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SA’s transformation: No-one can do it alone, Mr Grootes

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.

In his latest piece, Stephen Grootes abandons the least convincing aspects of his “culture of entitlement” argument, first developed in the Daily Maverick on 20 January 2014. He no longer opines that the state should get out of the way, and let everyone “do it for themselves”. Nor does he insist that “white kids . . . are told that it’s up to them” while black people sit idly by waiting for a handout.

It’s not so much, he now says, that the state should never intervene, but that it should intervene less; that we should recognise that it often lacks the capacity and resources to intervene; and that socio-economic rights have been largely ineffective in ensuring what they promise is delivered through the state. The market does a much better job, if only we could make it work properly.

Many will be relieved that Grootes didn’t actually mean much of what he said. Now that he has made that clear, the compass of our disagreement is narrower. But the difficulty remains that Grootes continues to think and to write in a fact-free environment.

Grootes bemoans the absence of a housing programme that requires people to build their own houses rather than rely on the state to do so. But the fact is that such a programme already exists. It’s called the People’s Housing Process, which is part of the National Housing Code, 2009. It’s been around for years, and it’s modestly successful.

Grootes insists that the South Africa doesn’t have the money to provide more to the poor. But the fact is that we’re a middle-income country. We have the world’s 29th largest economy. The International Monetary Fund says that we have a Gross Domestic Product per capita about $500 higher than Serbia’s. But over 30% of our people live on less than $2 per day. Just over 1% of Serbians do.

The state regularly spends less than it has available for social provision. The National Department of Human Settlements had spent R600 million less than it had budgeted to spend by last November. Municipalities – whose primary responsibility it is to provide housing and social care – are the worst offenders. They regularly under-spend their infrastructure budgets by margins of between 30% and 40%. The City of Johannesburg, in particular, enjoys a budget surplus of over R4 billion per year, which is projected to rise next year. We clearly have the money to do better.

Grootes criticises housing rights litigation for what he says is its failure to provide bricks and mortar on the ground. But the fact is that there are now 2,500 more subsidised housing units available to the inner city poor in Johannesburg than there were when housing litigation in that locality commenced. More needs to be done. The very poor – people earning less than about R2,400 per month – are still not adequately provided for. As a soon to be released SERI report will show, we need about 30,000 more housing units to cater for the inner city poor. The City of Johannesburg’s failure to provide this has little to do with financial constraints. It has billions. Its attitude to informal traders shows not just an inability to provide, but an outright hostility toward the poor and their efforts to survive without state support.

Grootes’ deepest error, though, is to conflate ideals with results. The fact that Irene Grootboom died in the temporary emergency shelter she was granted by the Constitutional Court, rather than in a house of her own, says nothing about whether the state should have provided her with a house at all. It is easy to criticise the state’s failure to deliver on its promises, but Grootes writes as if this amounts to a good argument against the promises themselves. In doing so, he goes too far.

Eschewing state intervention – or even the efficacy of human rights – Grootes’ solution, he says, is simply to provide everyone with more “freedom”. But the only freedom for the poor he speaks of is the “freedom” for a worker to accept or reject the market price of his labour; to work for poverty wages or to starve outright.

We can achieve greater freedoms than that, if only we can abandon the “greed is good” mentality at the core of late capitalism, and of which Grootes makes such a virtue. Greater equality, expanded social provision and redistribution of wealth are drivers of economic growth and individual freedom; not brakes on them. Economy and society are never freer and more prosperous than when they ensure that everyone has what they need to live a dignified existence, to unlock their potential, and to pursue their dreams.

No-one can do it on their own. I didn’t. My family had handouts. I know that post-Marikana, in the teeth of Nkandla-gate, against the backdrop of what seems like a rising tide of corruption, and in a society still horribly disfigured by racism, it’s hard to place our faith in the state – or in each other. It’s easy, for those of us who can afford it, to react to the state’s failures by retreating into a “me-first” privatised existence. But no society has ever achieved the kind of fundamental social and economic transformation we need by encouraging its citizens to be self-interested pursuers of wealth for its own sake. Nor can we. The only way out of this is to demand more of the state, and of each other, not less. DM

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


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