Defend Truth


Thanks to the coronavirus, we can see the possible


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

If the government and the private sector had to mobilise resources against poverty in the same way we are mobilising against Covid-19, South Africa could be a better place.

We saw such bold leadership displayed by the president of the republic with regards to how we as a nation decisively and appropriately deal with a national disaster, namely the Covid-19 pandemic.

A ministerial committee comprising a number of strategic ministries has been set up to effectively combat and contain this vicious virus. The SA National Defence Force is to take charge of certain activities. All emergency response teams have been placed on high alert to ensure that we serve the citizens of this great nation. Political parties have put their differences aside just for now and have come to the table.

Imagine if the president were so bold, once we have beaten the coronavirus pandemic, in dealing with one of our most pressing crises –  poverty.

Imagine waiting for the president’s press conference after he had called an emergency Cabinet meeting and met various stakeholders. Though the press conference starts an hour or so late, the president takes the nation into his confidence, outlining the extent of the crisis and how many of our people are dying daily from it. How our children in primary schools are so very dependent on the school feeding scheme, which ensures at least one square meal a day. How so many millions of our citizens live on less than one dollar a day, if that.

The president orders the schools to close so that all high school learners and university students can assist in the aid of the elderly and vulnerable. And at the same time, as was done in Malaysia some decades ago, to use this opportunity to retrain most of our teachers and get them up to acceptable levels, especially in the primary school sector.

Students must assist in moving maize meal and other essentials from markets and stores, to the houses and living quarters of our people, and camps are set up for the homeless while we build affordable houses for our people. The SA National Defence Force can again assist in this regard.

The private sector and the government pool resources to ensure infrastructure and services are brought to our people. The president announces that because of the skewed distribution of land and productive assets, which fuel poverty, a ministerial committee has been set up to dissect this matter and make concrete proposals to resolve it.

As for the low competition and integration into global and regional value chains, the private sector is tasked with proposing concrete solutions to ensure South Africa becomes more profitable. The president decrees that henceforth all companies, especially telecommunications companies, will carry their own data costs, as will banks.

Bold but necessary, if we intend to curb poverty levels in our country. Why is it that European countries can afford this approach and why do their respective governments choose to regulate such?

Furthermore, the president makes very specific announcements on the climate change crisis and the fact that this affects the disadvantaged communities more in every respect. Electricity costs are too high, water costs are escalating and are putting enormous pressure on hard-working folk in our communities. It is no wonder Soweto residents are fighting tooth and nail not to pay for basic services, they are becoming unaffordable, though non-payment strategies do not augur well for any country and should not be encouraged.

Then there is the much talked about skills deficit, which also requires very pointed interventions by public institutions and the private sector. Why is it that so many private companies have stopped training their workers and sending them to vocational training facilities to get skilled in various vocations?

Poverty is not a choice for us as a country, and we are fully aware that with poverty-alleviating measures in full swing as suggested above, more pressure will be brought to bear on our government to step up with regards to social services and basic services, but with the right determination and programme we will surely overcome. Just like we will defeat the coronavirus.

Imagine an approach that sees all stakeholders, both public and private, getting involved in making considerable resources available to once and for all deal a death knell to poverty in South Africa. Yes, structural solutions are needed but without political will, nothing will happen. Why only with the coronavirus pandemic? The numbers, after all, are so very skewed (globally).

  • Coronavirus cases thus far: 204,610
  • Deaths thus far: 8,269
  • Recovered: 82,866

According to the Brookings Institute’s latest research, “Looking at poverty trends worldwide, World Data Lab now estimates that just under 600 million people across the world will live in extreme poverty. By 2030, this figure is expected to fall to some 436 million.” The same trends can be surmised here at home.

The report says, with regards to Africa’s stagnation, “In 2019, some 70% of the world’s poor live in Africa, up from 50% five years ago. By 2023, Africa’s share will rise to over 80%. For Africa to end poverty by 2030, more than one person would need to escape poverty every second; instead, Africa currently adds poor people. Of course, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Last year for the first time since the enactment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Africa started reducing the absolute number of people living in extreme poverty, albeit very modestly.”

In short, an intervention of the sort we have seen these last few days from our government and private sector would go a long way towards putting SA on a real road of recovery.

You decide which is a more immediate threat to our longevity as a nation and humankind. Not being poor is a human right, and that’s why a similar national disaster approach is the right thing to do. We have seen now that collectively we can, if we want to. DM


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