On the morning of 23rd April 2013, Diakonia Council of Churches and the Democracy Development Programme, with the support of the Konrad Adeauer Stiftung, hosted a briefing aimed at informing citizens and particularly civil society organisations about the 2013/2014 eThekwini municipality budget. The budget was presented by Krish Kumar, the Deputy City Manager: Treasury and Finance for the City of Durban, and the respondent for the day was Roy Chetty, a civil society activist.
Mr. Kumar started with a story: Every day a man rode a really nice bicycle through a police checkpoint with a bag of sand on the side. The man said that he needed the sand to balance the bicycle, but the police did not trust him so they always searched the bag. They never found anything. Eventually the man stopped coming but the police decided they had to find out the mystery. They went to his house and, under agreement of amnesty, they asked him, “What were you smuggling in the sand all those years?” The man said, “I wasn’t smuggling anything in the sand, I was smuggling bicycles! But I had you all so busy looking at the sand that you never noticed the bicycle.”
Kumar said that this is how we treat the city budget. While we get mad at the three million rand spent on hospitality lunches by politicians, only a small portion of the total is under the control of politicians, with discretionary spending at R5.432 billion for 2013/2014. The full budget is R33 billion, most of which is operational costs. By 2016, 40% will be spent on rehabilitation (maintenance and repair of existing infrastructure), 30% on economic development, and 27% on social issues. The full budget was presented at the briefing, and can be found on the City’s website.
Mr Kumar talked about the many challenges facing his office, especially the housing issue. There is a backlog of 410 000 people awaiting houses, and while the city builds between 5000 and 10 000 houses a year that means that there could be a wait of anywhere from 41 to 82 years before all the houses are built, and realistically more people will come in while those are being built. Housing is not part of the local government mandate – the municipality acts as an agent of Department of Human Settlements, who must make budget available for housing. He said that to really help the informal settlements around Durban, one should look at job creation and the delivery of basic services. When one person asked why he was not taking a more than 80 year back log seriously, he said that they were taking it seriously and noted that Durban has actually built more houses than any other city in South Africa (over 160 000) but they are trying to look for more solutions to this problem.
Similarly he lauded some of the big achievements that Durban has made in other areas. It was the first city to provide free water (9000 litres for any property worth less than R250 000), and even though Cape Town and Johannesburg have almost twice as many properties and businesses, Durban is much more affordable to live in and always has a balanced budget.
This did not end all criticism though. The responder, Roy Chetty, noted that while the city spends a lot of money on “Quality Bubbles” designed to bring tourism to Durban, it often neglects the poor, and that in some areas the mega projects meant to help the communities were not actually wanted by the communities, especially the port project and the Durban Bay of Plenty. He also said that the CBD is falling apart and the Early Morning Market is being ignored. In terms of services he said that the price of electricity has doubled in the past few years and that it appears the municipality is actually making a profit on water and electricity, something he thinks should be a free service or at the very least provided at cost. He ended by saying that the R10 billion debt that Durban has incurred cannot be good in the long run.
Kumar stood by the large projects and said that ultimately they will offset their costs, create much needed jobs, and make Durban a world class city. He also noted that over 80% of the discretionary budget is spent on housing and service delivery, far more than was spent on projects (R4.753 billion for Human Settlements and Infrastructure versus R160.156 million for Sustainable Development and City Enterprises). He pointed out that city government cannot shoulder the burden alone, and said that he wanted to see more involvement from Civil Society. He especially liked the idea, proposed by an audience member, of community service awards for students to foster active citizenship amongst the youth. He also suggested community gardens, LED lighting, SMMEs, and having faith groups partner with the city to make more soup kitchens.
Citizens in room addressed a broad range of questions to Mr Kumar – ranging from specific queries about the opening hours of libraries, to strategic concerns about the pace and implementation of housing delivery. Several concrete suggestions were made about ways the delivery of social justice and socio-economic rights can be met. Contentious issues flagged for further engagement include: different strategies to speed up the delivery of essential services to informal settlements, the port expansion, and the allocation of funds to foster economic development vs spending on free services.
Republic of South Africa, May 6, 2013