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In March this year the Western Cape passed a R29.55bn main budget to deliver quality education, the largest departmental budget in the provincial government and the largest education budget to date in the province.

But in June we began to hear whispers that something was seriously wrong, and that national government was in trouble. We heard rumours that national government couldn’t afford the wage deal, and that a full-blown fiscal emergency was looming.

When the national finance minister delivered his medium-term budget policy statement on November 1, the sheer scale of the national fiscal emergency became clear. The National Treasury promised us just 78% of the cost of the wage agreement for education and health, and then gave our department only 64% of the cost. That means the national government is shortchanging us by R537m.

At the same time, the department of basic education cut the Western Cape’s conditional grants by R179.4m, including:

  • The education infrastructure grant has been cut by R156.9m;
  • The maintenance component of the early child development grant been cut by R14m;
  • The mathematics, science & technology grant has been cut by R4.3m;
  • The HIV grant been cut by R3.1m;
  • The expanded public works programme grant has been cut by R207,000.

In other words, the national government has dealt a R716.4m blow to our ability to build and maintain schools and pay teachers. The wage agreement comes into effect automatically and we must fund it immediately, so we have no choice but to find the money somewhere, somehow.

We will have to cut R143.5m from the #BackOnTrack budget this year, which will put an end to our plans to expand the number of and resources for pupils in grades 8 and 10, and the parent programme.

Cutting both ways

The cuts we face to infrastructure spending are twofold. First, national government has slashed our conditional grants related to infrastructure, which has the obvious effect of reducing our infrastructure budget directly.

Second, having been short-changed by National Treasury in terms of the wage agreement negotiated without us, we had to reprioritise funds from elsewhere, including from our infrastructure budget.

The net effect is a R248.1m cut to our spending on school infrastructure, which will obviously limit our ability to deliver new schools and maintain existing ones. And the cut to our wage agreement funding requires cost containment measures in terms of staffing.

With effect from October 18 2023 the National Treasury centrally froze a variety of categories of vacant posts, including senior and middle management, but excluding front-line staff. In addition, from April 1 2024, the start of the next financial year, we will have to do the following to avoid cutting staff:

  • Stop the provision of substitute teachers, except to cover teachers on maternity leave;
  • Stop the provision of post level 1 contract teachers in place of those acting in vacant school management team promotion posts, excluding vacant principal posts;
  • Any vacant post level 1 posts must be advertised in a vacancy bulletin, and cannot be filled with a contract appointment; and
  • Vacant public service posts at schools must be advertised in a vacancy bulletin, and cannot be filled with a contract appointment.

The upshot is filling of posts is going to take longer, and staff may need to take on extra work. Aside from the sheer scale of the blow from the National Treasury, the medium-term adjustment has had two unusual features: the entire budget period has been characterised by extreme uncertainty, and for the first time the cuts are an immediate, in-year blow to our budget — at the exact time when demand for placement is highest.

The warnings that National Treasury would leave us in the lurch on the wage agreement meant we had no choice but to pull the handbrake on spending from June this year until further clarity was provided. We were essentially placed in a holding pattern by the national government for five months. This environment of extreme uncertainty had an immediate effect on our plans for infrastructure, as we could not enter into contractor agreements without having certainty that we would have the funds to pay them.

With the National Treasury putting  the brakes on all spending between June and October, we have two months to complete the work for the start of the 2024 school year. Moreover, we have no indication of what the medium term holds, which makes it extremely hard to plan for the next three years.

National budget collapse

There is no way to sugarcoat this: the national budget process has collapsed. We no longer have a three-year budget process. We don’t even have a one-year budget process. What we do have is a pay-as-you-go budget process.

This is particularly damaging for the education sector, because our service delivery calendar does not align to the financial year. Schools open in January, not at the end of March, so we have a delivery deadline that is a mere two months after the announcement of the national medium-term budget.

It is difficult to find hope in the face of the mismanagement of the national economy. It is difficult to find optimism when we know how much tougher things will get financially. And it is difficult to make plans when there is so much uncertainty over the budget for the next three years.

But even when the national government has dealt such a severe blow to our province we will continue to fight to deliver quality education to the pupils of the Western Cape. We will continue provide extra classes for learners and extra training for teachers through the #BackOnTrack programme.

We will build new schools and classrooms to accommodate the number of learners needing places for the 2024 school year. We will still include two new special schools and an additional 28 classrooms at existing schools for pupils with special needs.

We will provide the additional support promised for pupils with special needs. And we will not stop fighting to get the budget we need to deliver quality education for every learner, in every classroom, in every school in the Western Cape.

• Maynier is Western Cape education MEC.

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