Op-ed: #UnrestSA: Painful corrective or forerunner of things to come?
#UnrestSA: Painful corrective or forerunner of things to come?
Social justice activists have tried repeatedly to present this data to policymakers over growing inequalities and to how that policy choices are not reflective of the realities and needs on the ground. But still government chose not to listen, writes Isobel Frye.
A simple drive beyond the comfort of suburban walls or bustle of city centres by all of us over the last two decades in South Africa asserts a reality of poverty and miserable destitution, a state of being so at odds with the values and promises contained in our Constitution.
Even before Covid- 19 struck, 24 million adults living in South Africa were unemployed, over 50% of South Africans lived in poverty, and one in four people lived below the survivalist Food Poverty Line. This is the amount of money required to buy enough food to keep you officially not starving. What makes this so striking however is the fact that at the same time South Africa ranked as the most unequal country in the world. The profile of poverty, malnutrition and misery was one that we had the wherewithal to change. And we chose not to do so. This is not a question of them. It is a question of us.
Historically, extractive production in South Africa was built on slave wages, sufficiently low to maximise profits for white owners of production and, equally important, low enough to keep workers docilely dependent on the hand that paid these wages. Trade unions were only legalised in the 1980s for black workers precisely for this reason.
This legacy of extraction and dependency remains at the heart of our economy today. Wage differentials are a greater driver of inequality than unemployment. Wages are set through reference to the labour surplus rather than by the cost of meeting people’s basic needs.
Inequality has grown exponentially because the returns to wealth has been far stronger than wage increases in recent years. Also, South Africa has extremely insipid policies on taxing idle wealth, leading to a particularly unfair situation of rampant accumulation by the already rich with little sharing of the proceeds.
Globally, successful countries grow from a foundation of weave of social, labour market and economic policies. Where the labour market fails to meet people’s needs, social policy brings the state in, and economic policies arrange financing adjustments to pay for this. There is sufficient fluidity to provide both market certainty, and social stability. Regular adjustments are needed and for this are guided by constant information feed- back flows. When systems are not corrected, social action frequently leads to corrective action.
Information and data about the growing levels of unemployment, feeding into the pre-existing levels of structural poverty abound in South Africa. Apart from the visual evidence, state statistics is matched with data from academia and private research institutions. Social justice activists have frequently sought audience with decision- makers to present this data amidst growing concern over the last two decades that policy choices are not reflective of the realities and needs on the ground. Pure game theory outlines the rewards that optimal access to information allows.
And yet despite the wealth of flow of information, the state has consistently refused to depart from its deeply conservative approach to state spending. Principles of small state spend, beloved of the neo-liberals, have no space in a developing country with such an unequal past. State incapacity to a large extent has been formed by deliberate cuts in the public service, year on year. Social spending likewise has been determined by the clear principle of austerity embraced by the state officially in the last eight years, but in fact stretching back far longer. Simply, you have to spend money to make money. Eviscerating state spending reduces the multiplier effects of the spend and closes down possibilities of crowding in private spend where public spend creates conducive conditions. This can be so simply seen with social grants. If grants circulate money by placing it in the hands of the poor, demand exists and economic activity follows demand, creating more and better jobs.
What we are witnessing right now is extremely distressing. Opportunities exist for all sorts of contagion that we would never have dreamt of in past times. Is it however surprising? No.
What is to be done now must be a strong and collective effort. The only rational response right now is for a national admission that we have betrayed the constitution and let people and their dignity become immaterial. We need to recognise collective humanity. This must be messaged by an immediate commitment by the state to the adoption of a Basic Income Grant as a fully implemented policy within the next 12 months. A monthly grant of R1268 – the poverty line - paid to all is affordable, as National Treasury has been shown many, many times. A claw back from the wealthy allows a universalism of payment that affirms collective interdependence and mutual co-existence.
As a humanitarian gesture and not detracting from this commitment in any way we need to see the urgent reinstatement of the R350 Social Relief Grant and the R500 Caregivers grant. This will immediately reach some 13 million of the most destitute. It must be paid with humility and received with dignity.
We cannot begin to rebuild until we have made a collective gesture in this way. The action needs to come from the state, but the unequivocal call for this needs to come from everybody in society. Now is the time for all good people to stand up and declare this in our names, and that we will not rest until this is done.