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The unemployed must not become slaves of the state

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Andile Zulu is a political essayist.

The suggestion by Sello Lediga that recipients of the R350 Covid-19 special social grant should perform community service not only grossly undervalues labour, it also ignores the very basis of poverty in South Africa.

 

“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” – James Baldwin

The Covid-19 pandemic has unveiled the severe and seemingly incurable dysfunctions of South African society. With the declaration of a national lockdown by President Cyril Ramaphosa, millions were forced to stay at home, away from, and therefore without, work. The extension of the lockdown meant the sustained paralysis of the economy. The announcement of this extension unleashed a storm of questions from anxious citizens: without stable, albeit small incomes, how would the poor feed their children? Would thousands soon fall into the permanent limbo of unemployment? Was mass eviction to become a reality for the working class and what devastation awaited those already precariously employed before the lockdown?

These grave concerns brought attention to an indisputable fact: injustice defines post-apartheid South Africa. An unjust distribution of opportunity, financial security, healthcare, food and wealth means currently it is the destitute and the dispossessed whose lives are threatened not only by the coronavirus but by the very conditions into which they were born.

Government proceeded to do what numerous governments around the world have done in response to the suspension of the little socioeconomic security citizens had – the implementation of a series of welfare policies and relief funds to try to soften the debilitating blow of a frozen economy.

The reactions to and criticisms of these policies revealed the mentalities of many who live in a society so rigorously stratified by class. Worse, they reveal how our political imaginations have been stunted by the reign of capitalism’s most predatory inclinations.

Perhaps the clearest, yet still morally questionable and intellectually frail criticism has been provided by political commentator Sello Lediga in his 7 May 2020 article for Daily Maverick, “Impose compulsory community work on all those who receive the R350 Covid-19 grant, Mr President”.

Lediga rightly predicts that the R350 grant is likely to become a permanent form of welfare after the national lockdown. Suspending such a support system before national elections would be electoral suicide for the ANC.  Lediga contends that the R350 grant is a missed opportunity by the government to “draft 10 million new grant recipients into a comprehensive Thuma Mina project in all provinces, municipalities and local areas”.

Lediga isn’t drafting a policy paper, so a detailed description of his proposal is not given but he argues the unemployed should conduct various forms of community service, once a week throughout each month in order to qualify for receiving a grant of R350.

Of course details aren’t a necessary feature of Lediga’s article because he isn’t offering a comprehensive solution to the complex issue of unemployment but rather a weakly justified attack on the principle of social solidarity.

Firstly, Lediga grossly underestimates the value of human labour. A day of work, probably physically intensive or mentally taxing to some extent, done four times a month, is not worth a measly R350. The mental power, physical energy and time of a human being is a precious resource – the use of this resource deserves fair compensation. As already highlighted by Lediga, community work can be of great service to our urban and rural spaces, while also contributing to economic growth. Unless such work of great importance is voluntary, those who partake in it deserve to be fairly compensated for their labour. One has to wonder why Lediga does not respect the right the unemployed have to be properly paid?

It must not be forgotten that the mental and physical capacities of a human being are theirs and theirs alone to use how they see fit. In other words, people are sovereign over their own bodies and minds, so long as they don’t use those capacities to harm others. Unfortunately, such freedom only exists in political rhetoric or legislation that has little to no tangible effect on reality. The majority of the work people undertake is done under the pressure of survival. It is forced upon people by the precarious social and economic conditions they find themselves in.

What Lediga proposes is for the government to coerce people into badly paying labour or have them face the possibility of starvation or a further descent into poverty. What our society needs less of is an economy that preys on the desperation of the financially precarious.

Where Lediga’s analysis begins to seriously flounder is in how he disregards or carelessly omits to mention the integral causes of unemployment, rooted in our history, the evolving structure of our economy and the absence of imagination and prevalence of incompetence within our government. Lediga frames his arguments as driven by a concern to combat a “self-destructive dependency syndrome” in South Africa and dignify the lives of the unemployed with community work, asserting this will lead to communities viewing the unemployed as meaningfully contributing to society rather than being derided as loafers.

But, one must ask, what do the unemployed actually gain from suggesting that they work for welfare? As already discussed, for R350 a month, they definitely wouldn’t be receiving a fair income. Does this policy alleviate the condition of unemployment? No, it doesn’t. Because unemployment is largely the result of a flurry of forces often outside an individual’s control (this isn’t to say in exceptional circumstances such forces can’t be overcome).

 

We do not live in a meritocratic society. Lives are still held hostage by the lottery of birth and so unemployment is often not a failure of character, willpower or work ethic.

 

Lediga indulges in an almost patronising moralising that suggests the unemployed are lazy, framing them as “hapless and passive recipients of government delivery”. This ignores that people can’t find work because millions have been subjected to an education of a dismal quality, while others can’t afford tertiary education without falling into crippling debt once they graduate. In an economy that is increasingly demanding specialised labour, the inaccessibility of tertiary education and the poor quality of basic education oversupplies the economy with forms of skill that are slowly becoming obsolete.

The state of our education system is just one factor in the dilemma of rampant unemployment in SA. Spatial inequality means the majority of the population relegated to rural areas and townships can’t access employment opportunities in urban areas like cities or industrial towns. The effects of the 2008/2009 global financial recession still reverberate throughout the economy, limiting the ability and willingness of businesses in various industries to hire.

We do not live in a meritocratic society. Lives are still held hostage by the lottery of birth and so unemployment is often not a failure of character, willpower or work ethic. Whether nestled by the comforts of extravagant wealth or living under the duress of unemployment, the material conditions in which we find ourselves are not indicative of our value as human beings.

It seems that Lediga’s greatest concern is citizens receiving the essentials of well-being for free and that this creates an unhealthy dependence on government while draining the resources of the state and economy. The notion that welfare discourages people from work or the pursuit of financial independence is deeply lodged into mainstream political imagination but ultimately it is a myth not founded in the numerous empirical studies and research conducted in recent decades. As noted by Derek Thompson, “a 2015 meta-study of cash programs in poor countries found ‘no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work’ in seven different countries: Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, the Philippines, Indonesia, or Morocco.”

Some research has found that carefully designed welfare policies can lead to an increase in incomes often due to an increase in work productivity, while also encouraging people to advance their education or attain new skills to adjust to the demands of the economy.

Ultimately Lediga’s analysis forgets the pragmatic necessity and moral importance of social welfare. Our democracy has made a commitment to “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms”. Poverty, relative or absolute, ever-widening inequality and ballooning unemployment seriously threaten the realisation of these values in the lives of South Africans. While government welfare does not eradicate these systemic issues, it acts as a support structure to help people who, often through no fault of their own, find themselves struggling to survive.

Practically, welfare is needed because our fates are interconnected. The prosperity of an affluent minority at the expense or exclusion of a destitute majority will produce destructive instability. Instead of seeing grants and food schemes, free education or healthcare as “freebies”, it is useful to view these interventions as investments towards the wellbeing of individuals and therefore the wellbeing of society at large. DM

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