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MAVERICK CITIZEN: TUESDAY EDITORIAL

A page from our own constitution: SA’s legacy of socioeconomic violence must end — inclusive economic growth is a basic human right

At an address to the Thabo Mbeki Foundation in 2016 Professor Willie Esterhuyse said “Poverty is a form of slow and structural and physical violence, it has an enduring nature, its generational and it also has an immediate and existential effect”. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

At an address to the Thabo Mbeki Foundation in 2016, Professor Willie Esterhuyse said: ‘Poverty is a form of slow and structural and physical violence, it has an enduring nature, it’s generational and it also has an immediate and existential effect’

Last week’s Medium Term Budget Policy Speech (MTBPS) made by newly appointed Minister of Finance Enoch Godongwana was received by many, particularly in civil society, with disappointment and criticism. 

The Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ), a respected civil society economic think tank, said “Two features dominate yesterday’s MTBPS: large-scale disinvestment by the government and a complete lack of vision for how to get South Africa out of our current economic and social crisis.” The IEJ acknowledged that while an emphasis on reducing debt was important it should not be done so at the expense of ensuring ‘sustainable and human-centred economic growth’ by reducing socio-economic spending.

SECTION27, an NGO focused on rights to healthcare services and basic education, pointed out that the MTBPS effectively stated that there would be cuts to health care of 13.7% and to basic education of 9.1% over the next three financial years, an amount totalling over R180-billion. It said that “Investments in healthcare and basic education need to be understood as necessary investments in human rights, socio-economic development and economic growth.” 

These cuts are against the backdrop of the Constitution, coming up to its 25th anniversary, which orders that “The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation” of access to healthcare services. 

Last week’s Medium Term Budget Policy Speech made by newly appointed minister of Finance Enoch Godongwana, was received by many with disappointment and criticism. (Photo: Dwayne Senior / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The Constitution also states that “everyone has a right to basic education” which is an immediately realisable right designed to ensure that members of society are able to work the economy at all levels and be able to take care of themselves and their families. 

So, assuming South Africa returns eventually to significant economic growth, who then will work the economy when access to healthcare and basic education is being so severely restricted?

It’s not as if the government is unaware of the pain and suffering of the majority of South Africans.

Minister Godongwana acknowledged the deeply damaging effects of Covid-19. He also referred to the unrest that took hold in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng as “disturbing incidents of violence and destruction of property never seen in post-apartheid South Africa. Infrastructure was destroyed, investor confidence was battered and our economic prospects were dealt a severe blow.” He said, “They reminded us of the ease with which the plight of the poor and unemployed can be exploited to achieve political ends.”

Godongwana said that after the unrest in July, government would be allocating additional funding to the South African National Defense Force and SA Police Services (SAPS) in order to strengthen the fight against crime. He called it “a blight on our society. It undermines confidence in our recovery and hinders our long-term economic development.” 

Now while on the surface this may put people at ease, it fails to address the desperate socio-economic conditions that drive people to loot and steal — such as the violence of poverty, hunger and unemployment. A human rights-based approach to the budget would have centralised this as a key factor to address the mentioned ‘criminal activity’.

Socio-economic spending can be seen as the site at which people’s human rights, as guaranteed in the Constitution, are realised and protected particularly in a country like South Africa that faces such great inequality and poverty.

The Social Relief of Distress (SRD) Grant due to come to an end in March 2022 affecting 9.5 million people, will be considered for extension in February 2022, said Godongwana, while highlighting that the number of working people has declined “further underlining the critical flaws in our economy.” 

However, he does not elaborate on what these flaws are exactly and how they are to be addressed in order to deal with the decline in jobs. 

Feed the Poor provides food for the displaced at a shelter at the Moses Mabhida Stadium parking lot during lockdown in Durban. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart). (Photo: Gallo Images/Darren Stewart)

This is all while the public sector wage bill is said to be increasing by R20-billion — an amount which will be taken from the Infrastructure Fund which is meant to create more desperately needed jobs, as South Africa sits with an unprecedented (expanded definition) unemployment rate of 44%. It seems to me that the R20-billion would be better left in the Infrastructure Fund so as to address our alarming unemployment rate.

According to the constitution, everyone has the right to “social security, including, if they are unable to support themselves and their dependents, appropriate social assistance.” So what then will become of the 9.5 million beneficiaries of the SRD grant when it comes to an end next year in the face of scarcity of jobs? The minister missed an opportunity to address the issue of the Basic Income Grant which could help mitigate against the effects of the SRD coming to an end, with experts such as former statistician general, Dr Pali Lehohla having made the case for this. 

South Africa’s Constitution and Bill of Rights centres the socio-economic wellbeing of the country’s people as paramount to achieving the vision for a country that endeavours, as stated in the constitution’s Preamble, to: 

  • “Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
  • Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
  • Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person.”

Treasury’s obligation is not to ensure that the government’s purse is used to grow the economy on the backs of poor people; it needs to do so in a way that puts their rights and opportunities to thrive as a priority, as envisaged in the Constitution. This means that growing the economy needs to be inclusive and should not only benefit a few. 

As described by Prof Willie Esterhuyse, emeritus professor of philosophy and business ethics at the University of Stellenbosch, without adequately dealing with the structural and enduring violent nature of poverty there can be no peace. So we can allocate more to departments like the police and defence force to ‘fight crime’ but for as long as people exist in a system that does not put their socio-economic rights first there will be more unrest as people fight to merely survive. DM/MC

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All Comments 4

  • Just remember that it was the ANC, their policies, their theft and their cadre deployment that brought us to a point that we simply cannot afford more social spending.

  • There is no point in quoting the third generation rights in the constitution to address government failings. They are a wish list quite rightly subject to affordability. If the debt level is too high it can’t be ignored in favour of more borrowing since higher interest payments mean even less to spend on development . In any case throwing money at those rights won’t work since the reasons why they have not been realised (and will not while the ANC is around) is because they steal and waste any money in circulation, and the cadres in charge do not have the capabilities even if they had the intent.

  • Suppose we are a group lost in the desert with no more water, and one of us keeps saying: “if we don’t get water we will die, if we don’t get water we will die”.
    There is one answer to austerity: print or borrow money, and the circulation of money will stimulate the economy and the borrowings can later be repaid from growth. Problem is, we all know the money will be mostly stolen and wasted, and we will only leave increasing debt to the next generation.
    Austerity might induce some existential realism.
    There is no effing water.

  • You’ve got it nailed Zukiswa in so far as you correctly identify the needs here. Personally, I feel we can all do with a lot less of claiming rights and support and more of being upliftment minded. For a right to exist, there must be a balancing obligation. Rather focus on how we get the economy rolling in the right direction.
    For example I agree – plundering the infrastructure fund to pay useless civil servants is completely wrong. Any infrastructure spending on infrastructure will yield almost immediate benefits.
    Forget rights – get people working.