Gordhan's rhetorical commitment to school infrastructure
School infrastructure received a massive rhetorical commitment from Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan on Wednesday. But his fertile promises of "strong growth" for this in future grants served to highlight the relative paltriness of real cash right now for infrastructure.
The mid-term budget's finer print also registered a considerable setback for skills development – one that the minister, having pumped billions into this sector for three years in a row, delicately avoided in his speech to Parliament: less than 30% of the artisans the higher education and training department originally trumpeted have been trained to date.
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On school infrastructure, the only extra cash Gordhan had to offer since his main budget's provision in February was a relatively thin R12.6-million. This will not go far – and is not intended to: it is specifically to repair flood-damaged schools in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Western Cape.
But "the school infrastructure backlogs grant and education infrastructure grant will grow strongly over [the current] spending period", Gordhan assured MPs on Wednesday.
These grants will need to do that and much more, because of the single most important infrastructure development since this time last year.
Back then, Gordhan – impatient with underspending across government – removed a full R4-billion from Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga that had been earmarked for infrastructure.
But several months later, Motshekga finally capitulated to sustained pressure from rights organisation Equal Education. Under a court order, she recently gazetted a second, more respectable draft specification of minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure.
A victory though that is for basic education rights, it is sure to cause major migraines for Gordhan. Although he was praised in February for apparent generosity in his allocations for infrastructure – R24-billion over the next three years, which includes R8-billion for 2013/4 – in fact this figure is problematic in two ways at least.
First, even the R8-billion for this year represented a substantial backtrack of R1.65-billion, when compared to original spending projections. And second, his February allocation, which this week's budget reiterated (while adding the R12.6-million for flood damage), was certainly not calculated with Motshekga's new minimum norms and standards in mind.
Assuming these norms become law with their current draft content more or less intact, Gordhan is going to have to find a great deal more money than he first envisaged – and this week's mid-term budget provided no clue to how he will do this.
He also cannot be thrilled that the skills sector he has full-bloodedly prioritised since 2010, both rhetorically and financially, now registers an embarrassing setback.
"With 3 184 trained artisans having participated in trade tests at the Institute for the National Development of Learnerships, Employment Skills and Labour Assessments by September 30, the department has reached 27% of the annual target of 12 000," the mid-term budget's supporting documents revealed.
"The performance is lower than expected because the national artisan database reporting system is not yet fully functional."
But if a target shortfall of more than 70% looks awkward, there was worse to follow in the next sentence. This nailed the very institutions, sector education and training authorities, that Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande was supposed to whip into shape when he took over responsibility for them in 2009, after their decade of corruption, inefficiency and sheer ineptitude under the labour ministry.
"The lower than expected [artisan-qualification] performance," the budget document said, "was also due to incorrect and inadequate reporting on the part of the sector education and training authorities, as well as the Institute for the National Development of Learnerships, Employment Skills and Labour Assessments' lack of capacity to report correctly using the national artisan database reporting system and its slow progress in procuring a modern workflow based data capturing system."
All "these problems" mean the intended number of new artisans to be registered for training has "reduced", the document said. "The department expects now to register 16 961 new artisans by March 31 2014, not the targeted 26 000."
Still, "education is the largest single category of government expenditure [and] is projected to increase by an annual average rate of 7% over the next three years to R287-billion in 2016/17", Gordhan told Parliament on Wednesday.
Perhaps he was trying to cheer us up?