The people must be vigilant about govt spending

Picture: Ian Landsberg/ Afrcan News Agency (ANA).

When the President announced the national lockdown in March this year, I was concerned about the Covid-19 virus and the impact the national lockdown was going to have on our already fragile economy.  However, like many, I was encouraged and hopeful about the announcement of the social relief and an economic support package of R500 billion, R100 billion for the protection of jobs and to create jobs and R40 billion for income support payments for workers whose employers are not able to pay their wages, etc.  However, despite being the biggest relief package on the African continent and compared favourably with other countries in the G20, not everyone benefitted from these funding initiatives. To make matters worse, there have been several scandals around the procurement of personal protective equipment.

The President delivered the economic recovery and reconstruction plan on 15 October 2020 and highlighted that more than 2 million people lost their jobs in the second quarter of this year, our economy contracted by 16.4% compared to the previous quarter and National Treasury expects a significant shortfall in revenue collection.  The recovery plan will amongst others provide R100 billion through the Infrastructure Fund, R100 billion was committed to creating employment, etc.

As politicians’ debate in Parliament whether this is the best plan or not, the question citizens need to ask and bear in mind, is where all the money is going to come from and how is it being spent?  The money that the government spends comes from the public purse – from the tax’s citizens pay and the South African Revenue Service collects.

The Auditor General of South Africa (AGSA) is established by Chapter 9 of the Constitution, as one of the state institutions supporting constitutional democracy.  Annually, AGSA produces audit reports on all government departments, public entities, municipalities and public institutions.  In its Citizen Report on National and Provincial Government for 2018 and 2019, AGSA warns that the brief summary might leave the reader feeling despondent about government’s ability to improve its handling of taxpayers’ money and that there is cause for concern about the current low levels of accountability.

AGSA’s Citizen Report on Local Government is of grave concern.  In terms of the Report, AGSA completed 229 audits and found that the financial health of 79% of municipalities are concerning or in need of urgent intervention. Some of the findings included: 141 municipalities awarded contracts worth R1,2 billion to officials of other state institutions; 77 municipalities awarded contracts worth R474 million to close family members of employees and 40 municipalities awarded contracts worth R30 million to employees and councillors.  AGSA further warns that “poor financial management translates into poor municipal service delivery”.

AGSA’s powers have been extended to hold government officials accountable for not taking actions to curb financial irregularities and it may refer a matter for investigation. This consequence will surely lead to more accountability amongst public officials and political representatives.

However, my question is what are citizens doing to ensure money allocated to programmes improve the quality of life of citizens through access to clean water, sanitation, electricity, safe and reliable transport, and so on. Particularly, as Government, in many instances tend to contract private vendors to deliver its mandated services.

Interestingly, the African National Congress’s January 8 Statement for 2020 emphasises and talks to citizens holding political office bearers accountable. This was mentioned in relation to the loss of the public confidence and trust in public institutions such as state-owned enterprises (SOEs) due to mismanagement, state capture and corruption.  Particular reference was made to the crisis at Eskom and the impact this has had on the economy and transformation.

Is the governing party holding citizens accountable for not holding government and itself as politicians accountable? This is a good question because our democracy is both representative and participatory in nature. For our democracy to function optimally, citizens must participate to a point where they can organise, form linkages and influence government decisions affecting their daily lives.

The challenges here is that despite citizens yearning to participate and engage political representatives, knowledge of the policy and legislative processes seems to only be available to those who have the resources to influence, excluding the poor and the marginalised.  However, Parliament, the nine provincial legislatures and municipal councils should have more education and outreach programmes to empower citizens about it processes and how citizens can participate. It is one of its constitutional mandates.  This will empower citizens and also help the legislative arm be a more inclusive Voice of the People.

Local government elections are scheduled for next year. This is a good place for citizens to start holding public officials and political representatives accountable. Now more than ever, citizens should organise themselves, be informed about what is happening in their communities, who is your ward councillor and attend ward committee meetings. Empower yourselves as to how budgets are spent in your communities, how was a contract awarded, etc.  Communities could lobby that all contracts awarded within its municipality should be made open to the public to view. In fact, communities could lobby that such information is posted on the municipality’s website. Such transparency will lead to better accountability.

Accountability can no longer only be left to only institutions, public officials and political office bearers. I am confident that when corrupt officials are aware that communities are vigilant of how funds are spent, material irregularities and adverse findings will soon become a thing of the past.