J. BROOKS SPECTOR once again attended an ANC media briefing on “a good story to tell”, this time on health and social grants, and contemplates what that story really means.
Once again it has become time to attend another ANC Monday morning briefing that will deliver yet another chapter of the party’s increasingly familiar mantra: They have “a good story to tell.” This time around, the briefing is to cover social grants and the nation’s health services. In attendance are Public Service Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor, Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa, Social Development Minister Bathabeli Dlamini and Deputy Arts and Culture Minister Joe Phaahla.
This time, the ministers are on hand to explain the policies the party has advocated or implemented that have been meant to improve the health of the country’s citizens, as well as the social welfare expenditures meant to construct an economic floor under the country’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. And, once again, the various ministers forth to the rattled off reams of numbers, lists of programmes and acronymic proposals designed to impress and awe.
From the social development minister we learn about a raft of tweaks to the country’s social benefits system – things either on-going already or planned for the future. The intention of this presentation was to describe a ledger sheet of improvements in social grants – for children, pregnant women, pensioners, caregivers, child-headed families – comparing the baseline of 1994 to 2014 – and then to describe planned additions to the programmes that will bring even more people under the social welfare umbrella protecting against hunger and deprivation. And once again, as with previous briefings, the numbers flowed past in a veritable torrent – with millions upon millions of recipients gaining the benefit of assistance and succour.
This was all terribly admirable – but it was also confounding as the troublesome problem populating the core of this agenda has been effectively overlooked, amidst the general celebration. And that, of course, is the problem that while social welfare expenditures now truly do provide a minimum income floor for millions, there is little discussion that a key goal of such income floors (perhaps not for the elderly, but certainly those for able-bodied adults) should be to assist recipients while they search for work, start their own small businesses or get the necessary training needed to enter the workforce.
The social grant structure should be designed to support entry into the worlds of education and work, rather than serve as a never-ending substitute for income – much in the way Brazil is attempting to achieve. While social scientists and critics have been edging into this debate here – and while it is one with a history of vigorous debate in Britain and America – there seems to be little appreciation of this publicly at the statements of government officials. Monday’s discussion took the shape of a view, yet again, that a constantly increasing population dependent on social grants was, in itself, an unalloyed social good, rather than a stepping-stone to an entry into the economy.
Of course the ANC is not, strictly speaking, alone in this. Ask the DA directly about social grants and they’d almost certainly say they are in favour of expanding their reach as well, although they might argue they would be vigilant in reforming the programme’s administration. And, of course, the Economic Freedom Front just wants to double the payments across the board – with even less regard for how to pay for this largesse.
But the ANC briefers effectively ignored the elephant in the room – the continuing lack of real work and new jobs and economic policies designed to encourage new job growth. These are the core of a social policy that will be a pro-growth agenda, rather than a position that simply prevents ever more deprivation as jobs melt away in the continuing deindustrialisation of South Africa.
Listening to this energetic litany of ever-advancing, ever-improving benefits, the writer began to day-dream just a bit, wondering: would a political party that had the effrontery to say, “Damn right we’re in favour of cutting your social grants! That’s because we’re going to put South Africa back to work again, and turn it into a place where you will earn more money and gain real self-esteem because of your work.” Would such a party manifesto have any chance to gain support in an election? Is any party brave enough to try it to find out?
Right at the beginning of this discussion, Public Service Minister Sisulu had pulled an interesting rhetorical rabbit out of her hat. (Well, okay, she wasn’t actually wearing a hat on Monday morning, but readers will understand.) To help underscore her description of the improvements over the past twenty years by virtue of ANC government leadership, after taking a few regulation swipes at the country’s media for too-eagerly reporting on government’s failures and avoiding its successes, in quoting an outside, neutral source, Sisulu approvingly cited reports from the South African Institute of Race Relations at length. This must surely be a first for a sitting South African government minister.
For decades, the SAIRR was a deep, even visceral anathema to the country’s National Party overlords. More recently, under the new dispensation, the institute’s criticism of many aspects of government inaction or policies had allowed most in government to continue to see it as a harsh (even eager) critic of government’s failures. But in fact, getting the SAIRR’s positions inside the minds of government officials has been a key goal of the organisation’s new leader, Frans Cronje (see: “SAIRR: There’s a new sheriff in town and he’s moving beyond only race”). And with these approving citations, it appears Cronje has already succeeded with a vengeance, despite only having been in office for a few months.
The second half of the briefing focused on health issues – both the progress contained within that “very good story to tell” – Monday’s briefing adding a “very” this time around – and the obvious challenges that still remain. The health minister explained with energy and enthusiasm his plans for the national health insurance initiative, continued efforts to combat diseases like HIV/Aids, lowering the cost of private health care, and carrying out a massive investment in new hospitals, clinics, mini-clinics, and the training of new health care professionals so as to meet the goals of the National Development Plan by 2030.
Much of this second half of this briefing dealt with HIV/Aids issues. The minister took issue with aspects of recent reports that the epidemic is again growing in South Africa. In his view, this recent rise in the incidence of the disease was actually a result of policy successes – fewer people are dying from it and so the total incidence of sufferers has grown as more and more people are living with the disease rather than simply dying off from it.
And that, in turn, led to discussion of the role of the media – yet again – with the minister warning that the media seems to encourage attitudes that lead to social and sexual behaviours – that is, multiple, concurrent partners and an unwillingness to use condom protection – that helps in spreading the epidemic. Asked what the media should do instead, Motsoaledi said that it was simple: “A, B, C – abstain, be faithful and condomise.” That, of course, left unclear just how successful such didacticism actually would be in the face of powerful social forces that seemingly reward risky behaviour. To help prove his point, the minister pointed to published reports that millions of government-distributed condoms – procured from China – were no good because they were too small for South Africans to use.
Once again, though, the briefers’ “good story to tell” became murky. Real progress again became obscured by all the words laying out all the plans, committees, and task teams designed to achieve things – in the future. There was also that niggling question about whether the ministers doing the briefing were speaking for government or party – or, if, in fact, the two are now so totally conjoined they can’t be separated.
Why organisers can’t distribute a simple-to-read fact sheet instead remains something of a puzzle, though. One is left with a subliminal feeling that while the briefers truly believed what they were saying, they were puzzled (or perhaps slightly irritated) about why those they were saying these things to simply hadn’t agreed with all these views instantly as well.
But, having said all this, we’ll take this opportunity to offer some advice to the governing party, as The Daily Maverick’s contribution to the increasingly imminent election. There’s been lots of talk about debates between ANC and DA candidates (and just maybe the EFF as well). ANC apologists have frequently brushed off such proposals, saying that debates wouldn’t be fair to the president if he has to debate Helen Zille. English isn’t his home language and such a debate would necessarily tilt the balance towards the DA candidate on linguistic grounds.
So, here’s the deal – the ANC should agree to a debate, but with the following conditions: let Zille and Mmusi Maimane debate Lindiwe Sisulu and Naledi Pandor. Those two ministers are seriously competent and thoroughly confident in the King’s English. They clearly have a nearly unparalleled command and understanding of government programmes and challenges. And between the two of them, they could make a public, televised debate with Zille and Maimane entertaining as well as exceptionally educational – and maybe even more so if Mamphela Ramphele, Dali Mpofu and Julius Malema were added to the mix as well. Wait, The Daily Maverick offers to referee this one. Let us know so we can clear our calendar. DM
Photo: A woman carrying her child walks past election posters for the ruling African National Congress ANC the day before the country is due to vote in the local elections, in Johannesburg, South Africa, 17 May 2011. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK
Stephen Hawking held a party for time travellers. He sent the invitation out the day after. Nobody attended.