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A COVENANT IN BREACH

UN Committee unhappy with South Africa’s progress on socioeconomic rights — again

A man walks between shacks in the impoverished shack settlement of Masiphumelele, Cape Town. The latest findings of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights declare that South Africa is making ‘insufficient progress’ on protecting the poorest and most vulnerable in the country. (Photo: EPA / Nic Bothma)

The latest findings of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights declare that South Africa is making ‘insufficient progress’ on protecting the poorest and most vulnerable in our country. Its comments are in much the same vein as the criticisms that have been made of the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement. South Africa is failing its poor, and by doing so, it is breaking international human rights law.

In 2015, South Africa belatedly ratified the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. By doing so, it accepted an obligation to implement the rights recognised in the covenant in South Africa and, periodically, to report on its progress to the UN committee that oversees the treaty.

As Maverick Citizen reported in 2019 (see our report here), South Africa’s first report to the committee was sharply criticised for failing to advance key socioeconomic rights, as well as for its adoption of austerity in public financing. In response, the UN committee set out a long list of areas where SA had to improve its performance, with specific recommendations about how this should be done.

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Homeless people beg with plastic containers attached to sticks to observe physical distancing at a traffic intersection in Johannesburg. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sydney Seshibedi)

Two years later, SA was required to report the follow-up action it had taken to address urgent issues identified in the committee’s recommendations. It did so in a thin report submitted in May 2021. At its session in September/October, the UN committee considered that report and on 10 November issued its written response (available here) to Mxolisi Nkosi, SA’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva.

The response arrived a day before the presentation to Parliament of the 2021 Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement, which has been roundly criticised by civil society organisations for being anti-poor and for failing to take account of constitutional obligations that fall on the government to realise socioeconomic rights, including access to sufficient food, water, healthcare services and basic education.

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A beggar outside St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

The UN Committee’s latest findings deemed “insufficient progress” on all four counts, and its comments are in much the same vein as the criticisms of the MTBPS. South Africa is failing its poor.

The four issues the committee addressed were:

  1. The preparation of a composite index on the cost of living: This is considered vital in order to fully understand factors that are driving poverty and inequality, as well as the sufficiency of measures meant to ease the burden on the poor. However, the committee noted that “according to information at its disposal”, relying on the Consumer Price Index “is inadequate and cannot be used as an instrument to measure an adequate standard of living”.
  2. Access to social assistance for adults between 18 and 59:   Here the committee noted the government had provided it with information “on the start of policy work for income support for adults between 18 and 59 years of age with little or no income, including the consideration of a universal Basic Income Grant”. But it recorded that “this policy work remains insufficient” and lamented that the government “does not provide detailed information”. This finding serves to reinforce the calls that have been made by civil society, trade unions and even sections of business (such as former Goldman Sachs CEO Colin Coleman) for the urgent introduction of a BIG — a call that was impolitely brushed over in the MTBPS.
  3. The adoption of the Social Assistance Amendment Bill by Parliament in October 2020, which it welcomed, while noting that the Minister of Social Development had “not yet published regulations enabling access to higher value Child Support Grant”. It also worried that the bill has not yet been signed into law by the president and “that there does not appear to have been any further progress in respect of proclaiming the Act for operation, or publishing new regulations thereunder”.
  4. Non-discrimination in access to education: Finally, the committee welcomed the measures taken by South Africa “to remove all requirements for the submission of legal documents as a condition for the admission of children in schools”, but regretted the fact that “according to the information at its disposal… some undocumented migrant, refugee and asylum-seeking children still face challenges in accessing education” due to lack of documentation and the fact that “schools are not sufficiently informed on the measures taken”.

In its conclusion, the committee diplomatically “looked forward to continuing its constructive dialogue” with South Africa and “to providing it with guidance in its efforts to ensure the effective implementation of the Covenant”.

This latest criticism from a UN treaty body of SA’s human rights record, and the apparent lack of political will to address poverty and inequality, should be taken seriously by the executive and legislature, and eventually by the courts as well.

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Street vendors in Soweto. Many people resort to selling items in the streets because of limited opportunities in the formal sector. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake)

As we approach 10 December — the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution — criticism such as this is a stain on our claims of respect for the rule of international human rights law.

The government has not yet responded to the committee’s communiqué.

However, according to Isobel Frye, director of the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute, “The freedoms of our liberation that were guaranteed through our Constitution included socioeconomic rights that were shaped by the UN CESCR and other international treaties. It is thus with profound regret that we see how the government has appeared not to heed the guidance and the direction handed down to it by the globally respected UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. We call on the state to publicly commit to meeting its obligations and to remedy these shortcomings.” DM/MC

An explanation about the overall process of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the parallel submissions made can be found here: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/TreatyBodyExternal/FollowUp.aspx?Treaty=CESCR&Lang=en

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  • This is pretty relevant to me as I have been living without electricity for 2 years now. Those who have sworn an oath to uphold the constitution just seen to not have read or learnt this document. I am guilty of this until recently finding that people in the criminal system are afforded more rights than civilians. I have approached 27 organisations to date with zero support. I believe that if my suggestions are followed we can live in the best country ever. However we need to trust in this awesome work, I can only equate it to as better than the Bible!
    I am awed by the majesty that is our constitution.