by Shenilla Mohamed – Executive Director, Amnesty International South Africa
The Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni, must ensure that his budget not only deals with the unprecedented emergency brought about by COVID-19 but also ensures that the delivery of basic human rights, as per the country’s constitution, remains a priority.
Mboweni will present the government’s budget for the next three years on Wednesday and it is important that he does not lose sight of the responsibility of the state to ensure that the basic human rights of all who live in South Africa are upheld. This includes socio-economic rights. Money earmarked for the delivery of basic essential services and rights such as education, water, sanitation and healthcare must be ringfenced and not diverted.
The government will argue that COVID-19 has thrust the country into a financial crisis, forcing them to divert funds to respond. There is no doubt, as with many other countries, that the socio-economic impacts on South Africa have been multiple and far reaching, but it could also be the harbinger of meaningful change in the way in which the state deals with finances.
South Africa’s economy was already in recession before COVID-19 and the country was facing significant water and electricity shortages. Even then, economists were warning that unless the government changed its behaviour and reigned in corruption and poor service delivery, the country was heading towards a precipice.
Now, more than ever, there is need for Mboweni to present a prudent and stringent budget that is not just about the numbers but about the human beings whose lives those numbers will affect.
In a country that is already ravaged by massive inequality, Mboweni and his team need to come up with ways to tackle issues such as debt (which, according to Business Insider South Africa, now equals over 66% of the country’s total economy) low growth rates, corruption and an over inflated wage bill while ensuring that people’s constitutional rights are not being dismissed in the process. This may not be an easy feat but it is a necessary one.
Parts of the country that are buckling under poor service delivery and rights violations, such as access to quality education, tackling gender-based violence and access to water and sanitation (to name just a few), must be provided with the attention and resources required.
Recent research by Amnesty International on the state of education during COVID-19, has highlighted how the pandemic has exacerbated ongoing and deep inequalities in the system. In the context of continued infrastructure failings, it is not surprising that one study found that at least half of South African learners are not able to practice social distancing within overcrowded classrooms.
Parliamentarians have expressed concern about insufficient supplies of PPE, as well as the state of sanitation when many schools still use pit toilets and do not have access to running water. The percentage of schools reporting running water ranges from less than half – 47% – in the Eastern Cape to 59% in KZN; 74% in Limpopo; and 78% in Mpumalanga. In North West and Limpopo provinces, only 3.6% and 1.6% respectively have access to the internet at home. The pandemic has also taken a terrible toll on an education system already suffering serious shortages of teachers. By the end of January 2021, over 1,700 teachers had died from COVID-19.
This evidence clearly demonstrates the clear disparities in access to education during COVID-19, whether it is remote online learning or the under-preparedness of public schools to be safe learning spaces. Above all, it shows the overall extent to which education is being neglected in the COVID-19 response, despite it being an essential service under the Constitution. Yet, instead of committing the necessary resources, the government actually made the situation even worse when it announced in June 2020 its plans to divert over R2 billion from the provincial education infrastructure grant, followed by a subsequent announcement that the Department of Basic Education’s overall budget would not be increased at all for the next three years, amounting to an actual reduction when inflation is taken into account.
The education system for the poor and disadvantaged communities was broken and unequal even before COVID-19 and the situation is now even worse for these schools and for the children relying on them. The lack of a properly thought out plan, accompanied by the necessary resources to provide a quality education to all children during COVID-19, has further exacerbated the existing equalities, thereby robbing thousands of children of a future.
It is critical for the state to devise and implement a plan that takes into consideration the existing state of school infrastructure and resources and not have a one size fits all plan.
Gender-based violence is another area where urgent action is required, especially when it comes to the proper investigation and prosecution of such crimes. Despite robust legislation, research still shows that only 8.6% of reported rape cases result in a conviction. In 2019/2020, an average of 116 cases of rape were reported to police each day, which is only a small percentage as many cases remain unreported due to fear of further harassment or assault by police. According to StatsSA, in South Africa, 1 in 3 men hold the belief that women should not have equal rights. This demonstrates that we still have a long way to go to tackle this issue and achieve gender equality in this country.
ACCESS TO CLEAN, SAFE AND SUFFICIENT WATER
Access to water and sanitation is critical to the prevention of the spread of COVID-19, but remains a pipe dream for many in South Africa. According to statistics from the National Water and Sanitation Master Plan, over 3 million people do not have access to water and 5.3 million households (35%) do not have access to a safe and reliable drinking water source. Despite the delivery of over 18,678 water tanks to 158 municipalities and districts last year, Amnesty International continues to receive reports of water tanks that have broken, run out of water and not been re-filled.
The government must guarantee the human rights to water and sanitation. It must act in accordance with its international and national human rights obligations and ensure that all people in South Africa have access to safe, sufficient and reliable water and sanitation.
With few signs of the pandemic waning soon, this budget should outline the government’s commitment and plan to prioritising human rights by committing the necessary resources and political will to tackle inequality and inadequacy in all areas of South Africa.