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Social unrest will continue as long as high levels of poverty, inequality exist

The events of the past week have once again laid bare the country’s triple challenge of high levels of inequality, poverty and unemployment. Picture: Itumeleng English African News Agency (ANA)

The events of the past week have once again laid bare the country’s triple challenge of high levels of inequality, poverty and unemployment. Picture: Itumeleng English African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jul 20, 2021


Luzuko Gaxamba

THE looting of the past week has caused huge damage to the economy from which it will take the country years to recover, especially considering the strategic location of both Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal in the country’s economy.

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When the unrest started, it was seen as a protest and sign of dissatisfaction with the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma for 15 months after the Constitutional Court found him guilty of contempt of court. Other political commentators believe the social unrest was orchestrated by disgruntled elements within the ANC, intent on sabotaging and undermining the state and causing regime change.

Whatever the causes or motives might have been, the events of the past week have once again laid bare the country’s triple challenge of high levels of inequality, poverty and unemployment.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has acknowledged that there were underlying circumstances to the protest that include poverty, unemployment and criminality. While the looting and vandalism may have died down for now, social unrest will always be with us unless these socio-economic challenges are effectively addressed.

Seeing an elderly woman looting cooking oil, mealie-meal and chicken pieces was a painful sight to be behold. It is heartbreaking to witness the effects of abject poverty forcing a person to sacrifice their dignity in this manner. However, it is important to note that not all the looting was driven by poverty, but by sheer criminality, as some people saw the mayhem as an opportunity to steal whatever they could, including flat-screen TVs, bicycles and valuable electronic items.

One thing that cannot be disputed about the civil unrest is that this was closely related to the internal fights within the ANC and its inability to find political solutions to its factional squabbles.

The so-called RET (radical economic transformation) faction within the party is of the view that the faction aligned to Ramaphosa, also referred to as the CR17 faction, is using the state apparatus to silence them under the pretext that the rule of law should be observed. It is these seemingly irreconcilable differences within the ruling party that are publicly manifesting themselves in the manner we witnessed last week. The difficult question is whether the two factions will ever be able to find each other and resolve their differences, or whether this will remain a permanent blot on the ANC and indeed the South African body politic. Second, these machinations also raise the question whether these differences are ideological or political, or are about personal interests geared towards deepening the state capture project.

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The state will reflect the cracks in a ruling party. A strong, united and strategically focused ruling party will lead to a responsive and visionary state that has clear direction, while a weak and factional party results in an unco-ordinated and dysfunctional state. Unfortunately, the biggest losers in all this are the citizens, who depend on the same state.

In order to avoid this unenviable slide down the slippery slope to self-destruction and implosion, as illustrated by the ghastly attacks on the economy and the country’s infrastructure, the government should urgently consider implementing a number of strategies, including:

First, our intelligence services and the co-ordination within the entire security cluster need to be shaken up. The unrest exposed how inept our intelligence services and police are, as they seemed to have been caught flat-footed and unable to respond effectively. The weakness within the intelligence sector on the early detection of potential security threats and the inadequate response from the South African Police Service (SAPS) leave a lot be desired. That Minister State Security Ayanda Dlodlo suggested they had furnished the SAPS with a heads-up intelligence report on the impending well-orchestrated mayhem, and the SAPS failed dismally to act on it, must only indicate a security cluster that is disjointed, ponderous and rudderless.

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However, there still remains a glimmer of hope. For instance, the resurgence of community safety patrollers is a good initiative that must be encouraged, properly supported and funded, as it points to the involvement of communities in their safety and development. However, the absence and failure of the government to provide guidance for and support community-driven interventions may result in the rise of vigilantism, which will no doubt have disastrous unintended consequences.

Although the looting of supermarkets and warehouses for food, clothing, electrical appliances and other items should be condemned in the strongest terms, it will be unreasonable to label all those who participated as “wanton criminals”. The undeniable existential truth is that these actions, deplorable as they are, have laid bare the urgent need for the government’s intervention in addressing the high level of poverty and unemployment. Before judging and labelling those who loot as depraved, one must also look at the extent to which their relative deprivation contributes to lawlessness. As the current unemployment rate is 43.2%, the majority of whom are young people, it is not surprising that young people were at the fore-front of the looting spree.

With this dire context in mind, it is commendable that the ANC is committing to urgently rolling out the implementation of the Basic Income Grant, targeting people between 19 and 59 years who don’t have any means of income. Minister of Social Development Lindiwe Zulu, when presenting her departmental policy and budget speech, alluded to the fact that the need to introduce the Basic Income Grant has become urgent for the ANC-led government. A number of civil society organisations have long been advocating for its implementation. While this is a noble and progressive social policy idea, it will, of course, be very costly, because it will require a whopping R197.8 billion year.

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Although there is great need for financial support, it seems the grant is not linked to any service from the recipient, so it could be perceived to be more “welfareism”. An alternative to paying recipients without requiring a service or a contribution is to redesign and strengthen the social security programmes towards a guaranteed right to work. Lessons could be drawn from India’s Mahatma Gandhi’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Since its inception, the programme has benefited more than 55 million participants. The number is more than the unemployed people in South Africa.

Building blocks towards the implementation of the programme will be a resolute political will that will be demonstrated by the passing of an act of Parliament that will compel all government departments, state-owned entities and municipalities to implement labour-based approaches so as to absorb a reasonable number of the unemployed people into productive work. The right to work does not only have an economic value, but it has a social value as well.

A well-oiled IT system can be leveraged to register and track the unemployed and monitor work and training opportunities that have been awarded to them. This, on its own, has the potential to create more jobs for the youth within the IT space. Equally, it will mitigate against the weakness experienced within the Covid-19 relief funds wherein it emerged that some recipients were double dipping, benefiting from the Covid-19 relief funds while also participating in other government initiatives. This exposes the weakness of the current IT system, which is not integrated with other programmes.

Furthermore, due to the fact that government is the one of the largest consumers of goods and services, it has a greater propensity to create jobs through the right to work programme. The right to work scheme could be designed in such a way that it kicks in only if a person is registered on it as a work seeker and does not get the requisite days guaranteed for employment. When this is the case, the person would qualify for the Basic Income Grant. This approach may drastically reduce the budget required for the grant, because most jobs will be paid through the budgets appropriated to various public entities and departments. There is no better time than this for the government to start designing and implementing a social security programme that will prioritise the right to work.

Luzuko Gaxamba writes in his personal capacity.

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.