OPINION

“What is your business in Council?” - My experience trying to participate in the City of Cape Town’s budget

SJC members explain the budget. Photo courtesy of the SJC.
Axolile Notywala    

Every year the mayor calls for residents to participate in the budget process by making submissions on Cape Town’s draft budget. Last year fewer than forty people wrote submissions and only 23 were from the public. This has been the trend for the last couple of years.

It is a R37.5 billion budget that affects all of our lives. The amount of money that gets allocated to Khayelitsha makes the difference between five or ten families having to share a toilet. It determines whether we feel safe at night with streetlights that work.

But when we tried to participate this year, we found out just how difficult it is, especially for people like us from Khayelitsha.

The 2015/2016 draft budget speech

On 25 March 2015, I joined 30 Khayelitsha residents in Council to listen to Mayor Patricia de Lille table the draft budget for 2015/2016.

We attended the speech because we wanted to understand it, participate in the process and ensure that our voices would be heard when decisions are made.

We made a booking to attend, which had to be approved by the Speaker before we could get tickets for the public gallery.

Before we went inside the Civic Centre, an official who identified himself as being from ‘safety and security’ came up to us and asked us “what business we had in Council”. We told him we were there to listen to the budget speech and we showed him our public tickets. He studied them in detail and asked us more questions about why we were there and who gave us ‘permission’ to be there.

When I walked through the main entrance I looked back and saw that the security guards were refusing to let the rest of the group in! I went back and had to insist that we had tickets and that there was no reason to stop us from entering. Eventually we were allowed in, but followed by two more plain clothed law enforcement officials.

At reception the officials intervened, asking us all to queue and individually sign next to our names on the list. But we saw that all other ticket holders coming to Council simply had to tick their names off, making it easier and faster for them to enter. We realized that we were being treated differently. We felt embarrassed having to queue while other people got to walk straight in. We refused to do this and insisted that we follow the same procedure as everybody else.

At the entrance to the public gallery of the council chamber, we were stopped a third time, this time by two uniformed law enforcement officers who would not allow us to go inside. Again, after insisting that we had public tickets, having to argue for some time, and then refusing to leave we were eventually allowed inside.

We listened to the Mayor as she tabled the budget with a short speech.

When we left the building we saw members of the Public Order Police waiting outside. We talked amongst ourselves about the importance of the budget and how we can access and understand it. In truth, the police looked confused about why they had been called there. So were we.

Some of our white comrades who had arrived earlier were allowed in without a problem. They were not followed. They were not questioned repeatedly. They were not made to sign additional guest lists, and they were not prevented from entering the public gallery.

Although we had tickets, it seemed that city officials felt uncomfortable that we were attending. Our presence caused suspicion, extra surveillance, lots of questioning, and attempts to intimidate us.

Maybe it is because we arrived in a group. Maybe it is because we belong to the Social Justice Coalition (SJC). Maybe it is because we are from Khayelitsha.

Residents make submissions

A few weeks went by. We analysed the draft budget to try and find out how much would be allocated for water and sanitation in informal settlements. This is difficult because the budget itself does not give enough disaggregated information. We conducted workshops with community members who visited other informal settlements and encouraged Khayelitsha residents to make submissions on the information available in the draft budget. In the end we collected over 500 submissions.

We contacted the City’s Public Participation Unit to tell them that we were going to help residents hand deliver their submissions at the civic centre on 23 April 2015. We made this clear to the City and we asked that someone receive the submissions.

Because we were hoping to bring over a 100 people, the City asked us to give notice under the Regulation of Gatherings Act. We felt this was strange because we were not planning a protest or picket action.

As much as we did not agree with having to do this to deliver budget submissions, we did use the City’s ‘permit’ procedures for Gatherings because we wanted it to be a safe and fun day for everyone and we did not want poor Khayelitsha residents to be arrested for simply participating in the budget process.

When we arrived at the civic centre, the steps were cordoned off with plastic tape and there were at least ten Public Order Police and Metro Police who asked us to stay in the square outside. At the bottom and top of the stairs were more City law enforcement officials.

Maybe it is because we arrived in a group. Maybe it is because we belong to the SJC. Maybe it is because we are from Khayelitsha.

An officer from the Mayor’s VIP protection unit asked us when we would be ready to hand over ‘our memorandum’. We explained that we were there to deliver budget submissions but it seemed the City did not understand this. A representative from the Mayor’s office, Wilfred Solomons-Johannes, came down and he too asked for a memorandum. We told him we did not have a memorandum because we were not protesting.

We explained we were there to deliver the budget submissions, but he initially refused to receive them as individual submissions. We felt that it was important that residents got to hand in their submissions. Everyone had written their own submission, come a long way, and felt they were doing something important.

He cited parts of the Municipal Systems Act and Municipal Finance Management Act. But we know these Acts too and explained them back to him. Eventually, he agreed to take everyone’s submissions personally.

But it did not seem like there was a process for acknowledging them. It seems nobody had actually handed in submissions by hand before. So we waited for around two hours while he stamped them and returned copies to us.

The City’s budget participation spaces?

On returning the submissions, Mr Solomons-Johannes suggested that we attend a focus group for budget participation organised by the City. So the following week, five SJC members attended the focus group in Khayelitsha in ward 92. This is one of the only events that the City organizes to engage residents directly on the budget.

Including those of us from SJC, there were 15 people in the meeting, which was actually a ward committee meeting. Two City officials had a slot of 15 minutes to present on different projects in the Ward, mainly relating to ‘indigent relief’.

This meeting and 15 minute presentation on ‘indigent relief’ it seems was the Khayelitsha ‘focus group’ on budget participation that Mr Solomons-Johannes wanted us to attend and use to participate in the budget.

Section 152 of the Constitution explains an aim of local government is to encourage the involvement of communities and community organisations in the matters of local government.

In Cape Town, like other cities in South Africa, it is not only difficult to participate in the budget process, but there are actually significant barriers. It was hard enough for residents to participate, even with the support of the SJC. How is it possible for poor residents across this City do so?

Citizen participation is at the heart of democracy. I hope that Mayor Patricia de Lille will take into consideration all the submissions from Khayelitsha residents.

Notywala is a member of the SJC. No inference should be made on whether the views expressed in this article reflect the editorial position of GroundUp.

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