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Smith, Terry (2006) The potential for participatory budgeting in South Africa: A case study of the “People’s Budget” in eThekwini Municipality. CCS Grant Report : 1-37.

Worldwide, in recent years there has been increasing recognition of the importance of local government as an arena for citizen participation in governance (Gaventa, 2002). Much of the focus has been on local level planning processes and developing methodologies and tools for opening up these processes to greater citizen participation and influence. Along with planning, more attention has also been given to enabling citizens to participate in local government budgeting processes.

Decision-making around government budgets is of significant public interest since these decisions determine how state resources are allocated and whether the needs and interests of the poorest and most marginalised members of society are prioritised and addressed. Government budgets, in this case local government budgets, are thus a focal point where the various competing demands on the state are contested and negotiated.

From a pro-poor perspective, the crude logic underpinning the concept of participatory budgeting is that if socially excluded groups, such as people living in poverty, are provided with opportunities to participate meaningfully in processes to decide how public funds are allocated, their needs and aspirations will be reflected in the plans and budgets that are formulated by governments that represent them (at local, regional or national level). A number of international experiences with participatory budgeting have demonstrated the positive potential of citizen participation in local government budgeting for reducing poverty and addressing the needs of socially and economically excluded groups, as well as for reducing inequality, deepening democratic practices and transparency in local government and extending the rights of citizenship to previously excluded groups.

Drawing on some of the lessons from the international literature on participatory budgeting and the many case studies that have been documented, this paper explores the potential for participatory budgeting in the context of South African, using the eThekwini Municipality’s nascent experiments with participatory budgeting as a case study. While internationally, efforts to expose local government budgeting practices to public input and scrutiny are well established, South Africa is taking its first baby steps in this regard. Budgeting at municipal level in South Africa has historically been undertaken as a top-down, technical exercise by council politicians and officials, with little or no participation in the process by local residents. Recent legislation pertaining to local government and service delivery has, however, now enshrined citizen participation as a key component of all aspects of municipal policy-making and implementation, including the formulation of Integrated Development Plans (IDPs) and municipal budgets (IDASA, 2002). Unprecedented scope now exists for citizens and organised structures within civil society to participate in municipal fiscal spaces. It is thus an opportune moment to reflect on international experiences and to consider how they may be applied and adapted in the local context.

eThekwini Municipality provides an interesting and instructive case study for exploring the possibilities for participatory budgeting in the South African context. With the port city of Durban as its base, the municipality is one of the country’s six new metropolitan “super” municipalities created in 2000 after the conclusion of the municipal demarcation process. While the six metropolitan municipalities represent only a tiny proportion of the country’s 284 municipalities, due to their economic infrastructures, the size of their municipal budgets and the technical resources and capacities they posses, they are arguably the municipalities currently in the best positions to explore participatory budgeting in South Africa. Like all municipalities in the country, eThekwini Municipality confronts daunting backlogs in meeting the development needs of its 3 million residents. To an extent that is arguably unique amongst the country’s large cities, however, the municipality has involved citizens in planning both short- and long-term development strategies for addressing these challenges.

Research for the paper is based principally on a review of international and local literature on participatory municipal budgeting, as well as an analysis of available documentation on the budget process within eThekwini Municipality. Direct observation of some of the public participation processes related to planning and budgeting in the municipality was also included, as well as a limited number of interviews with municipal officials. The research focused primarily on the budget process leading up to 2004/05 eThekwini municipal budget finalisation (i.e. first half of 2004) as well as part of the budget process for the 2005/06 budget (i.e. the second half of 2004).

The paper starts with a discussion of the conceptual foundations of participatory budgeting, followed by a review of literature on the emergence, common features, outcomes and limitations of PB programmes internationally. The second part of the paper provides a brief overview of local government restructuring and the legal provisions for participatory local governance in South Africa in the period since 1994. This provides the background for the focus of the paper, a detailed description of citizen participation in eThekwini Municipality’s planning and budgeting processes. The final part of the paper offers some comments on the potential for participatory budgeting in South Africa, based on a comparison of international experiences with the eThekwini Municipality case study.

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