“People will not be killed by COVID, but they will be killed by hunger”. This assertion by an African woman in the North West province was among 5 000 written responses the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) had received in a survey which had asked the public what their message would be to the President. The survey had also shown that the popularity of the President’s response to the pandemic was at 72%, and while the response had praise for the government’s support thus far, it also indicated great need.
Briefing the Committee on the Appropriation Bill, the HSRC said the focal areas for service delivery currently, and post COVID-19, were:
- Social protection that focused on the poor and marginalised;
- Enhancing the health systems by proceeding with Universal Health Care (UHC) and National Health Insurance (NHI);
- Building basic service infrastructure; and
- Rolling out the new District Planning Model in full-scale.
The impact of COVID-19 posed several challenges for the HSRC in fulfilling its mandate, the major challenge being a reduction in its Parliamentary grant. It was concerned with the budget cuts to local government and its management component, as well as traditional leadership. Food needed to be considered due to a high prevalence of hunger. Special attention had to be given to sanitation. The large reduction in infrastructure spending at Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) institutions needed to be reconsidered. The health budget annual average growth of 5.1% was insufficient, given the immediate and long-term health challenges of South African people. There was a need for stronger prioritisation of expenditure on innovation, science and technology from the public sector, and for promotion of increased private sector expenditure in this area.
The HSRC’s survey had asked if people would like there to be an intervention regarding alcohol and tobacco sales. The nationally representative finding was under 15% support. There were other issues that needed to be considered, such as support to addicts and the “sin tax,” which was a significant source of income to SARS. Serious attention should also be paid to the complaints of corruption around the distribution of food parcels.
During the discussion, Members raised concerns over the research results of a high prevalence of hunger among South Africans during the lockdown, the representativeness of the samples in rural areas, the recommended increases in the budget allocations and the source of funding for them, as well as the South African Revenue Service’s (SARS’s) revenue generation loss.
The HSRC said some of the questions posed by Members during the discussion would require research in order to respond to the Committee definitively.
The Chairperson welcomed everyone in attendance.
The Committee Secretary noted two apologies from Ms N Ntangwini (EFF) and Mr N Kwankwa (UDM), who had been bereaved. The Chairperson sent his condolences to Mr Kwankwa and his family.
Ms D Peters (ANC) said a notice had been sent out advising that Ms R Komane (EFF) was no longer a Member of the Committee.
HSRC briefing on Appropriation Bill
Prof Crain Soudien, Chief Executive Officer: Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), said the mandate of the Council was research aimed at addressing developmental challenges, formulating and monitoring effective policy, stimulating public debate, assisting in building research capacity and responding to the needs of vulnerable and marginalised groups in society. The impact of COVID-19 posed several challenges for the HSRC in fulfilling its mandate, the major challenge being a reduction in its Parliamentary grant. The reduction had a ripple effect that was both upward and downward. Other challenges included a negative impact on the HSRC’s ability to achieve set output targets, a disruption to the conventional fieldwork modalities for its large-scale surveys and on the centrally coordinated release of data.
Prof Narnia Bohler-Muller, Executive Director: Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery Research Programme, HSRC, listed three concerns over vote four (service delivery) under fiscal austerity. The HSRC was concerned with the budget cuts to the local government and management component. The support was for performance monitoring, so it posed a risk to service delivery. Another concern was the reduction to traditional leadership, as their support was required in rural areas. Lastly, amidst the water shortage, the supply of water through water tanks stretched the fiscus even further.
The HSRC’s research with the University of Johannesburg (UJ) had found that the multi-dimensions of human insecurities arising from the recession and compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, should be considered regarding budget redirections. Food needed to be considered due to a high prevalence of hunger. Special attention needed to be given to sanitation. In order to achieve personal hygiene, there had to to be reliable access to clean water and waste removal services. The R20 billion reallocated to health was necessary, but insufficient. Lastly, household income needed to be protected through economic opportunities. Investment in basic service infrastructure was critical to ensure general household and community resilience to the pandemic.
The COVID-19 democracy survey conducted with UJ revealed a high frequency of hunger during the lockdown, the highest levels being in hostels or student residences at and in informal settlements. The national average of people who had gone to bed feeling hungry was almost 30%. The survey had been done in two phases, the first completed from 13 to 18 April 2020, and its outcomes were presented ion the diagrams. The second was from 18 to 27 April, and the outcomes were still being processed. However, between the two phases, there had been an increase of 5% in the average frequency of hunger. Informal settlements were the largest contributors to the increase.
The main source of water was important due to hygiene and sanitation concerns, such as washing hands. Among those households with taps in their houses, the lowest frequency was among households in informal settlements without backyards, followed by households dwelling in backyard shacks. The national average of households with a tap inside their house was only 60.5%. This needed to be considered when looking at service delivery.
The HSRC had asked the public what their message would be to the President, and had received over 5 000 written responses. Out of the 5 000, quotes from four messages were presented to the Committee, one of which highlighted how Athlone residents were struggling to receive food parcels. Another quote from an African woman in the North West Province had said, “People would not be killed by COVID, but they would be killed by hunger”. The popularity of the President’s response to COVID-19 was at 72%. The quotes had praise for government’s support thus far, but also indicated great need.
The focal areas for service delivery currently, and post COVID-19, were:
- Social protection that focused on the poor and marginalized;
- Enhancing the health systems by proceeding with Universal Health Care (UHC) and National Health Insurance (NHI);
- Building basic service infrastructure; and
- Rolling out the new District Planning Model in full-scale.
Prof Sharlene Swartz, Executive Director: Educations and Skills Development, HSRC, said that the 2020 Appropriations Assessment Matrix indicated a mechanism to analyse the economic and social implications of the current situation in the short and long term, according to budget vote items. For each budget vote item, it analysed the allocation and changes, the item’s importance, the HSRC’s recommended budget change, and the item’s relevance to the COVID-19 crisis and the country’s development priorities. The HSRC hoped to assess budget votes through this matrix in future.
Regarding votes 3 and 13, the budget increase of 2-3% was insufficient as the public employment programmes, which address multiple priorities, needed to be upscaled. The budget increase of 6.7% on vote 16 on school nutrition was insufficient, as COVID-19 was going to increase the number of school children in need of school nutrition due to employment challenges. Regarding vote 19, the social assistance response was welcomed, but global research showed that an abrupt withdrawal at the end of six months of these top-up provisions without alternate interventions in place, while the situation remained largely unchanged, may have a potential destabilizing impact on the economy, poverty and vulnerability levels and social stability.
The 18-27% increase in welfare was welcomed, but it might not be enough post COVID-19. The 76% increase towards Early Childhood Development was welcomed, and should be protected. The state needed to protect the budget increase that was under 6% towards the National Development Agency, and also enhance support for and build partnership with the non-profit organisation (NPO) sector in order to deliver programmes to support vulnerable households.
Regarding vote 29, all the priorities of the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) could be addressed by prioritising secured farmland access and use by smallholders and households, to enable their expansion of food production. Regarding vote 16 on basic education, infrastructure spending was still critical and the pandemic had accelerated the need for tablets for school children. On vote 17, the large reduction in infrastructure spending at technical and vocational education and training (TVET) facilities needed to be reconsidered. Universities were likely to face a financial crisis post COVID-19, as there were calls for refunds.
Regarding vote 33 on human settlements, de-densification to temporary relocation areas was controversial and should be reconsidered. Backyard housing and the shift from subsidy housing to serviced sites were potential alleviators to the housing situation.
Prof Khangelani Zuma, Executive Director: Social Aspects of Public Health (SAPH) research programme, said COVID-19 had tested all the health promotion strategies. Addressing key constraints facing health systems required a re-orientation of health systems towards comprehensive primary health care and institutional reforms for implementation of National Health Insurance. Health promotion was key to disease prevention and spread. A study on knowledge about COVID-19 prevention had revealed that there was a high level of knowledge on prevention – but did it translate to behavioural change?
Regarding the budget implications, the health budget annual average growth of 5.1% insufficient, given the immediate and long-term health challenges of South African people. The experiences of people during the lockdown were related to the realities of many people even without lockdown. Approximately 13.2% of the population indicated that their chronic medication was inaccessible during the lockdown. Approximately 13%-25% of those living in informal settlements, rural (traditional tribal areas) and farms indicated their chronic medications were not easily accessible. Primary health care needed to be strengthened. The 11% increase in health expenditure on HIV, tuberculosis (TB), malaria and community outreach would be sufficient to meet the ongoing epidemic spread.
A significant and direct allocation of the Social Impact Bond related to behavioural research should be directed to the HSRC. The COVID-19 outbreak had shown the need to establish constant data collection through the creation of an outbreak observatory for the monitoring of indicators for COVID-19, other outbreaks and diseases. Such an initiative could also assist with timeous responses. In order for the government response to be holistic to the human condition, social sciences needed to be well resourced.
Dr Glenda Kruss van der Heever, Deputy Executive Director: Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (CeSTII) programme, said there was a need for stronger prioritisation of expenditure on innovation, science and technology from the public sector, and for promotion of increased private sector expenditure. This would help the country know how to respond to the ongoing development challenges. Innovation, science and technology (IST) were critical to structural economic reforms, to promote productivity, investment, inclusive and sustainable development.
Gross expenditure on research and development (R&D) over the gross domestic product (GDP) ratio had been static over time. R&D expenditure by the public sector was growing, but there was a decline in spending on innovation, science and technology (IST) research by the private sector. This meant the national system of innovation could not grow, which would constrain the country’s future growth and development. In comparison with strong economies, South Africa relied largely on government sources of R&D funds. There needed to be more private sector investment in IST. The HSRC proposed including an innovation requirement within public sector procurement contracts as a potential R&D stimulus mechanism.
Mr Z Mlenzana, (ANC) requested the HSRC to advise the Committee on which service delivery areas should undergo reductions. Regarding basic education, in light of the disparities between schools, what measures could be put in place to mitigate the disparity caused by the missed school days during the lockdown? He asked how the huge infrastructure backlog could be approached.
Prof. Swartz responded that the missed schooldays were going to be cognitively and nutritionally detrimental to students in impoverished areas. It was not about regaining lost school days per se, but it was about regaining lost cognitive development. The education channel on television and radio could help offset the cognitive losses. Government could also assist with distributing learning materials through the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) pick-up points for educational material, in addition to child grants. The former Model C schools would be fine, as most learners would have parents available for home schooling, and would proceed with online learning. However, it was important to note that within those schools there students from impoverished areas as well.
Ms M Dikgale (ANC) asked where the survey on the prevalence of hunger during lockdown had been conducted. She did not think the percentages given were reflective of the circumstances in Limpopo, especially the rural areas. Regarding the creation of economic opportunities, how could people in rural areas be assisted with funding projects? She agreed that the reduction in funding to traditional leaders created a challenge for people in rural areas, especially the elderly.
Prof Leickness Simbayi, Deputy Chief Executive Officer (DCEO): Research, HSRC, explained how representative the sample was in terms of informal settlements and rural areas. Two surveys had been completed to date. The first survey had been done before lockdown and was critiqued for being a biased sample, as the majority of respondents were from urban settings. The second survey showed more rural participation through deliberate expansion from online-based surveys, to actual calling. The second survey was more representative than the first, but such a survey was benchmarked on the national population.
Mr O Mathafa (ANC) said one of the President’s goals was for economic growth to exceed population growth, and a key driver of this was innovation. Did the HSRC have a view on why there had been a decline in innovation R&D investment by the private sector? He agreed that there was a high probability of social unrest due to the deep inequality in the county. Was there a study to see if local government was adequately prepared to mitigate outbreaks? Were the disaster management funds reserved for local government sufficient to meet the needs of the country amidst outbreaks of this level?
Mr A Shaik Emam (NFP) asked how seriously government took the research findings on the prevalence of hunger. The presentation had mentioned a South African Revenue Service (SARS) revenue generation loss of R66 billion, but yesterday the amount had been updated to a loss of over R270 billion. What effect would this have on the government’s ability to deliver services? How long would it take for the country to recover to some form of normality? Had the HSRC done research on the Human Settlement Development Bank’s potential to resolve the housing issue regarding the 1.9 million people mentioned in the presentation? How much research was being doing on rural areas? Should government not make rural areas semi-urban in order to make them more self-sufficient, thus bringing industries to rural areas through incentivising businesses?
Prof Soudien responded that how seriously government took the HSRC could be illustrated by the engagements during the COVID-19 outbreak. For instance, the Department of Science and Innovation had immediately come to the HSRC when the disease gained traction in order to understand how South Africa would respond to the disease. The HSRC had also been given the opportunity to speak directly to the National Coronavirus Command Council. The HSRC had a good relationship with its aligned Department, although it could be better.
Prof Bohler-Muller said that the rise in the SARS revenue shortfall to R270 billion showed that the country was facing very difficult times. The R66 billion had been data from the Minister of Finance’s intervention.
Prof Swartz said a lot of the HSRC’s work was on rural areas, with much of the research on food security and making rural areas more self-sufficient. Research showed that a lot of people had returned to rural communities as a result of the lockdown.
Prof Simbayi said no one knew when the crisis might end, but based on observations from other countries, the initial phase lasted two to three months, and thereafter there was a drop in infections. However, there was concern over a possible resurgence of the disease unless treatment became available within the coming year.
Mr D Joseph (DA) asked which HSRC programmes would be compromised due to the budget cut. He expressed concern over service delivery and the challenge regarding the role traditional leaders needed to play. He asked if the HSRC had done any research on the alcohol and tobacco implications under lockdown. Was there research on where the savings from the current alcohol-related hospital programmes should be shifted to?
Prof Soudien said the programmes that would suffer due to the grant were still being assessed. The reduction negatively impacted the HSRC’s capacity to initiate new research. It would have to adjust its targets. For example, the training target would have to be compromised, the consequence of which was not being able to capacitate future generations to do what was presently being done. If a country did not have the scientific capacity and expertise to deal with the complex problems it was challenged with, it would have to rely on reason and emotions in its future decision-making.
Prof Bohler-Muller said the HSRC’s survey had asked if people would like there to be an intervention regarding alcohol and tobacco sales. The nationally representative finding was under 15% support. There were other issues that needed to be considered, such as support to addicts and the “sin tax,” which was a significant source of income to SARS. She pleaded for serious attention to be paid to the complaints of corruption around the distribution of food parcels.
Prof Zuma said more research needed to be done on the economic benefits of not making alcohol available during the lockdown, as well as on the redirection of savings from resources that would have been used towards the consequences of alcohol abuse.
Mr X Qayiso (ANC) asked to what extent the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) and Community Works Programme (CWP) had translated into the quality of skills the government was looking for. Regarding land reform, what was the impact of COVID-19 on food security, and how could the budget navigate this impact? Could the country’s higher education institutions match the development of the fourth industrial revolution? How could government policy and the human settlement budget ensure that local government was adequately prepared to adapt and deal with a pandemic outbreak in the future? What was the extent of the impact on patients on chronic medication?
Prof Swartz said that smallholder farming was one way of ensuring food security. The EPWP and CWP also contributed towards food security and infrastructure development. There was a debate on progression in higher education regarding the fourth industrial revolution. There was the dilemma of looking forward into future jobs and skills requirements, but also not neglecting basic issues of students going hungry and so forth.
Prof Zuma said the issue of inaccessible chronic medication to 13.2% of the population referred not only to the current situation, but also to the reality of many people in informal settlements who were not in close proximity to where primary healthcare services were rendered. This indicated the government needed to invest a lot in primary healthcare and bring services closer to where people were.
Ms Peters asked what the role of the HSRC was in the planning processes of local government. What was the HSRC’s relationship with the School of Governance? Regarding the frequency of hunger in student residences, had there been an impact study on National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS)? Regarding the high prevalence of hunger in informal settlements, were these proclaimed or un-proclaimed (illegally occupied) informal settlements? Similarly, with the findings on the main source of water, did the survey refer to proclaimed or un-proclaimed informal settlements? Were the National Development Plan (NDP) targets under threat due to COVID-19?
Prof Soudien responded that the HSRC had a working relationship with the metros, and with local and provincial government. It was able to do commissioned research with several governments. However, more could be done, as the HSRC had the capacity and will to do more. The HSRC was close to the School of Governance, and hoped to continue that into the future.
Prof Bohler-Muller said that due to a new development, the HSRC would be working more closely with the national School of Governance to understand the challenges faced by public servants during this time.
Mr A Sarupen (DA) raised two concerns regarding the cuts in Vote 4:
- Had the HSRC looked at the provincial government departmental budgets? Had it looked at the historical under-spending in these programmes before reaching its conclusion?
- Provincial governments set aside support for traditional leadership. National government paid traditional leaders for attendance at the House of Traditional Leaders. Had the HSRC looked at the impact of not attending to the ability of the House to convene its finances before reaching the conclusion that had been presented?
The Chairperson asked how far the country had progressed in attaining inclusive economic development. What instruments did government have to achieve this objective? What should the country do to address the issue of income inequality? Was fiscal austerity still the correct characterisation of the budget, despite the government’s announcement of a R500 billion stimulus package? R30 billion had been reallocated to health, yet the presentation still spoke of insufficient funds. When would the budget for health be enough? He requested the HSRC to comment on the capacity of the national and provincial health departments to deliver on the public’s expectations. He remarked that the presentation was clear on how there was insufficient expenditure in several areas, but it was silent on revenue enhancing programmes that would enable the recommended increases.
Prof Bohler-Muller acknowledged that fiscal austerity was not the correct characterisation. Instead, fiscal constraints were a better suited characterisation.
Prof Swartz said that there needed to be more debate on macroeconomic policies to deal with inequality. The levers and drivers were public spending, taxation, money supply and interest rates, which were largely part of macroeconomic policy. They were currently doing research on what made stimulus packages work well and how to avoid some of the unintended consequences.
Prof Soudien said some of the questions would require research in order to respond to the Committee definitively. It could not respond to the following three questions unequivocally and categorically:
- ‘What should be cut in the budget?’ asked by Mr Mlenzana.
- ‘Where should the money come from?’ asked by the Chairperson.
- ‘How long would it take for the economy to get back on its feet?’ asked by Mr Shaik Emam.
These were difficult questions that the HSRC had opinions on, but it was not in a position to respond to them categorically.
The meeting was adjourned
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