The budget narrative is traditionally set by the needs and aspirations of the moneyed. So, there is near obsession with the size of tax cuts, the sin taxes, foreign exchange controls and the implications for retirement for those lucky enough to have a private sector plan.
From the public broadcaster to the opposition and filtering into wider society, we engage in this annual middle-class chatter. And of course, it’s important.
But the substantive analysis that should be done is on what the budget means for the four in 10 people who do not work and for the one in two households who dwell just on or below the poverty line.
Through such a prism, it is a good news budget. Finance Minister Trevor Manuel increased the deficit in order to fund a massive social safety net.
Old age pensions increased by R50 a month, which may not mean much if you’ve just bought the Mail & Guardian (R17.50) but for a generation of our gogos and grandpas, it is a big step up.
While Manuel has not met the ANC manifesto promise of lifting the child support grant to include youth up to the age of 18, from this year it will include 15-year-olds, bringing 600 000 more young people into the net.
By the end of 2009 there will be more than 13-million South Africans who receive a grant of some sort. Add the one million people employed on public works in 2008 (with half a million more to be added over the medium term) and it’s clear that South Africa is now a leading welfare state, arguably outstripping even Cuba and other parts of red Latin America.
For these reasons, Manuel tabled an election year budget that is and has always been profoundly Robin Hood. About 5% of wealthy taxpayers are responsible for nearly 40% of revenue. Workers who earn less than R4 000 a month now work tax-free.
The ANC does not win elections because of its commitment to the first generation of constitutional protections (like respect for and protection of the judiciary and other independent institutions).
It will win this year’s election because of the extensive grants system, its house-building programme and because it has successfully put millions of poor South Africans on to the electricity grid. No ruling party could do any differently but for degree. We’re too poor and unequal a country for anything else.
Manuel played the party-man this week but he is also the ruling party’s imbongi. What is the use, he asked, of all this money if we do not use it well: if teachers do not teach; if civil servants are not efficient; if we continue to bail out airlines that should be grounded and if we insist on “decent work” rather than just on ensuring work? If the country does not answer these questions and chooses to disguise the problems of efficiency in the chimera of ideology, then no budgeting will help.
A fake attack
Finally the ANC has shown its exasperation with Julius Malema — and the expectation, no doubt, is that we will all uncork champagne and celebrate the fact that the ruling party has shown leadership by calling the young rabble-rouser to order.
In a remarkable statement, Luthuli House said it found Malema’s remarks this week about Education Minister Naledi Pandor “unacceptable” and “uncalled for” and that it would take up the matter with the ANC Youth League.
However, a look at the remarks that finally made the ANC take a stance reveals the party’s strange logic. Malema told disgruntled students at the Tshwane University of Technology that Pandor should come on campus and speak to them about their grievances “in her fake accent”. (She speaks with an English accent, a legacy of exile.)
How scandalous! Whatever next? Yet the party indulged the youth leader’s attacks on the judges of the Constitutional Court and his threats to unleash violence on society if Jacob Zuma did not become the next president.
“We are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma,” Malema told a youth rally in the presence of Zuma, who was silent on this piece of inflammatory folly.
Then there were Malema’s recent remarks insinuating that the woman who accused Zuma of rape had enjoyed the encounter. Again the party held its tongue.
All along the ANC has said it would not attack him publicly and would instead nurture him and … blah blah blah. So what has changed?
The point, of course, is that Malema’s outbursts are tolerated if they are felt to strengthen the cause of the ANC president among the youth. When he turns his erratic fire on one of their own, the ANC is suddenly bursting with indignation.
He may have been rude about Pandor. But this is the merest peccadillo compared to his various assaults on the values of our Constitution.
The ruling party has lost moral standing and even supporters because of Malema. But this week’s intervention looks utterly self-serving and opportunistic.