participation and oversight.
Questions about the ‘new austerity’ in South African public finances, the functioning of intergovernmental fiscal relations, corruption, and how to enhance civil society and citizen participation in the budget were raised. The problems sometime faced by the media in getting the information from budget documents was also discussed.
Both presenters made the point that although information is usually available, it is not always easy to use (especially from sub-national government sources). Verwey further stated that South Africa lacks a significant ‘intermediate research layer’, such as civil society researchers who can effectively ‘package’ public data for the media.