Budgets, Triage and Karma

You won’t like what I have to say. But I’m saying it nonetheless.

The Buddhist idea of karma is the law of cause and effect. Everything has consequences. The 2020 South African National Budget Speech delivered last week, denounced by some as anti-poor, has a karmic feel to it.

This year’s budget, of a country in economic crisis, entailed tough and unpopular choices. My sense is that Finance Minister Tito Mboweni used a model from emergency medicine: triage.

Triage decides who in an emergency gets treated first. The sick but not terminal have to wait. Those with a chance of recovery are treated first. Those whose chances of survival are nil are made comfortable and left to die. The morality of triage entails realism in the face of tragedy: the situation is bad, and one is faced with choices between bad, worse and catastrophic.

Mboweni had to prioritise, based on the hard facts of the situation. As the national debt spirals, he had to focus on reducing it. Given that without electricity social collapse is inevitable, he had to focus on ESKOM’s recovery. Since so much of the crisis is the result of endemic corruption, and as the Zondo Commission starts to wrap up, he assigned more funds to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

His tough choices, the karma of corruption and mismanagement, are hard to stomach but must be faced. Of course, there are consequences. Our global investment grade is likely to be ‘junk status’ for the foreseeable future. This will ripple negatively through the economy, causing rising costs to ordinary consumers.

Some may object that funding the NPA was a bad move, even though it will give the NPA the resources to prosecute those charged with corruption. Another cost of corruption, you may say, is it worth it?

We have three choices. The first, amnesty, is unthinkable: it would only encourage future corruption. Bad karma. The second is a kind of ‘wild justice’ where the corrupt are literally forced to pay back the money they’ve stolen, followed by summary punishment. This is unconstitutional, bad karma for our constitutional democratic state. The third is the judicial process, slow and expensive. It is also bad karma – particularly since resources much needed elsewhere (health, welfare, education) are diverted – but on balance it’s the least bad option. (Remember triage earlier?)

But what about the poor? Surely there could have been higher taxes on the rich and corporations. Not, unfortunately, if you want to grow the economy. More taxes would lead to tax avoidance and possibly a tax revolt. It would also reduce investment, much needed and now more risky under the shadow of ‘junk status’.

The country, especially the poor, is paying the karma price of failing to arrest corruption, for some putting political sentiment over vigilance. Karma is …let’s just say, painful. In ethics, particularly in cases of triage, there are sometimes no simple answers, no ‘feel-good’ outcomes. Sometimes this teaches us lessons. Will we learn the lesson?

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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