It is always a bit of an odd thing to watch public servants get mistaken for leaders. The status inversion can be absurd for going unnoticed, or it can be tragic for having to be remarked upon. Every year members of South Africa’s two houses of Parliament and their guests participate in a "red carpet" spectacle, dressed to the nines, to hear about the condition of the most unequal society on earth. In some sense it could be considered debased and debasing post-colonial irony, and in other senses it is merely tastelessly tragic and tragically tasteless.
The delivery of the government’s plan on how it intends to spend tax revenue, by Minister of Finance Malusi Gigaba on 21 February, extended the spectacle. Here was the chief accountant standing up to tell the people how he and the other servants of the people intend to spend our money. Yes, even the lowliest among us contribute to the purse, and so it is indeed our money, as citizens, as the people who live here.
As with his Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement, so with this full Budget Speech: a hard time to be a finance minister. But in the wake of SONA 2018 many have been buoyed with hope. Good times are coming even if hard times are here. The unqualified praise many South Africans heaped on Gigaba’s new boss, President Cyril Ramaphosa, after that State of the Nation speech did not bode well. The response to the Budget 2018 speech was perhaps inevitable.
Tough times call for tough measures, but it is not always acknowledged whom the tough times will tax most heavily. Budget 2018 tried to bury its choice on this matter, but it was inevitably revealed. It would be the poor majority who would be taxed for the tough times their servants (elected and appointed) had brought upon them. In the most unequal society in the world, value-added tax would be increased to 15 percent. The comfort offered by Gigaba: this taxation of South Africans was still below that of other comparable societies. No one is disputing this.
Perhaps it is not so much the increase in VAT which reveals the priorities of the servants in exploiting the pockets of their political masters, the people, to pay for their follies over the last decade. After all, let us not forget the many bail-outs for a national airline, the corporate and financial malfeasance at the country’s energy supply monopoly, Eskom, the money spent on odd contracts to administer social security grants, and the bulging public wage bill in a sector blighted by qualified audits, wasteful and fruitless expenditure, and corruption scandals. All our money.
One thinks of Dennis Potter’s Stand Up, Nigel Barton (1965), in which the working-class hero protagonist breaks the fourth wall to warn the audience that their tax money is paying for the folly of the class warfare of mid-1900s Britain, and, ironically, for the very television play they are watching on the public broadcaster. One thinks of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985). It is all too debasing. What tattered dreams we offer the most vulnerable among us.
Gigaba’s Budget 2018 did not include any salary cut for the people’s servants in the executive arm of government (each of whom earns more than R2-million). There would be no pay cut for the people’s elected representatives in the two houses of Parliament, each of whom earns around R1-million. These numbers come before the ancillary costs of support staff, travel, accommodation and parliamentary meals. Instead, we were asked to applaud the raises in social security grants. The indigent will now get R400 to keep a child alive, and pensioners will be expected to keep themselves in dignity with R1,600. Apparently they are expected to do so on VAT-exempted foods like beans and bread.
When last, one wonders, did any of the government ministers go into a supermarket with an old person or someone fostering children and try to buy those essentials? With a R20 note in hand, one can buy either a loaf of bread or a litre of milk, but not both. Even in the middle-class Johannesburg suburb of Killarney it does not take much to observe the working-class people making tough decisions in the aisles between items in their food baskets. In places like Nyanga and Mitchell’s Plain the scenes are more heart-wrenching. Add the costs of school uniforms, of school supplies, of travel (the cost of which will increase given the rise in the fuel levy) in towns and cities where the spatial arrangements of colonialism and apartheid still persist: all essentials, and none VAT exempted. Now add ordinary clothes, those shoes and shirts which used to be manufactured in the now decimated local clothing industry?
One wonders whether these servants of the people imagine that the poor have no dreams, no need of amusement or distraction from poverty and indignity. Do the politicians ever truly allow themselves to imagine what it must feel like to live as a poor person in this country which peddles images of wealth and luxury as not just something to aspire to, but failure to achieve which becomes indicative of a moral or political failure of the individual, not the system. Think of how we celebrate the petrol attendant who worked for seventeen years to pay off student fees at a public university, seeing in his long struggle the commitment to education rather than our own moral torpor. Think of that member of Parliament who declared that he did not struggle to be poor.
Think of the money elected officials in all three spheres of government who spent much more than R1,600 on their clothing for the first sessions of the places where they serve the people, those legislatures in towns and cities, or the provincial and national "august houses'. Think of the cost of butter. What debasing irony is at work when the man who announces an increase of R10 in October 2018 steps off the podium, and after being congratulated, steps into a government vehicle for a journey which will cost multiple orders more than that.
What Budget 2018 revealed was the failure of empathy and the limited imaginations of those bureaucrats who drew up this plan, those officials who applauded it, and those millions who are praising it as "pro-poor". What nightmare do we dream for the poor that they must live on such measly amounts while those who say they represent their interests get paid millions to peddle this obscenity?
We need to dream bigger, for ourselves, and for the most vulnerable among us. If Ramaphosa is to be taken at his word that SONA 2018 is for the homeless who sleep rough outside the parliamentary precinct in Cape Town, then Budget 2018 reminds us what South Africa’s real priorities are, and how the narrow and compromised dreams of a new political generation, nostalgic for the 1990s, limit our ability to undo the injustices of the past. We can do better. We simply must.