CPLO Unpacks the 2020 Budget Speech

South Africa’s Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, in his Budget Speech on 26 February, brought some relief, a few surprises, and indications that the government is finally prepared to put the brakes on unproductive public spending. Mike Pothier, the programme manager for the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (CPLO), assesses some of the reassuring signs and areas of concern emerging from the 2020 Budget Speech.

The fact that Tito Mboweni came up with a small amount of personal tax relief in yesterday’s budget speech took almost everyone by surprise. In such tough times, with SARS collecting less revenue than needed, and with government going deeper into debt, the last thing anyone expected was that some money would be “put back into taxpayers’ pockets”, to use that inaccurate and rather patronising phrase, beloved of finance ministers all over the world.

Yes, it may help to give the economy a bit of a boost, as indicated by the immediate jump in the value of retail shares on the Stock Exchange. But that will be temporary. And, in any event, the tax concession will be funded by more borrowing, a fact that will not escape the attention of long-term investors, ratings agencies and currency speculators.

Cutting the public sector wage bill

The real reason for the tax cuts, and for the minster’s airy dismissal of talk about a VAT increase or a ‘once-off’ tax, is that they are a quid pro quo to be used in the upcoming wage negotiations with the public sector unions. It was not a coincidence that the minister took “a teacher who earns on average R460 000 a year” as his first example of how the tax relief will benefit people – this is precisely the kind of senior, long-serving public sector employee who has become used to receiving annual increments above inflation. And who – through his or her union – is most likely to object strenuously to the end of this entitlement.

For that is really what Mr Mboweni, unlike any of his predecessors, has now committed government to do. The public sector wage bill is to be cut by R160 billion over the next three years. In this sense, the 2020 Budget is as much a political statement as it is a fiscal one. Just as government has finally, albeit years too late, begun to deal seriously with the terminal declines in Eskom and other SOEs, so it has now also found the courage to face the fact that we cannot continue to spend 40 cents out of every tax Rand on civil servant’s salaries; especially when we have to borrow more money every year to keep up the payments.

The 2020 Budget is as much a political statement as it is a fiscal one. 

The unions have already, quite predictably, reacted with threats of strikes, shut-downs, and ungovernability. There is much truth in their argument that workers are being made to pay for the government’s corruption and mismanagement of the economy. But there is equal truth in the point made by economists that the public sector wage bill has grown in real terms by 40% over 12 years without any concomitant increase in productivity.              

Certainly, it was high-ranking ANC leaders, government ministers, heads of SOEs, and the like who oversaw the era of state capture, and who benefited from it, not the average nurse, teacher or police officer. But at the same time, it is not the high and mighty who fail to turn up to teach on a Monday morning; or who leave patients unattended in labour wards; or who refuse to allow victims of domestic violence to lay charges; or, as happened just last week, who close a SARS branch office unannounced because “our colleague died last night and we are too upset to work.”  

So far, the response from COSATU has been relatively mild, despite rhetoric about “collapsing the public service.” It is far from clear that the mass of its members have the appetite for prolonged industrial action, especially in a climate of high unemployment and almost zero prospect of finding a job outside the public sector. The other union federations have relatively low representation in the civil service, and the biggest individual union, the Public Servants Association, has little reputation for militancy.

It is far from clear that [the unions] have the appetite for prolonged industrial action, especially in a climate of high unemployment and almost zero prospect of finding a job outside the public sector.  

It must be noted that the R160 billion cut is something that has still to be negotiated; it was indeed, as the DA pointed out, a little irresponsible of the minister to state it as a fact. But the intention is clear enough, and even if the eventual figure is a lower one, it seems that this budget has marked the beginning of the end of ever-increasing consumption expenditure by the government.

Less money for social services and breaking monopolies

For the rest, there was the usual mixture of good and bad news. There will be less money for education, health and public transport, and the allocations to provinces and municipalities will be reduced, leaving these two tiers of government to deal with problems largely not of their own making. The debt to GDP ratio continues to climb, reaching 65.6% this year – meaning that 15 cents in every tax Rand go to paying interest. That is as unsustainable as the public sector wage bill. There was also the usual increase in the fuel levy, which will end up hurting poor commuters disproportionately.

There will be less money for education, health and public transport, and the allocations to provinces and municipalities will be reduced.

Another R16 billion will be made available to SAA to help settle its debts and meet interest payments. Against this figure, the R2.4 billion promised to the National Prosecuting Authority and the Hawks to enable them to employ more investigators and prosecutors in the fight against corruption, seems rather parsimonious. Mr Mboweni confirmed that municipalities will be allowed to source their own electricity, and that third party operators will be given access to the national rail network. Both of these moves, which will no doubt take quite some time to come to fruition, are concessions that the days of the great state monopolies like Eskom and Transnet, which go back to the beginning of the last century, are coming to an end. Many commuters will hope that the PRASA monopoly over passenger rail will also come to an end soon.

The remuneration and incentives of executives at state institutions and enterprises will be reined in, and the salaries and benefits of the top ranks in the civil service – where about 29 000 people earn more than R1 million per year – are to be frozen; as too, are the packages of cabinet ministers. These moves should also help strengthen government’s position at the wage negotiation table. 

The days of the great state monopolies like Eskom and Transnet … are coming to an end.  

Lastly, there was almost complete silence about the National Health Insurance scheme, other than a vague statement that “taking forward consultation on the NHI is important”. Mr Mboweni is acutely aware that, even as government presses ahead with legislative preparations for the NHI, he simply has no money to pay for it. If and when he wins the battle over the public sector wage bill, and if and when he finds himself able to stop giving away billions to SAA, Denel, PRASA and other failing state enterprises, this will be his next big fight. On the strength of his performance so far, South Africans should pray that he sticks around for it.

Re-published by kind permission of spotlight.Africa https://spotlight.africa

Homily by SACBC President

Lead the people of God to a genuine worship and encounter with the true God”.

Episcopal Ordination of Mgr Joseph Kizito
Aliwal North, 15 February 2020
Homily by Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, Bishop of Mthatha and SACBC President. 15th February 2020.

Mgr Kizito, today as you get ordained one theme that suggests itself from today’s readings is worship, which is very close to the life of a bishop, because leading people in worship is one of the major duties of a bishop, and inspired by today’s readings I wish to share on this theme of worship. From the first reading we heard about King Jeroboam telling the people “You have been going up to Jerusalem long enough, here are your gods Israel”. Then he made two golden calves and the people stopped worshipping God and worshipped these calves as the gods who brought them out of Egypt. The second verse of today’s psalm reports this abomination when it states that “they fashioned a calf at Horeb and worshipped an image of metal, exchanging the God who was their glory for the image of a bull that eats grass.

Dear Mgr Kizito, having taken the commitment yesterday to teach, sanctify and govern the people of God and to guard against erroneous ways of worshiping in Aliwal North Diocese we are sure that you will not be setting up golden calves in Aliwal North and seduce people to worship them as Jeroboam did in Northern Israel.

But you can be sure that you will find existing erroneous ways of worship, which as a bishop you will have to correct. First of all you will find that the worship of God is weak, and in some situations nonexistent because the worship of God today competes with the worship of selling and buying.

People are not satisfied to buy and sell from Monday to Saturday morning, they also want to do the buying and selling on Sundays as well, so that Sundays in terms of business are just like any day. Many people, even though they would deny it, are gradually believing that their worth lies in what they eat and in things that they have. It is funny how human beings have always been attracted by metallic things. We like shiny products. If the Israelites were fascinated by the metallic golden calf, today we are also fascinated by metallic things, cars, cell phones, computers, tablets, glittering houses, and we measure our worth with these things, and we do our best to obtain the latest of them and in abundance. Perhaps what could redeem us is that some of us pray from these shiny products.

And yet, true to the nature of a golden calf, these things have no life. The more we have of them the more we want of them and they leave us empty, contrary to the hope that we would be fulfilled in having an abundance of them. And so every day of the week including Sunday, we buy and sell. “I buy, therefore I am” seems to be the defining principle of our identity. And so the command to keep the Sabbath day holy has been largely ignored. In this context, you and the Catholics that you will be leading in this diocese, have to find ways of remaining true to this commandment of keeping the Sabbath Holy for the worship of God.

You will notice other practices that diminish the worship of God on Sunday like learners who have to go school on Sundays, and young people who choose to have soccer competition games on Sundays instead of going to Church. You will find in fact that sport has dethroned God. People are more in stadiums on Sundays and spending many hours in front of DSTV Supersport flipping between channels for the latest game than being with God. And so you will find yourself having to go back to this basic commandment of reminding the people entrusted to you today to keep the Sabbath Holy.

You will also find a syncretism or a confused merging of traditions of worship from all the other ecclesial communities that exist within Aliwal North. The painful truth about Christianity is that we are a divided religion. While it is true that there is a lot that is common among Christian denominations, and there is a lot on which we can co-operate, yet there is also still a lot where we differ, and with respect and love we must work out these differences until we become one as Jesus desired us to be one. And until we have worked out these differences, we have to live with this painful reality of being different.

Catholics are not Lutherans, Anglicans are not Methodist, Presbyterians are not Zionist, and so on. Yet sometimes during worship in the Catholic Church you wonder if you are in the Catholic Church or in any of the other ecclesial communities that I have mentioned. While we can learn a lot from other ecclesial communities, and they from the Catholic Church in matters related to worship and doctrine, we each have a particular identity, and the reason why you took an oath yesterday is to ensure that this identity which is Catholic is retained, otherwise there remains nothing Catholic if we merge in a confused and syncretic manner the traditions of worship.

Modifications of worship and doctrine between the Catholic Church and other ecclesial communities, if they are to be meaningful, must be based on well thought out engagements, as is the case with the doctrine of justification for example, between the Lutheran and Catholics and not on emotional and superficial grounds.

I have heard it being said by well-educated Catholics that the Anglican and Catholic Church are the same. The Catholic and the Anglican Church get on very well together, and in areas of commonality they work very well together, but they are not the same. This painful reality of not being the same manifests in our inability to share the Eucharist. Catholics do not receive communion in the Anglican Church, and vice versa. We have not reached this level of communion, and we must not pretend that we have reached it for the sake of being nice to each other, but we must work hard towards it so that one day we can fully share the Eucharist and know what we are doing when receiving communion from each other. Bishop Kizito this is a matter of worship that as bishop you will need to attend to.

Another matter of worship Bishop Kizito that you will need to attend to is the balance between an intellectual and sentimental approach to worship. Many people leave the Catholic Church because it is cold, individualistic, mechanistic, and intellectual and does not respond to the human and spiritual needs of its members. As a Catholic Church we have a lot to learn from other ecclesial communities in terms of creating a sense of communion and belonging and in terms of making the faith respond to the concerns and existential needs of sickness and material poverty of our people.

Yet on the other hand, it would be careless and irresponsible of us to let go of the strength of our liturgy and doctrine that puts emphasis on the cross and sacrifice.

While we need to learn from other ecclesial communities that God wants us to be happy, to be successful and to be well, we need to share with them also from our Catholic tradition our appreciation of Jesus’ call to enter by the narrow gate, to take up our cross and follow Jesus daily. As the coming Lenten period reminds us and that resurrection is preceded by the passion, that man does not live on bread alone and that happiness on this earth does not constitute the fullness of our happiness because our complete happiness lies in the future with God for which we must prepare ourselves. And so the worship of wealth and money leads to doom because the more you get of it, the more you realize how poor you are.

The other point of consideration about worship is to consider its true nature, namely that it is an act directed to God and not to ourselves. It is good to feel happy when we worship God and to dance as David did, but we must guard against making worship or the liturgy an opportunity to entertain ourselves. Often one hears a comment from people when they come from Church, “it was nice”, but the question is “was it worship?” After worship, the question is, “have I worshiped God, am I transformed by the worship, am I more detached from my sins through worship, am I more eager in my missionary work because of worship or have I focused more on the consideration is that was nice?” Does worship minimize or eliminate my sin of pride, envy, meanness, indifference, injustice and anything else that blinds me from the divine truth and mercy that Christ calls us to have? There is an expression in Xhosa, which goes, “ukhohlakele ngathi akathandazi”, which means, he prays but he is cruel.

Again here, the temptation of uncritical imitation of other ecclesial ways of worshipping can make us lose our own understanding of worship as Catholics. And so your task as bishop, Mgr Kizito, is to give guidance about the Catholic understanding of worship, which includes dignity, silence, proper spiritual preparation, appropriate postures and gestures, fitting signs and symbols, conversion, and of course joyful songs occasionally as well.

Finally, the other aspect about worship is to conduct it in a culturally meaningfully way without making it a cultural entertainment gathering, where the end result will be only that “it was nice”. When we were still with our predecessors, Bishops Lenhof, Lobinger, Oswald, Brook, and Napier we often met as the Xhosa regional pastoral conference to consider how to make liturgy or worship culturally meaningful without losing its universal Catholic character.

In our time, and here as chairperson of the Xhosa Regional Conference, I have to say (mea culpa), we have stopped that and we wonder why people are leaving the Catholic Church. The most we do is to leave it to the creativity of individual priests who end up doing their own thing, which confuses the people. Bishop Joe, as a new and young bishop you must get us back to the task of relating worship to culture in a well thought out way instead of us just copying what other ecclesial communities are doing.

In the light of today’s readings, which were not specially chosen but taken from the given readings of today, maybe the first things you will want to do in your diocese is to set up a liturgy commission so that unlike Jeroboam you can lead your people to true worship of God, because as you may recall the maxim Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi. (As we Worship, So we Believe, So we Live).

I do not want to frighten you, but today’s first reading finishes by saying that because Jeroboam conducted himself in such a careless way about worship, this caused the ruin of his house and extinction from face of the earth. It is not our wish that your episcopacy here should be ruined and collapse. And so as you lead the people being entrusted to you today as their bishop, may worship in this diocese be genuine and lead to an encounter with the true God and not an encounter with God made in our own image.

Homily by Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, Bishop of Mthatha and SACBC President. 15th February 2020.

SACBC Lenten Reflections

Attached please find this booklet from the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference titled Choose Life Lenten Reflections 2020, which are Lenten reflections and prayers on non-violence. They have been prepared to reflect South African situations and the experience of many in the country. They are available from the Chancery @ R10 each. Contact 021 462 2417 – Coral or Simone.

Archdiocesan News 1 of 2020

HOT OFF THE PRESS: A new Pastoral Plan for Southern Africa; Catholic Bishops meet with President Ramaphosa; Archbishop establishes CARITAS CAPE TOWN; Meet our Seminarians; Climate Change awareness raising; CWD Update & Buckets of Love 2019; Men Making a Difference; Peace in our Schools.