Moderator: Zukiswa Kota, Head of South Africa
Programme: Public Service Accountability Monitor.
Collaboration is key to ensure that budgets actually serve people
As South Africa approaches 30 years of democracy, activists and policymakers are shining a spotlight on the need for more inclusive and accountable budgeting processes. At a recent roundtable, civil society groups joined forces with legislators to tackle concerns around transparency and meaningful participation in the country’s public finance governance.
The event, hosted by the South African Health Technologies Advocacy Coalition (SAHTAC) and Imali Yethu Civil Society Coalition for Open Budgets in partnership with the Mail & Guardian, brought together policymakers, activists and experts to explore strategies for enhancing transparency, accountability and public participation in South Africa’s budgeting processes.
The discussions highlighted growing demands for substantive public oversight of how limited resources are allocated. In her opening remarks, the Head of the Public Service Accountability Monitor in South Africa, Zukiswa Kota, explained that the discussion aimed to address limitations in current budgetary systems and review the promises around progressive budgeting and equity made since the start of South Africa’s democracy in 1994.
“We all recognise that our country is a constitutional democracy with socioeconomic rights, but we also know that the idea of budgets and budgeting can be intimidating and therefore exclusionary,” she said, adding that the goal was to discuss practical and implementable ways to make public budgets more accessible. “South Africa has high levels of inequality, but we feel if more people are engaged in the budgetary space there is a greater chance of deepening accountability and potentially really pushing the dial around equity and access.”
Participation must be meaningful
In his keynote address, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly Lechesa Tsenoli emphasised the importance of substantive public input in budget decisions. “Public participation is crucial — people must be able to meaningfully participate in decisions affecting them,” he said.
He cautioned that just allowing access would not be enough; the public needs to understand budget committee deliberations and how spending priorities are set in order to participate in a way that adds value. “Communication must be in accessible languages so all can participate, and we must provide the public with the tools and information needed to effectively engage on complex budgetary matters,” he explained.
The need for budget literacy was stressed by Equal Education’s Head of Research, Elizabeth Biney, who stressed the importance of translating complex budgetary concepts into accessible language so the public can meaningfully participate. And while language remains a barrier, so does literacy: “There’s no amount of translation and dumbing down that will help if people don’t have the base literacy. Budget advocacy requires unpacking complex language so people can engage meaningfully. Beyond participating for its own sake, public budget literacy and empowerment are crucial.”
This, she says, is why her organisation attempts to educate members on budget policies affecting the education sector. And while parliamentary participation at a national level is worthwhile, she says provincial and departmental advocacy is where real impact can be made. Limpopo, for example, continues to have major infrastructure backlogs and under-spending budgets. She says this is why oversight is needed at every level: “Parliamentary testimony can obscure ground realities. Active monitoring and evidence gathering are vital to hold all levels accountable and to identify gaps between policy and on-the-ground realities.”
Dr Kay Brown of the Collaborative Africa Budget Reform Initiative also highlighted the importance of collaboration between different stakeholders like civil society and government to ensure budgets serve people’s needs: “The how and why matter, but meaningful outcomes for people should remain the focus.”
Successful collaboration would require an understanding of each partner’s perspectives: “As government, we aim to improve systems and strengthen public finance capabilities while civil society focuses more on social impacts and advocacy. Both perspectives are needed to ensure budgets serve people’s needs. This is not without challenges, but the benefit lies in co-creating something valuable neither partner could achieve alone.”
This would require openness, retained autonomy, commitment to joint goals and an understanding of differences in mandates and boundaries, underpinned by active governance of partnerships. “If the path is unclear, having a shared purpose makes collaboration worthwhile,” she emphasised.
It was with this spirit of co-creation in mind that Vulekamali, an online budget portal by the National Treasury, was developed in partnership with Imali Yethu to make government budget data and processes accessible to all interested parties. “One of the really nice things about developing this portal was that we went to see the people and we developed the portal together,” Brown said. “And with each iteration and every different version, we re-engaged and went back to town halls and picked new stakeholders, but we travelled the country and listened to people who were telling us what they wanted to see, and that was important to us.”
Realignment for the greater good
According to the Head of the Parliamentary Budget Office Dr Dumisani Jantjies, the mismatch between planning and budgeting has led to poor socioeconomic outcomes in South Africa. “There is a growing structural divergence between the two, and we need an understanding that they should influence and complement one another, instead of being seen as a threat to one another,” he explained.
While there has been progress, structural economic issues tied to budget choices have made it hard to combat poverty, inequality and unemployment. He said that at the start of democracy, there was agreement that a developmental strategic plan was needed and the budget had to fit into that plan; however, over time the budget framework has largely failed to align with the development plan and has instead forced strategic priorities to fit within its limits.
This divergence has delayed realising the country’s socioeconomic and human rights aspirations. “The structural reform that government has been implementing over the years will largely retain the economic status quo and improve the business environment for existing corporations that dominate economic sectors and extract wealth from the economy.”
This view, he said, treats the poor as a burden rather than using the budget as a tool for transformation, but in the end, economic and social policy issues raise costs if left unaddressed. Thorough engagement would be needed to realign these spaces.
The way forward
Thokozile Madonko from the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies at Wits University agreed that budget priorities and planning have diverged rather than aligned, reiterating that fiscal restraint has — and continues to — limit social delivery and economic transformation.
Madonko also highlighted that budget advocacy is a bridge between research and activism and that combining the two creates a powerful process to drive changes in policy and shape spending: “Evidence-based research and advocacy together can persuade and drive progressive policy; budget research gains relevance while advocacy gains credibility. It’s a match made in heaven! And when done right, budget work can empower citizens, improve services and enhance transparency, accountability and participation, both on policy and on money matters.”
The session ended with a call to the government to provide platforms for meaningful public participation in the budgeting process, for the harnessing and strengthening of public-private partnerships to promote domestic resource mobilisation and for access to reliable budget information to better enable transparency and accountability in government processes. SAHTAC also called on the government to increase its research and development (R&D) budget allocation for health to meet the commitment of 2% of total public sector health expenditure.
The event demonstrated that collaborative a wpproaches centred on people’s needs could enhance accountable governance. While budgeting involves multifaceted technical details, it is evident that financial policies ultimately shape the realisation of social and economic rights; budgets, whether done right or not, have a real-world impact on the citizens they are meant to serve.
Through continuous education, advocacy and monitoring, civil society organisations and researchers can complement legislative oversight to make budgeting more participatory and ensure that the government lives up to its mandate to prioritise inclusivity, responsiveness and accountability in the public interest.