Defend Truth


Dear Mr Grootes: a welfare state is a just state

Stuart Wilson is the Executve Director at Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) - a public interest law centre based in Johannesburg - and a practicing advocate.

Stephen Grootes blames “the culture of entitlement” which, he says, is “holding us back” in his Daily Maverick article of 20 January 2014. There’s a lot to be said about his lack of compassion and empathy for the majority of South Africans who live without the basic elements of a decent existence. Is it really that desperately poor people shouldn’t be provided the very basic levels of water and shelter they need to survive? Can they truly get off their “backsides” and provide all of these things for themselves?

But I’ll confine myself to the facts. Grootes suggests that European, American and Asian governments all provide basic goods for their citizens by stepping aside and letting people do it for themselves. He is wrong. Both Europe and the United States pioneered the welfare state. Take the example of housing. Both the US and Europe pioneered the provision of free or subsidised housing for the poor, particularly after World War Two. The US enjoys the level of prosperity it does because of President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” policies, which were later expanded upon by President Johnson’s “War on Poverty”. Many of these policies disproportionately benefited white Americans, but they were the key to economic expansion and social welfare in the mid-twentieth century.

Even now, after thirty years of trimming back the welfare state since President Reagan, the US still provides rent subsidies for families who would otherwise spend more than 30% of their income on housing themselves.

In the UK, housing benefits, water and electricity subsidies for the vulnerable, and free healthcare and education are a cornerstone of society. They form part of part of the conditions of citizenship. Welfare benefits expand and contract with the ideology of the ruling party, but they are always available.

The benefits of a reasonably generous welfare state for sustainable economic growth and the reduction of inequality are well-documented. Grootes should at least investigate and deal with the fact that the most socially and economically successful states are also the most equal, with the most generous government provision for the poor. A good place to start would be Kate Picket and Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, which convincingly demonstrates that states which intervene to ensure a more equal distribution of income and wealth make for better societies and stronger economies. What better way to start than making sure, as we try to in South Africa, that everyone is decently housed, and that child carers and pensioners are able to feed and clothe themselves and their children?

It is also well documented that economic growth in East Asia has been achieved through extensive government intervention in the economy. South Korea, Indonesia, Japan and China have all benefited from variations on import substitution policies. These policies choose a few strategic industries which receive massive state subsidies and protection from competitive imports while they develop the efficiencies and economies of scale necessary to compete globally. It is no mistake that industries selected are all labour-intensive, ensuring high levels of employment as part of a social contract that virtually guarantees the right to work or access to land. Even this is now being supplemented with the rudiments of a welfare state, as Indonesia is currently introducing limited free healthcare insurance for the poor. Hopefully South Africa will soon follow suit.

The international experience Grootes claims to draw on defeats his conclusions. It shows that we achieve most when we act together, not alone; when we care for each other rather than ourselves; and when the state adopts social policy which ensures that everyone’s basic needs are met.

Finally, Grootes appears blissfully unaware of how severely the poor are punished when they actually “do it for themselves” by building their own houses or trading informally to try to earn a living. If he is so concerned with enabling people to house and feed themselves, he should be railing against the Anti-Land Invasion Units and metro police who demolish shacks and confiscate traders’ stock. Regrettably, he sides with the propertied and the powerful.

Had Grootes himself ever had to live in a shack, or go through the winter without heating, or drink water from a river, his comments would be intriguing. As it is, in a country where the black majority of the population has, for hundreds of years, been violently deprived of the land, education, healthcare and economic opportunities necessary to provide for themselves, Grootes’ comments are just ignorant.

He may not think they are – and may well be offended by the accusation. But when a white South African – who no doubt benefited from the lavishly generous Apartheid welfare state, and all the other advantages of racial privilege – tells black people that they should not expect the same sort of state assistance now, there are few other appropriate words.

Quite apart from all of this, Grootes’ views are anti-Constitutional. Our Constitution guarantees everyone access to housing, food, water, electricity, healthcare and education – even, and especially, when they can’t afford to provide these things for themselves. These are not “vote-getters”, as Grootes suggests. They are basic rights – a fundamental part of the post-Apartheid social contract. Perhaps Grootes should read the Constitution, but I would be just as happy if he read anything at all related to the factual claims he wants to make before he puts pen to paper again. DM

Stuart Wilson is a practising advocate and the Executive Director of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa.


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