Ordinary South African’s Define a Decent Life

Ordinary South African’s Define a Decent Life

What will it take to shock South Africa into recognising the extent of the impoverishment that characterises daily life for millions of South Africans? What tipping point must be reached before the right to a decent life for all becomes a reality, and what have we lost in our common humanity that makes it all right to live with such inequalities daily? Have we become so used to statistics that we deaden ourselves to what it means to live in and with poverty? How else do we explain the ability of decision makers and policy crafters to continue day after day, as if the only crisis facing us is a recent and externalised virus?

In 2018, three independent think-tanks in South Africa came up with a novel way to better understand the reach and makeup of poverty in its many dimensions. After about five years of probing, reading and challenging our own thinking and that of other experts, we put away the reports and the formulae, the weighting and approximating of needs and thresholds and wants that make up the tools used by the experts in poverty studies. Instead, through 48 focus groups across the country, we asked a broad sampling of South Africans what they think are the essential things required to live a decent life. We asked people of different demographics and class, spatial location and language, to think about a decent life, a life of dignity. We did not ask about poverty.

The outcome was the development of the South African Decent Standard of Living measure. The work was supported by the Department of Social Development and the methodology chewed over by Statistics South Africa. The methodology is innovative and unique – and the findings are damning.

Defining poverty

For centuries, people have been fixated with the science of describing who is officially “poor” and who is not, and whether impoverishment is a personal failing or a systemic societal problem.

A concept of poverty can, for instance, refer to not having enough food to feel full every day. It can also refer to someone feeling embarrassed that they cannot afford the same kind of phone as their peers. Relative to your community, you can feel shamed, inadequate or not good enough for not having “enough” money. Absolute and relative poverty are very different, and yet both are real and extremely powerful. But we seem unable to conceptualise and describe in any detail what these states comprise.

In past decades, many people have mixed up the idea of definition and measure in the worst possible way, accepting the World Bank’s notion that poverty means $1 per person per day. This poverty measure is the average of 10 poverty lines, which were derived for the poorest countries in the world at a given time. Simultaneously, the national US poverty line was just over $11 per person per day. The $1 measure bears no relevance to need or context, and yet became a standard that overnight was used to decide who was “poor” and who was not.

Defining poverty is a political act that always involves an arbitrary and usually hidden choice about who gets what, and what, if anything, should be done about this.

Photo by: Martin Harvey/ Gallo Images
Source: New Frame