Activists march for an alternative budget and a new vision

The protesters said the government should tax the rich to end poverty and bridge the inequality gap in South Africa. Photo by Mzi Velapi

Cuts to government’s health and education budgets are unjustified and crippling the economy while increasing inequality, the protesters argued.

Community organisations, trade unions and activist groups protested against budget cuts ahead of the 2024 budget speech as they anticipated the likely continuation of the austerity measures being implemented.

In his 2023 budget speech, the Minister of Finance, Enoch Godongwana denied that he was presenting an austerity budget. “This is not an austerity budget. It is a budget that makes tough trade-offs in the interests of the country’s short- and long-term prosperity,” the former trade union leader had said at the time. This is despite the fact that the government had agreed to only a 7.5% increase for public sector workers who were affected by a wage freeze during the Covid-19 pandemic, the freezing of posts in the public sector and that the social relief of distress grant (SRD) had remained R350 and not adjusted since 2020.

Shortfalls in education and health

Austerity has become evident in health, education and other social services. “Thousands of doctors, nurses and teachers remain unemployed while at the same time thousands of vital posts are left vacant due to being unfunded, leading to a breakdown in service and morale. In addition to this, learners lack dignified schooling infrastructure, while the treasury has stated its intention to make further reductions to basic education, resulting in increasing class sizes,” reads the joint protest statement.

“We have seen the direct impact in education through overcrowding of classrooms in Gauteng, the lack of provision of scholar transport resulting in learners walking long distances to school in KZN, learners in the Eastern Cape are not being fed enough at schools, and here in the Western Cape we have witnessed the crisis of admissions at schools and learners are still unplaced,” said Papama Mabotshwa from Equal Education.

The Western Cape Education Department is still struggling to place almost 400 Grade 1 and Grade 8 learners who applied for school in January this year. 

Anele Yawa, the general secretary of the Treatment Action Campaign, said that the shortage of healthcare workers due to budget cuts has had a negative affect on the provision of healthcare. “There is always an excuse of not having a budget to fill in the vacancies. Even when people go on retirement, they hardly get replaced. Also in the rural areas, there are no longer mobile clinics that take healthcare services to communities in the deep rural areas of the country. Also patients in hospital do not get enough food,” he said.

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“Existing patterns of gender inequality are reinforced, increasing the burden on women and girls in particular. It is clear that the impacts of austerity are disastrous,” the organisations said.

Youth unemployment

Abdul Aliem Abrahams from Hanover Park, who has been unemployed for the past five years, told Elitsha that the SRD grant is not enough to meet his and his family’s needs. “We can’t even tend to the needs of our children and parents; sometimes we tend to do stuff that is not kosher to put food on the table. The R350 helps but it is not enough. It helps for one day and then you have to worry about the next day and the day after.”

‘Sometimes we tend to do stuff
that is not kosher to
put food on the table’

Unemployed Early Childhood Development graduate, Phumla Menziwa-Bhokoloshe said that the cause of youth unemployment is the insistence on experience by employers and the interventions by government do not pay a decent wage. “They insist on experience and overlook that one is qualified for the job. Also they employ you under EPWP [the Presidential Employment Stimulus] as a teacher assistant and you are expected to carry out duties of a teacher but they pay you a measly R1,300 that does not meet your needs,” she said.

“Unfortunately for me, I have been unemployed for four months now but before the last job, I was unemployed for almost 10 years. It was then that I decided to go back to school to get a qualification but the situation has not improved. When you have a qualification you think you are in a better position, but not in this environment,” said Menziwa-Bhokoloshe.

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The activist organisations – Assembly of the Unemployed, Equal Education, Treatment Action Campaign and Cry of the Xcluded among them – argue that there is an alternative to mass unemployment and inequality in South Africa.

‘Young people can be employed
to fix leaking pipes and
on water harvesting projects’

Matthews Hlabane from the Cry of the Xcluded said that the government should employ young people on a permanent basis to work on various projects that will ensure that services are delivered to communities. “Young people can be employed in infrastructure projects, to fix leaking pipes that waste water and also on water harvesting projects. All they need to do is to plan and budget properly,” he said. The Assembly of the Unemployed is calling for a basic income grant of R1,750 per month for all unemployed and precariously or informally employed people between the ages of 18-59, including recipients of any caregiver grants.

The 2024 budget

During his budget speech later in the day, Godongwana announced the allocation of R61,4-billion for employment programmes and that 7,4-billion has been identified for the presidential employment initiative.

“To keep pace with inflation and increase access, permanent social grants are increased. An increase of R100 to the old age, war veterans, disability and care dependency grants. This amount will be divided into R90 effective from April, and R10 effective October,” he said.

The foster care grant will be increased by R50 whilst the child support grant will be increased by R20.

“In this budget, I am able to announce that the education sector is allocated an additional R25.7-billion for the carry-through costs of the wage increase over the medium-term.  At the same time, we were able to protect the budgets of critical programmes such as the school nutrition programme. The programme provides food to pupils in almost 20,000 schools. Health is allocated a total of R848-billion over the Medium Term Expenditure Framework. These allocations include R11.6-billion to address the 2023 wage agreement, R27.3-billion for infrastructure, and R1.4-billion for the NHI grant over the same period,” Godongwana said.

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