SONA Schmona and Other Things in February

Nearing the end of February, we have a lot to reflect on, chew on and (eventually) spit out.  Both the State of the Nation Address (SONA) by our President, Jacob Zuma, as well as the Budget Speech by Pravin Gordhan, our Minister of Finance, left a bitter taste in my mouth.

During SONA, our country’s President aims to convey to everyone in South Africa what the state of this nation actually is. This event also marks the opening of Parliament for the year and, say what you want, it is exciting to see Parliament in full cry. For some general reasons to care about the SONA address, please have a look at the Activate! Change Driver’s Network page.  The issues that the President mentions and highlights during this address, will be the issues that get special attention from government in the coming year. As coordinator of the Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign, I was particularly interested to hear the President’s expressed views on gender based violence, services for survivors of sexual offences and, of course, the importance of the rollout of sexual offences courts. It is for this very reason that I noted the President’s very loud silence on all of the aforementioned.

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The Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign protested outside the Athlone and Khayelitsha Magistrate’s Courts during 16 Days of Activism to demand that all rape survivors have access to  Sexual Offences Courts. (Pic: Alexa Sedgwick)

With great hope I looked forward to the Budget Speech presented by Minister Gordhan a couple of days ago. His speech is important for two reasons. Firstly, he tells the country where government will get its money from and secondly, he tells us what the government’s spending priorities will be for the coming year. In order to fund the rollout of sexual offences courts, government would have to allocate a significant budget to the relevant departments to make courts with specialised services, personnel and infrastructure a reality for all survivors of sexual offences. Again there was no mention at all of the importance of support to survivors or the rollout of specialised courts to deal with sexual offences. This tells me that the chances are very slim that there will be an increased budget allocated to the rollout of sexual offences courts or the provision of psycho-social support to survivors.

Although the Department of Justice has, in 2013 already, promised to roll out sexual offences courts, we must not get disheartened when we realise that these issues are still very low on government’s current list of priorities. This situation provides a great opportunity for the Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign, together with our partners and communities, to continue to lobby and advocate for the rollout of sexual offences courts to make sure that all survivors of sexual offences have access to survivor-centred justice.

SONA and the Budget Speech have again shown us that government is so preoccupied with other pressing concerns that it is a massive endeavour to shift their attention to sexual offences. However, when you follow us on Facebook, you help us sweeten the bitter taste that these two speeches have left in all our mouths. If we lobby and advocate strategically over the course of this year, who knows what will happen in #SONA2018…?

 

 

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Jeanne Bodenstein

Jeanne is the Advocacy Coordinator at the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust and heads the Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign. She likes wine, pizza and recently started growing herbs.

It seems an opportune time to comment on Parliament

It seems an opportune time to comment on Parliament. After all, the very foundation of its colonial decorum is being questioned by many, and it has recently done little to indicate the integrity, efficacy and ethics that one would expect from the arm of government tasked with oversight.

Our President, it seems, can be both lawless and celebrated by ‘honourable’ members in the plenary, and we the public are supposed to sit back whilst our tax and VAT are spent on refurbishments rather than services. When things get too sensitive, Parliament is simply put on hold, while the party asking the real and only question the nation wants the President to answer is thrown out.

But there is more to the working of Parliament than just the plenary. The plenary is, around the world, an opportunity for grandstanding and heckling. The work of Parliament happens in Parliamentary Committee meetings. It is here that legislation is debated, that oversight is proposed and undertaken, that opportunities for public participation are facilitated, and that ‘cooperative governance’ (as yet unsuccessful) is considered. So what does it mean when the number of committees is cut, whilst the number of Departments they are required to oversee grows? This question is particularly pertinent for the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), where the number of Committees stands at a paltry eleven.

Perhaps it’s worth clarifying what the focus of the NCOP should be. As the Council of Provinces, the focus is essentially provincial. Yes, national budgets and legislation are (or should be) considered there, but when it comes to oversight and public participation, the focus is clearly on the nine individual provinces. This is important because much of South Africa’s spending happens at this level, and even more so at the municipal level.

Consider the budget of the Department for Social Development, for example. This money is dispersed to provincial Departments, who can pick and choose the areas they spend on defined, purportedly, by provincial interests. Social Development is responsible for a number of things via their funding of NGOs – shelters, drug and alcohol abuse programs, social workers in the province, Thuthuzela Care Centres, children’s rights, the rights of people with disability, and support for the many abused women in South Africa. But what happens when these critical areas do not receive sufficient funding? What happens when Parliament doesn’t notice? What happens when it has been redesigned not to notice?

Perhaps that sounds very conspiratorial – a grand government scheme to get away with things. But when you consider that the Portfolio Committee on Social Development only considers social development issues, and the Select Committee on Social Services considers issues of social development, health, human settlements, home affairs, and water and sanitation, then you have to ask, how is the Committee supposed to adequately or regularly check whether the DSD is adequately funding NGOs? The truthful answer is it can’t. And if the Portfolio Committee doesn’t get around to it, then NGO funding doesn’t get checked at all.

The same could be said for women’s issues. At a Portfolio Committee level there is the Portfolio Committee on Women in the Presidency. This committee is tasked with oversight over the Department of Women in the Presidency, which to date has not clarified what it is that they will actually be doing. Their website still speaks to issues of children and disability, hangovers from the previous department. They don’t know what their budgetary allocation will be for this year. Even when they are called before the Committee, they can’t answer. So the work of that Committee is focussed on clarifying the role and responsibilities of the Department of Women in the Presidency, and on hearing from the Commission for Gender Equality. What happens then when women on the ground, the 27 plus million women in South Africa, are not receiving services appropriate to their needs?

The task of looking at what is happening at the provincial level would fall to the Select Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs. Yes, you read that right. This Committee, like the previous one mentioned, is tasked with being an oversight giant. Issues that fall under the mandate of this committee include cooperative governance, traditional affairs, public services and administration, youth, women, and intergovernmental relations. You’ll notice that local government falls in there – which means that every time there is a municipality in crisis it is this committee that must respond. What does that mean for the rights of women? When will those be considered to be in crisis?

The new configuration of committees in the National Council of Provinces has severely hindered the ability of Parliament to support and further women’s rights, or to consider the needs of the numerous NGOs that fund them. The revised structure makes it impossible to adequately fulfil its task as the institution guarding democracy. We should all be very concerned.

Helen Johnston