Whether or not you felt that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan delivered a successful budget last month, you should be glad of one thing: according to the latest Open Budget Index, South Africa’s budget is the third most transparent in the world.
South Africa behind New Zealand
This is an incredible statistic. South Africa ranks behind only New Zealand and Sweden in terms of the information that the government provides to the public about its finances. That places it ahead of the likes of the US, Germany and the UK.
A country’s standing in the index is significant because it shows how transparent a government is about revenue collection and spending. The more disclosure there is, the more the media, economists, academics and civil society are able to scrutinise what the government does with public money and hold officials accountable for where it goes.
It’s really quite simple. The more the public knows, the more it can engage with trying to improve things. When access to information is restricted, everyone outside of the government is effectively disempowered.
In South Africa, the presentation of the budget is a big occasion, and this year it was particularly so. For days leading up to it and for days afterwards, the discussion around the issue was robust. That shows that this is a process that South Africans feel that they are involved in.
We could all have our opinions about what was included or excluded, we could praise or lament the introduction of a sugar tax, and we could immediately calculate how much income tax we could expect to pay in the coming year. All of this was possible because the information was available for us to analyse and debate.
It is crucial that we don’t take this for granted. We should not gloss over the fact that despite the many difficulties in the government, the Treasury remains open, accessible and credible.
For a start, this shows that the department takes its work seriously. It understands it obligations.
But, just as importantly, it indicates that it has respect for the public that it is serving. Governments that don’t care about public opinion, don’t tell the public anything. They certainly don’t produce transparent budgets.
It is very encouraging that in South Africa, we don’t have this problem. Despite the many pressures on it, the Treasury still acts in a way that includes the public in what it does. That must be celebrated, just as much as it must be protected.
Words: Patrick Cairns