How can South Africa rank first in a Transparency Survey?

South Africa the most transparent? Really?

Some may find it hard to understand South Africa’s first place amongst 94 countries in the 2010 Open Budget Survey. This is a country that is drafting draconian secrecy legislation. Or where the President is very coy about declaring his financial assets. Further back this is the same government who did its best to keep the wraps on its controversial arms transactions and feels itself free to protect MPs involved in fraudulent travel claims. How can this country rank first in  a transparency survey?

It’s just the Treasury

The Open Budget Index (OBI) is not an overall measure of government transparency, but simply measures the quality and quantity of budget information released by the National Treasury, by all accounts an island of excellence in a sea of government that tends to be less transparent.

The Treasury’s transparency culture was established under the leadership of legendary Finance Minister Trevor Manuel. Minister Manuel understood early on in his reign that budget transparency would help him get control of the budget deficit by controlling the nine troublesome provinces and attract foreign investment. The details of exactly what budget information got South Africa its first place is available here.

Its budget transparency, not accountability

The OBI measures budget transparency, not accountability. Accountability requires many other things, like effective checks and balances, a robust separation of powers, serious party political competition, many of which are compromised in the case of South Africa.

As an example, the South African Parliament  has the legal mandate to amend the budget. But  South Africa’s party list system and the electoral dominance of the African National Congress is likely to translate any proposed amendment into a challenge of senior party by junior party members. If national cabinet has approved the budget, it is hard to see how lowly MPs will succeed in amending it.

Where does South Africa go from here?

A high level of budget transparency is a key pre-condition for accountability for budget accountability. If we don’t know what government spends on, we wouldn’t even know which questions to ask. But as we indicated above, budget transparency isn’t a sufficient condition for budget accountability.

The South African Parliament seem to be taking its new powers seriously and engaging with the budget process more thoroughly than ever before. It is also displaying greater confidence in confronting senior national ministers over service delivery issues. This vigour may also  be facilitated by growing divisions in the ruling party.

Lets hope that South Africa’s Rolls Royce budget transparency machinery gets the accountability institutions and culture that it deserves.

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