Education budget shows government has its spending priorities wrong
Taxpayers fork out nine times more to imprison someone than to educate a child
SA is a developmental state with very little evidence to point to that classification. If anything, the ANC-led government has exhibited nothing but antidevelopmental thinking, not just in its overall ineptitude in delivering basic services that are supposed to contribute to the development of the country, but by misprioritising services and objectives. Nowhere is this more evident than in the government’s education investment.
Finance minister Tito Mboweni’s most recent budget submission revealed that it costs the SA taxpayer just more than R15,000 per month to keep a prisoner in prison, while the state spends about R1,770 a month to keep a child in school — the SA taxpayer spends nine times more to imprison someone than to educate a child.
Considering inflation, the government will be investing even less to keep a child in school over the next three years, year on year, and if SA’s economic luck remains the same it won’t be long before the National Treasury has to spend more money servicing the debt burden than investing in education.
Granted, the public school population is exponentially bigger than the prison population, but regarding state planning that should not matter. The cost per person (learner vs prisoner) is what matters most because it more pointedly illuminates the priorities of the government. This is not a new phenomenon; this spending misprioritisation has been a component of our fundamentally compromised democracy since its inception.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that we necessarily spend less on imprisoning people. The SA Human Rights Commission and Constitutional Court have been clear on the minimum standards of treatment of prisoners, in line with the bill of rights and human rights charter, and that comes at a hefty price.
Nor am I suggesting that we necessarily imprison fewer people so we spend less on imprisonment, though if you speak to the right social democrat you will hear compelling arguments backed by substantial data that suggest the country would safer if it were to release most prisoners, and instead of spending R15,000 per month on incarcerating them give them a universal basic income that matches a living wage. Not only would we keep the country safer, but we would get a far better return on investment. A reliable source of income that lifts (especially young) people out of poverty will dramatically reduce their chances of a first offence and will, as history has shown, reduce the overall recidivism rate. Of course, I’m not talking about releasing murderers and rapists.
The current and ongoing spending and investment misprioritisation points to a government that is reactive in its nation-building efforts, not proactive
You need not be a Harvard economics PhD to intuitively tell that if the government got education right we would have a significantly less of a crime, safety and security problem on our hands. Year after year, from Trevor Manuel to Tito Mboweni, finance ministers have boasted about how basic education expenditure is the biggest line item in our budget. Presumably this is supposed to imply that government prioritises education above all other investment and spending. This inference is not axiomatic for the same reason that economists pay closer attention to GDP per capita as an economic indicator than they do to GDP.
Government officials often point out that SA spends a higher percentage of GDP on education than most countries — and this is true. We spend more on education as a percentage of GDP on average than say, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. But the US, an OECD member state, spends nearly R200,000 per capita on primary and secondary education, which is almost 10 times more than what SA spends, and even if you consider purchasing power parity the spend per capita is still significantly higher.
I would not blame you for thinking that while taxpayers spend a lot of money on education the quality and output of educational institutions do not reflect the investment made. Education leadership crisis notwithstanding, consider this: if the children in your family are now in private schools, would they still get the same quality of education and educational experience for R21,250 a year — including all non-classroom support such as extracurricular activities and a daily meal, for instance?
I don’t think merely spending more on education is a panacea for our cocktail of social and economic problems. There is a leadership crisis that’s sunk deep into the crevices of our fundamentally antiquated education system, but investing more (and correctly) will take us a long way towards fixing not only the stark disparity in our priorities, but also the overall output.
The current and ongoing spending and investment misprioritisation points to a government that is reactive in its nation-building efforts, not proactive. Very little developmental thinking and action take place in reactive leadership.
By the way, if you think the second-biggest political party in the country, the DA, would do a better job conceptualising development prioritisation and spending, you might be deeply mistaken. The DA-led city of Cape Town, for instance, is just as counterintuitive as the ANC. In Cape Town the DA spent on average R31.6m of its social development budget trying to assist 14,000 homeless people.
By any stretch of the imagination, R31.6m is not nearly enough to lift 14,000 people out of homelessness. During the same period Cape Town spent 10 times more — R336.3m — persecuting and criminalising homeless people. Policing, fining, arresting and processing homeless people through the criminal justice system simply cannot be a better spend of taxpayer money than prioritising lifting homeless people out of poverty into dignified and humane housing, let alone temporary shelters.
According to The Cost of Homelessness in Cape Town Report 2020, homelessness costs Cape Town about R744m a year. That’s about R4,320 per homeless person on the street per month.
It is clear that the SA government, and the shadow DA government (no-longer-in-waiting?) — spends more money, time and policy, legislative, research & development tools treating the symptoms of our problems rather than curing their root cause.
• Dickson, a former communications adviser to the home affairs ministry, is a political analyst, policy and political risk consultant and radio broadcaster, most recently hosting Late Night Talk on 702.
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