Surely no one would want to trade places with South Africa’s Minister of Finance Malusi Gigaba on 21 February when he presents the national budget to Parliament. Political uncertainty and repeated downgrades from international rating agencies have placed enormous pressure on an economy that has been struggling to keep from falling back into recession.
It would have been difficult for Gigaba to balance the budget even without President Jacob Zuma’s reckless decision in December 2017 to announce free higher education. But Gigaba now has to find the money to back Zuma’s promise, and he has warned that he will have to make difficult decisions about which budgets to cut to fund this.
While there are many competing demands on the dwindling fiscus, it is vital that Gigaba’s decisions don’t make the country less safe and disadvantage future generations.
Over the past 10 years South Africa has opted to spend many hundreds of billions of rand a year on the criminal justice system, with most of that going to policing. In the current financial year alone, over R130 billion will be spent on the criminal justice system. Since South Africa is one of the most violent countries in the world, as measured definitively by our murder rate, that might seem like a sensible budgeting decision.
But this investment has failed to deliver returns in safety. Since 2012, the murder rate has slowly but steadily increased by 13%. This is hardly surprising given that the country has been spending only around R9 billion a year on the kinds of social programmes that are needed to break the deep societally entrenched cycles of violence.
What we cannot afford is to erode spending on programmes such as early childhood education and care; counselling and support services for victims of rape and domestic violence; and programmes to support vulnerable families. If that is where the finance minister looks to find funding for free higher education, we will set future generations of children back even further, and undermine the long-term well being and safety of South Africans.
Young people from poor families start their lives at a disadvantage. If you are poor your chances of experiencing crime and violence are much higher than if you live in a middle-class suburb. You are less likely to be able to access good quality pre-school education and care, and so your first few years of schooling will be much harder than they are for your more well-off peers.
Even if you are really smart and have a functional, caring home, if you didn’t learn to count, didn’t learn your colours and don’t know the alphabet before you start school, you are already behind. A poor child is also less likely to have a healthy balanced diet to feed their growing body and brain. And getting around – from home to school, or to the doctor or clinic – is harder and much more dangerous for a poor child than it is for a wealthy child.
If you are a poor child there is a good chance that your parents are more stressed and have less time for you than wealthier parents. Poor children are also more likely to experience harsh corporal punishment. And whether you are a girl or a boy, your chances of being sexually and physically harmed as a child in South Africa are high – and it’s worse if you are poor. These disadvantages just grow and multiply over the years, entrenching poverty and inequality.
It is hugely tempting to believe that it must be a national priority to give free higher education to children who have overcome all these disadvantages, and have completed school with a bachelor’s pass. But if doing so makes it harder for the children who follow them in a few years to access the support and services they need to be able to reach the same point, then providing free higher education will simply result in fewer poor children being able to get there at all.
Gigaba has had to make difficult decisions, and the careful long-term planning that goes into national budgeting has been disrupted. The current economic and political climate has made financing social violence prevention programmes increasingly difficult.
Funders (including government) are looking to invest in programmes with the highest, quick returns. This poses particular challenges for violence prevention. It also means that those of us in government, the private sector, universities and non-governmental organisations who wish to see an increase in spending on the kinds of programmes that can impact on violence and inequality have to understand government budgeting. We also have to work hard to bring this message to politicians.