Budget 2017: An economic or spiritual matter?
by Russell Pollitt SJ
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan made a strong call to conversion in his 2017 Budget Speech. Quoting Pope Francis he said, “Reforming the social structures which perpetuate poverty and the exclusion of the poor first requires a conversion of mind and heart”. He went on to say, “We need to radically transform our economy so that we have a more diversified economy, with more jobs and inclusivity in ownership and participation”.
There is no doubt that South Africa is sitting on a fast-ticking social time bomb. Crunching numbers and good fiscal control alone will no longer keep the wolves at bay.
Gordhan’s Budget Speech alluded many times to key themes in Catholic Social Teaching (CST): option for the poor, trust, solidarity, human dignity, the call to community, responsibility and accountability. The 2017 Budget pointed to a bigger problem which is not simply economic: at the heart of South Africa’s woes is a spiritual crisis. We must build a true community of kinship. This is our strongest antidote to the crisis.
It is tempting to look at the figures presented in the Budget and notice the ways in which I am affected. Petrol will rise by 39c, alcohol and cigarettes by between 6%-10%, those who earn more will pay more tax on a sliding scale. But it would be short-sighted (and maybe even selfish) to stop there. The bigger picture is essential and, it seems, that’s exactly what Gordhan chose to paint this year.
South Africa can no longer afford to allow a few to live extravagant lives while millions live below the poverty line with little or no hope for their future or that of their children. The country can no longer allow leaders to feather their own nests. It can no longer allow corporates and multinationals to avoid tax liabilities.
Difficult global economic and political conditions notwithstanding, it is personal and social transformation which will empower us to live with social and moral integrity. Transformation is a term which is often used in political rhetoric. It is, however, theologically rich and, in that sense, might save us from a pending social and economic crisis. Transformation is not political. It points to a systemic re-ordering and re-prioritising where it counts most: morally.
Towards the end of the Budget Speech Gordhan paraphrased what he said last year. He urged us to make right choices and do the right things so that we build a just and fair society, founded on the principles of human dignity and equality. He asked activists, workers, the business community, clergy, professionals and citizens to actively engage in shaping the transformation agenda so that we do realise a just and equitable society – a society founded on kinship.
The bottom line is that if we want prosperity and peace we must submit ourselves and our lives to transformation, to living a key Gospel truth: we are our brother and sister’s keepers.
We have a collective and social moral responsibility to build the society we want to live in. When we take that responsibility seriously then a community of kinship begins to emerge.
We would do well too if we recall that uncomfortable yet piercing Gospel truth: “To whom much is given, much will be required.” (Luke 12:48)