Poverty continues to be a huge problem in South Africa and it seems that there are only a few leaders who are sincerely concerned and committed to its eradication. We have tolerated its presence for so long, it has become a natural part of reality, in the same way braais and the invidious presence of racism are part of our society. It is no wonder many claims are against the poor in South Africa – a popular one being that people are poor because they are lazy and not prepared to work. Not only is this myth harmful, it is also not factual.
A large majority of people living in poverty in South Africa are employed, law-abiding and hard-working citizens who are experiencing a phenomenon that has been labelled “in-work” poverty. In-work poverty occurs when the household income is below the poverty threshold, despite the fact that there may be one member within that particular household working either full or part-time.
There are certain factors which make certain members of our society more vulnerable to in-work poverty, such as the figure the individual is earning, whether in wage or salary form. Second to this is the composition of the household. The poverty will be worsened if there is only one individual working in a household with a large composition where the entire household is dependent on one person.
Even earning a high wage may not adequately protect workers from poverty that comes from income sharing because of the composition of one’s household – a phenomenon felt more strongly by low-wage workers and that has been labelled as Black Tax. Hence, black people continue to face a high incidence of poverty even when they are employed and a significant proportion of working families are unable to work themselves out of poverty. Poverty among employed individuals currently sits at 17%. Overall, working households comprise 41% of poor households and black workers are over-represented in the share of the working poor.
Songezo Zibi, former editor of the Business Day, once said, “We must be prepared to fashion a consensus as a society that the structures that we have in South Africa require that we continuously give up some of the privileges we have so that those who do not have can also migrate into a situation where they have got a more sustainable income and better living conditions.”
Our leaders (both in business and in politics) are going to have to make personal sacrifices and scale back on some of their privileges in order to bridge the divide between poor and rich.
The recent poverty statistics released by StatsSA indicate that over half of the South African population is living in conditions of poverty. There is a general consensus on the existence of poverty but wide disagreement still exists when it comes to defining what constitutes poverty.
Households with a household income (not individual income) of R649 per month utilising the inflation-adjusted Hoogeveen and Ozler poverty line have been defined as poor. This shows how low the threshold for what constitutes poverty has become.
Instead of making concerted efforts to radically transform the presence of hunger, squalour and despair in our communities – we engage in philosophical acrobatics and instead continuously redefine who falls below the arbitrarily constructed “poverty line”.
The elimination of poverty depends on our commitment to dismantling structural oppression, which cannot be dealt with by merely getting rid of old rulers and making some new laws, because poverty continues to be engineered by major economic and cultural institutions in South Africa.
It therefore goes without saying that the role of decent wages and other labour market institutions in alleviation of poverty cannot be overstated because the presence of low-wage work and the undervaluing of certain types of work in South Africa cannot be separated from the historical and current workings of racialised structures of power, domination and exclusion.
Metal workers and farmworkers are the most affected by in-work poverty. The farmworkers’ strike of 2012-2013, which was inspired by the Marikana Massacre, brought to the fore the plight of farmworkers in various parts of the country, many of whom could not afford to have three meals a day despite being responsible for the fruit and wine production of the country. The minimum farmworkers’ wage at the time stood at R69 per day though in reality, many farmers paid their workers much less and this went largely undetected. Workers struggled with food security as a result and access to nutritional food. In January of 2013, the minimum wage was increased from R69 to R105 after months of protests and dismissals of farmworkers.
The eradication of poverty should not be limited to job creation as it is very clear that in addition to job creation there is a need to combat the presence of low wages in our economy supported by government policy. Furthermore, we need to deal with the added precariousness of low-skilled labour due to their perceived disposability and demand for employment. These are prime conditions for exploitation which exacerbate in-work poverty.
We often perpetuate the harmful lie that the poor will stop being poor if only they would work harder – often they are working harder than most of us and for significantly less. When we place the blame for their own suffering squarely on those who are poor, and we criminalise and demonise them when they demand more, we are complicit in maintaining the current system of economic subordination.
For as long as we continue to herald economic growth and public above the eradication of poverty, the inequality in our country will continue to rise. We must hold a collective and universal determination to end the horrors of voracious accumulation at every class level – but in particular, for low-wage workers – so that we begin to loosen the stranglehold of poverty suffocating over half of the population in our country. If we do not do this voluntarily, we will eventually be forced into it because the resistance of the poor is ever imminent and inevitable. DM
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