It is quite fitting that this meeting returns to South Africa, a country of stark contradictions where millions of have-nots live in squalor and deprivation, often a stone’s throw away from a few living in the lap of luxury, and to Southern Africa, the most unequal region on the continent.
The men and women in sharp suits at Durban’s International Convention Centre this week will be reminded that all their efforts will come to nought if the three related and mutually reinforcing developmental challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment, that are everywhere you look in this region, are not addressed squarely and urgently.
The story is well told; for all the years of outwardly impressive growth figures across the continent, our people enjoyed very little to none of this supposed success story.
Especially so Southern Africa’s women, youth and majority small-holder farmers, who continue to bear the brunt of the many hardships found at the confluence of poverty, inequality and unemployment.
Of the 15 SADC countries, only Mauritius is classified as a high human development country on UNDP’s Human Development Index while Angola, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zimbabwe are all classified low human development countries registering HDI values below 0.55.
At the same time, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, and Zambia all rank among the top 10 unequal countries in the world, with Swaziland joining this group of countries in the region whose Gini indexes are above 0.5 according to World Bank data.
Unemployment levels are very high with an estimated 40% of the labour force in the region unemployed or underemployed.
A large number of those employed are in vulnerable employment characterised by informal arrangements, a lack of decent working conditions and meagre incomes.
The majority of people in the rural areas spend most of their productive labour hours on subsistence agriculture, with about 70% of the region’s population dependent on agriculture for food, income and employment.
Granted, the enduring high levels of inequality in Southern Africa are in large part legacies of the land dispossession and widespread asset-stripping of the masses, as well as racially discriminatory policies of our recent past. But policy choices and overall governance deficits in the post-colonial period have not helped matters. To achieve truly inclusive growth and comprehensive transformation in the region, Southern African leaders in the public and private sectors, many of whom will be wining and dining, and wheeling and dealing, between their important meetings in Durban this week, will need to think seriously and find ways to invest in meeting the needs of the people.
Instead of focusing solely on GDP and hoping to tweak it to make it more inclusive, leaders should focus directly on reducing inequality and eliminating poverty, in ways that lead to economic prosperity for all.
Such a human economy approach to development in southern Africa will unlock the people’s potential to drive the region’s development agenda and strengthen the economies of the region to the benefit of all.
This will require public and private sector investments in sectors with high social returns, like education, water, health and sanitation, and the provision of quality basic services at no cost to poor households. Fair taxation and putting an end to tax dodging will ensure governments harness the required revenues to halt inequality through well-resourced and equitable public spending.
The youth, who comprise three quarters of SADC’s population, represent one of the best opportunities for the region’s transformation. To unlock their potential, investment should go towards enhancing innovation, entrepreneurship and broadening employment opportunities for young women and men, aligning education and skills training to the socio-economic needs of the region and economies of the future, and promoting meaningful youth participation in socio-economic and political governance at all levels.
Farmers, who make up the majority of the region’s rural populace, remain stuck on small patches of unproductive holdings, farming mainly for family consumption and realising little surplus. Where farmers harvest enough to sell, their participation in the market is confined to the lowest rungs of agriculture value chains.
There is minimal local processing to capture and retain greater value, effectively turning farming, the fundamental livelihood activity for most, into a poverty trap.
This must change.
Smallholder agriculture must be transformed into a profitable and sustainable livelihood, supported by a mindset shift among small-holder farmers towards seeing agriculture as more than a survival activity: as profitable business. Governments and private sector investment in subsectors such as horticulture, fisheries, small livestock, irrigation, processing, research and development, and extension are key to realise this transformation.
Equality between women and men is an urgent imperative.
Across the political, economic and social spheres, women and girls remain excluded and disadvantaged as a consequence of the predominance of patriarchy in all forms of societal organisation and activity. Economically, there still remain huge inequalities between men and women. Lack of credit, sustainable finance and customary practices are the biggest obstacles to women’s ownership of property and other productive resources.
The gender pay gap remains stark. As a proportion of men’s earnings, women on average earn only 42% in Mauritius, 53% in Swaziland and 59% in South Africa, while in Malawi, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, Namibia and Lesotho women earn between 61 and 78% compared to their male counterparts, according to the 2016 edition of the SADC Gender Protocol Barometer.
In addition, women continue to suffer the burden of uncounted and unpaid care work.
Through ensuring equitable investments in physical and social infrastructure, elimination of gender discriminatory practices in the workplace and challenging social norms that predetermine women’s social and economic standing in society, leaders can set the region well on the path to achieving gender-equitable and truly inclusive economies.
In seeking to shepherd the continent to a more inclusive development agenda, Durban’s well-heeled guests have set themselves an admirable task for the week ahead. One looks forward to seeing some real solutions emerge from their time on these shores.
* Chagutah is Regional Policy and Influencing Manager for southern Africa at Oxfam.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
The Sunday Independent