THE past few weeks have been hectic for local and central governments as they engaged in the budgeting process for 2024.
Public budgeting is one of the essential components of governance at the core of society's social, economic, and political matrix. From a financial perspective, the national and local budgets are a means of appropriating and allocating resources for economic development.
Beyond the technical and economic function of public expenditure, from a political perspective, national and local government budgets can be viewed as the tangible actualisation of the ‘social contract.’
In this perspective, citizens’ legitimate expectation of social protection and delivery of public goods finds expression in the public budgets.
A fundamental reality of budgets is that they are not neutral; they are profoundly political and are a statement of the government’s political priorities. In essence, public budgets either entrench and reproduce injustice or tackle, negotiate, and transform the contours of social justice in society. This is why a participatory budget process is essential.
Tokenisation of the process
There are clear frameworks that seek to strengthen participatory budgeting processes for our government, both local and central. If you ask me, in some instances, the conduct of central and local government officials in the budget consultation process is a cause of concern.
It has been more of ticking boxes, with the public officials turning to automatons that dispense with a ritual they clearly detest. In the end, participation in the process is tokenised without an iota of commitment to genuinely considering citizens’ interests. This is despite the fact that the citizens are expected to — in fact, they are forced to bear the burden of financing that budget through taxes, levies, and rates.
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Bakalanga have an interesting saying to protest this conduct. They quip, “banotisukisa debwe len’ombe dzatisakadla!” (They force us to tan hides for cows whose beef we never ate).
Problematic as it may be, my instalment is not focused on the deficits of the budgeting process but rather on a specific budget vote in the national budget, which, in my view, is insincere — the devolution funds. Before we delve into the funds, let us address the painted donkey in the room.
Devolution is a painted donkey!
In 2018, a hilarious news headline from credible international news outlets including CNN captured my humour. The headline read, A zoo in Egypt is accused of painting a donkey and passing it off as a zebra.
One fine day, a zoo manager in Egypt with a hyperactive imagination decided that the zoo was incomplete without a zebra. So, the creative fellow ordered black and white paint and a roller brush. He painted black and white stripes on it. The poor donkey became a born-again zebra!
Satisfied, and probably with a sinister smile, he placed it in the zoo and had unsuspecting (read as stupid until further notice) tourists paying to see the unsuspecting zebra. It took an unsuspecting student who posted the pictures of his priceless moments at the zoo with a zebra to unsuspecting followers on social media for the hoax to be uncovered!
The problem with our zebra was not its stripes or the longer-than-normal ears. The problem is that it was never a zebra from birth. Yes, the donkey belongs to the same family as zebras, but it simply is not a zebra.
If you look at Chapter 14 of the Constitution, which constitutes the bulk of the foundation of devolution of power, it is flawed. Chapter 14 of the constitution is a poisoned chalice that even-handed constitutionality condemns us to drink from!
Its framework is more of decentralisation of services than devolution of power. That is not what we asked for during the constitution-making process. But then, that process was replete with clashes of political interests, which resulted in concessions and compromises.
One of the casualties of this bickering was the devolution clause. We ended up with a painted donkey for devolution!
Molestation of the 5% allocation
You see, the Constitution provides for 5% of national revenue collection to be allocated as fiscal transfers to provincial and local government tiers to promote devolution.
At his imminent budget speech, Finance and Investment Promotion minister Mthuli Ncube will no doubt speak glowingly about “the ‘high impact’ of completed and ongoing developmental projects as evidence of devolution funds bearing fruit,” including purchasing fire-tenders.
In the same breath, he will lament - with the irony lost on him — about how “the overpricing of goods and services by contractors did not spare the devolution programme, thereby affecting its smooth implementation.”
To jog your memory, dear reader, the fire-tenders mentioned were purchased by the ‘central government’ from Belarus at an overpriced cost of close to US$500 000 each without a say from the local authorities in whose name the equipment was purchased, using their ‘devolution funds!’.
An animal without legs
The problem with the devolution funds is not just how the funds are used or misused but rather how they are allocated in the first place. The devolution funds, as provided by Section 301 of the Constitution, envisages the existence of an Act of Parliament to translate it into an administrative framework.
In the absence of such a legal framework anchoring it — as is the case, the distribution and use of devolution funds is at the mercy of political caprices and whims. This exposes it to the risk of manipulation and abuse.
Worse than our painted donkey in an Egyptian zoo, the devolution donkey in Zimbabwe has no legs!
The continued allocation of the 5% of national revenue collection to local authorities without a legal framework means that it is the central government that directs how and for what purposes the funds should be used.
It also means that it is the central government that decides if, and when the funds should be disbursed.
As is the case with fire tenders, the central government wields unbridled power in terms of appropriating devolution funds for other priorities without consent from, or even consultation with the local authorities. This is a classic example of what devolution is not!
In such a case, my people would say, “takabhata makumbo n’holo unabeni” (we are only holding the legs, the head has owners).
The sober view
Devolution of power is central to more effective delivery of public goods and services. It is also a potent model for equalisation and leaving no one and no place behind, as the President is will not to say.
While it is flawed in how it is expressed in the constitution, devolution is further undermined by insincere piecemeal application.
When devolution funds were first allocated four years ago, the expectation was that they would be deployed towards building the institutional and structural foundation of devolution.
This would have meant establishing provincial councils and strengthening local authorities such that they have the institutional architecture for a devolved system of government.
While the legal framework is not yet in place, such a matrix for deploying devolution funds would have demonstrated intent and commitment to actualise on devolution.
It would have been a more meaningful purpose to which the funds are deployed. That would be a demonstration of sincerity to implement devolution.
Sadly, that is not likely to be the case even in the 2024 national budget. For now, devolution funds remain one of the instruments with which the Local Government minister meddles in and overbears on the work of local authorities.
It also remains subject to the whims and caprices of political interests.
Ironically, the framework in which devolution funds are currently administered is the antithesis of what devolution is about. It demonstrates the central government’s insincerity.
This is my sober view; I take no prisoners.
- Dumani is an independent political analyst. He writes in his personal capacity. — X profile: @NtandoDumani.