BIG in SA – the BIG website in SA on 17 November 2021.
Opening Address by SPII Executive Director Isobel Frye on the launch of the BIG website
The launch of the BIG website
South Africa is a country that takes your heart and soul and can be cruel and kind, but it seems, it can never be fair and does not want to be just.
The unfairness of the colonial and apartheid past will for generations have an imprint on our children and our children’s children. The apartness of the racist capitalist regime that was condemned as a crime against humanity, with order imposed by might by an inhumane government, permeates every inch of our collective being, dividing us and scattering us.
Our constitution talks about ‘healing the division of the past’ and ‘establishing a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights’. It also talks of ‘improving the quality of all citizens and freeing the potential of every person’ in the Preamble.
And yet we are the most unequal country in the world both in terms of income and wealth. And yet we continue to grow apart, with opulent lavishness sitting alongside obscene poverty. We have no employment for the majority of young people coming into adult hood- more than 7 out of 10 youth
are unemployed. Once unemployed the likelihood of finding employment is less than 3 in 10. And the number of people starving, grows daily. Mental and physical stunting determines people’s unequal paths in life quite beyond their control. Mothers try to shield their children from starvation by sacrificing their food as the recent NIDS CRAM data shows again, but even that is not enough to stop the permanent effect of hunger.
So, to go back to the Constitution. Section10 guarantees to all the fundamental right to dignity. “Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.”. The drafters of the Constitution, aware of the need to build and restore and return the wealth of the country to the majority, included socio-economic rights in the Bill of Rights, Chapter 2 of the Constitution.
The state, according to Section 7(2) has the obligation to ‘respect, protect, promote and fulfil’ these rights.
2 things must be noted – firstly, unlike the UN ICESCR, the duty on the state is not a passive one, but one of promoting and fulfilling. And secondly, the drafters with some prescience realise that the battle for restoration and true liberation would be a difficult one, and so these rights were deemed justiciable – we can, and should, use the courts to make sure that the executive is promoting and fulfilling these rights subject to the state’s maximum available resources.
As far back as the 1998 Presidential Jobs Summit, COSATU, part of the Tripartite Alliance, raised their concerns about the low levels of decent jobs. In response, the government appointed a committee of enquiry into a comprehensive social security system. Social security was recognised for its potential to create a safety net for all where the market fails.
But our social security retains the policy imprint of apartheid policies where protection is for children and older people and people living with disabilities. Under Apartheid law, the labour market and social insurance ensured that able bodied white adults would never be out of a job, due to racist job reservation, for longer than the Unemployment Insurance relief would protect them. White privilege was built on a welfare state, and yet today we are told that a welfare state undermines dignity.
The work of the Taylor Committee was excellent, the height perhaps of our early democratic commitment and vision. More than two years of input work and the outcome was radical, truly revolutionary. The Committee recommended a universal safety net that would ensure that all have a decent life, that out economy has enough income circulating to ensure economic growth, that township and rural economies can thrive and the micro- entrepreneurs can take risks that business requires because they would be supported.
And yet despite the constitutional right to social security, and despite the fact that more than 22 million working age South Africans are not working, despite the transition to democracy, our laws have never replaced this. There is no formal permanent categorised programme for social security to adults in SA.
And it was with the Taylor Committee in 2000 that the concept of a universal basic income was raised in SA polity for the first time, with a broad alliance of social movements and social justice organisations. And yet the ruling party deemed that it was not the best option and refused to adopt a BIG. In 2005/6 we had a primary budget surplus, and still the then Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel, said that we could not afford a BIG. A BIG of R100 in those days, per person per month, would have reduced poverty by 67%. Just think of how different our national trajectory would have been.
Through Community Constituency at NEDLAC, SPII has kept the demand for a BIG alive over the last 8 years of policy negotiations for a comprehensive social security system. Ironically, it was not the rising unemployment figures that journeyed us as a nation across the Rubicon of the giving of grants to working age -people, but Covid-19 when our President announced for the first time that social relief of distress and care givers grants would be made available to working age adults. Even though R350 is less than 55% of the
basic Food Poverty Line, and just 26% of the Upper Bound R1335 Poverty Line, it is a beginning.
As SPII however we have disciplined ourselves to undertaking the hard research to make the case time and again.
Our case that we have made is:
A decent universal BIG which we have worked out linked to the Upper Bound Poverty Line of StatsSA is the ONLY way that we have seen the models generate the economic growth and the levels of sustained jobs that wil begin to turn around our frightening economic decline.
A BIG is the easiest way that the state can meet its constitutional obligations, seriously affirming the rule of law for millions of people whom the law usually only serves to criminalise.
A BIG will create the kids of local demand that WILL rebirth township economies and SMMEs- creating demand where now people have no disposable income, giving government the kind of bargaining power that it can leverage financial inclusion with banks, reduced administered prices on food stuffs and enable us to pool demand and so stretch further the monies granted.
We know that the multiplier on each Rand of state spend gives back between 1,5 and 2,5 returns.
We know that a universal BIG will advance women’s power, and
We know that the withdrawal of the SROD R350 which we have said is the first step to a BIG will unleash such anger and hopelessness that we wil not be able to recover that commitment and innocence of our liberation and our hopes for a better future for all.
This site is a contribution of SPII to the debates through the research hub and it is a platform for every person to share their commitment through a testimonial of what a BIG could mean for their life. We are enormously privileged to be trusted with people’s dreams and we commit our institution towards making this a reality.
South Africa is a country that takes your heart and soul and can be cruel and kind, but it seems, it can never be fair and does not want to be just. We hope that with this site we can turn that around and begin to build the space for a just and fair SA going forward.
I would like to thank Tina van Staten for her work in making this dream a reality, and to the volunteers Luke Greyling and Chris Vermeulen, students at UP who completely volunteered their time to develop the BIG graphics and this website.
As we proceed with this I would like to say keep an eye open for the last of SPII’s BIG webinars for 2021 on the effect of the multiplier – we are just testing our final models on that. we invite you to our MTBPCS webinar tomorrow with UNICEF and NT amongst others as we debate the recent MTBPS and we are delighted to share the collaboration between SPII, the Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation and Telkom as the former President hosts some high level dinner dialogues to expand understanding and support for a universal decent BIG.
ALSO SEE: Christina van Straten's SPII - BIG South Africa Website launch presentation