The poverty statistics released last week by Stats SA are the kind of stuff that should get all South Africans to sit up and take note. They point to a ticking time bomb which all of us, especially the social partners – government, business and labour – should diffuse before it explodes.
Just to restate the shocking stats: 30.4 million of South Africa’s 55 million citizens reportedly live in poverty or survive on less than R992 per person per month. The number of people living in extreme poverty – below R441 per person per month has increased by 2.8 million from 11 million in 2011 to 23.8 million. Worryingly, children under the age of 17 are the hardest hit by poverty, the report tells us. And, of course, the face of poverty continues to be black African, female and rural.
Without being alarmist, this is a crisis.
Civil society ought to be calling the commanders of capital and policy makers to take a pause, reflect and come up with a Marshall plan to rescue the millions of South Africans who are wallowing in poverty. It is particularly worrying that without a plan to help the under 17s who are trapped in poverty, breaking that cycle in their genealogy will be almost a mission impossible.
And one need not elaborate about the social ills that come with poverty. When the poor are feeling the pangs of hunger, crime becomes an option. When young girls are faced by poor living conditions, the temptation to get involved with sugar daddies increases, itself leading to other risks such as HIV/AIDS infection among teenage girls and young women.
But the greatest threat this poverty poses is to the sustainability of our democracy. As stated in one of our new democracy’s founding documents, the Reconstruction and Development Plan, “no political democracy can survive and flourish if the mass of our people remain in poverty, without land, without tangible prospects for a better life.” Former President Thabo Mbeki put it somewhat more dramatically in the mid-1990s when he said “when the poor rise, they will rise against us all.”
Poverty and inequality are ultimately the biggest threat to our democracy and to the thread that holds South Africa together. Unfortunately, this thread is coming undone as poverty increases among the majority even as the social wage has increased, thanks to the social welfare policies of post-apartheid South Africa.
South Africa’s social wage constitutes spending on social grants, health, and education, housing and local amenities. The National Treasury says our social wage bill has more than doubled in real terms over the past decade and now accounts for almost 60 per cent of public expenditure. In an environment where there is no enough money going around, the importance of getting value for money on our social wage bill cannot be overemphasized. That is why anything that eats into the social wage, for example paying exorbitant fees for the delivery of the very social services, should be frowned upon.
Currently, social assistance provides a safety net for the most vulnerable in our society and contributes to the monthly incomes of over 16 million people. Indeed, social development spending has improved living conditions of many South Africans. Without it, one cannot even begin to imagine how poverty levels would be looking like in the country.
But even so, the poverty levels revealed last week show how the thresholds for social assistance, housing and free health care, among others, can be limited. Central to reducing poverty and improving the living conditions of citizens, it is clear that what ultimately matters is how much people have in their pockets to afford the necessities of life. That depends on broadening economic participation and ensuring that the economic wage earned through work increases. The social wage alone is not sustainable. And this is where we need to see innovative thinking through shared efforts between government, the private sector and civil society.
Unfortunately, as things stand currently relations between government and business are at their lowest ebb, thanks to the state capture allegations and everything related that has since happened. Relations between Cosatu, a significant social partner, and the ruling party are also fractured. The ANC itself is a house divided and one doubts if anything at the moment matters more to it than its elective conference in December.
This leaves civil society formations as the only institutions which must follow up the Stats SA report, ensure that it is discussed and solutions explored. One thing is clear: the current policy trajectory has not done enough to reduce poverty, external factors notwithstanding. South Africa needs a Codesa that will produce a radical (not populist) framework on how we are going to deal with poverty.
*In conclusion, let me take this opportunity to wish outgoing Statistician General Dr Pali Lehohla well as he steps down this coming October. With 17 years at the helm of Stats SA, he has served the country with diligence in collecting, compiling and analyzing the country’s official statistics. We wish all of the best in his retirement and future endeavors
PASTOR RAY McCAULEY IS THE PRESIDENT OF RHEMA FAMILY CHURCHES AND CO-CHAIRPERSON OF NATIONAL RELIGIOUS LEADERS COUNCIL (NRLC)