File picture: Babu
File picture: Babu

SA to pursue decent standard of living for all

By Amy Musgrave Time of article published Nov 20, 2016

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Johannesburg - Social security experts have cautioned that as long as South Africa focuses primarily on reducing poverty instead of inequality, the country will continue to carry the dubious honour of being the most unequal society on Earth.

This is in line with warnings from the Study in Poverty and Inequality Institute (SPII) and officials in the Department of Social Development that social unrest will escalate for as long as the country does not have a decent social security and income floor.

The SPII is now spearheading a campaign for a decent standard of living for all.

SPII director Isobel Frye wants it to become the new policy frontier because South Africa, as a middle-income country, can and should move away from a singular focus on absolute poverty.

While the government has recognised in its National Development Plan that work needs to start on reducing inequality, this is a policy stance that is gaining momentum worldwide.

Even the World Bank has changed its tune, away from relying on wealth to trickle down from the rich to the poor, and is warning that poverty will not be defeated without an assault on inequality. It has now called for economic growth that is inclusive and lifts the poor, instead of enriching only those at the top.

Brenton van Vrede, who is the chief director of social assistance at the department, told a recent SPII indaba on a decent standard of living that while the NDP does acknowledge the need for a social protection floor and looking at relative poverty instead of only absolute poverty, the details are lacking.

“In our country, we like to talk about poverty because that’s where a lot of work has been done. But not much has been done on inequality,” he said.

Van Vrede said a main obstacle to fighting inequality was that the rights enshrined in the constitution were not sufficiently defined or monitored.

“What is the right to health care, social security, housing, if it’s not defined in any legislation? At least the right to social assistance is defined in the Social Assistance Act. We know exactly what the right is and what you have access to. But on the broader social measures, it’s undefined,” he said.

While the Constitutional Court hasn't been keen in the past to prescribe the standard of what citizens’ rights should entail and instead left it to the state, the country will have to start updating legislation after it ratified the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

This global pact outlines what an adequate standard of living is and what needs to be done to achieve it. And while not all countries can achieve the full demands of the covenant, signatories agree to a progressive realisation of the rights.

These include the right to work through everyone having the opportunity to gain their living by work which they freely choose, that working mothers are granted paid leave or leave with adequate social security benefits and that higher education is made equally accessible to all on the basis of capacity, with moves towards ensuring it is free eventually.

Justice Department director-general Vusi Madonsela told the conference that South Africa’s ratification of the covenant would deepen the country’s enforcement of socio-economic rights.

“The key challenge is to determine how to utilise this instrument. The treaty must be made more meaningful to lawmakers, policymakers and civil society; so that the indicators can be used to scientifically measure the rights enshrined in the constitution,” he said.

The next step for South Africa most likely will be to start social dialogue to ensure that it sticks to the covenant.

Already an inter-departmental team has been set up to draw up a framework for implementation.

The country has to give its first report back on its fight against inequality in April next year.

Labour Bureau

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