File picture: Babu/Reuters
File picture: Babu/Reuters

Basic income grant key to social stability in SA

By George Devenish Time of article published May 31, 2017

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Government and the ANC appear to have become obsessed with the problems relating to the leadership of President Jacob Zuma and serious allegations of corruption and maladministration. As a result, other seminal issues, such as poverty alleviation, are not being meaningfully addressed.

An unconscionable fourteen 14 million peoplersons go to bed hungry in South Africa every day according to according to a report of the SA Food Sovereignty Campaign ("Fourteen million go hungry in SA daily’, Daily News, May 29). According to Stats SA, 15% of learners go hungry each day according to its 2016.

The UN Children’s fund (Unicef) has stated that 15% of children in Gauteng are hungry every day, and that 12% go to bed without a meal.

Unicef has reported that hunger has killed more people every year than HIV/Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Furthermore, it kills 64% of South Africa’s children aged under 5 and one-fifth are stunted in their growth.

These statistics are mind boggling and present both government and the South African community with an inordinate moral and political challenge.Twenty-three years after the inception of a democratic dispensation we still have poverty on such a vast scale that is morally debilitating and threatens political stability. Although there are no instantaneous solutions, both government and civil society should be doing so much more to alleviate poverty.

One of the means that should be considered in this regard is a basic income grant. Such a grant could be introduced incrementally to make it more affordable. It is submitted that it is needed urgently for both political stability and social justice in South Africa. Although, inter alia, the Basic Income Grant Coalition, Cosatu and the DA are in favour of this grant in one form or another, and the ANC and the government are opposed to it and have refused to implement it, indicating that it is unaffordable.

The coalition has called for a universal, non-means tested grant. The reason for this is that a means test has proven to be a barrier to the very poor and destitute accessing social grants.

A basic income grant is a measure that could give effect to the constitutional requirement to cater for the immediate basic needs of an estimated 14 million people who are living below the poverty datum line in South Africa. It is submitted that it is a constitutional imperative that some meaningful measure of access to social security is required for these persons.

A basic income grant is one means of doing this.

The basic income grant is a bold and innovative proposal that would give social assistance a major role in poverty alleviation. Although it is not a panacea, the proposal of a basic income grant goes beyond the residual function of ad hoc social assistance as a social safety net and could facilitate the involvement of poor people in South Africa in the economic development and upliftment of South Africa. This would occur through what is known as the second or ancillary economy.

Those who propose a basic income grant perceive structural poverty and inequality as a fundamental reality and challenge in the real politik of South Africa. It is submitted that a basic income grant could play a seminal role in addressing basic subsistence needs in our society, thereby empowering the poor and destitute to begin to participate in the economy of South Africa.

Given the inordinate inequalities in the South African economy and society, a major social assistance programme like a basic income grant is also a mechanism for income redistribution that will promote greater economic equality and social justice and stability.

Indeed, it could be perceived as meaningful radical economic transformation.

The Basic Income Grant Coalition has carried out research which shows that the grant is the most effective policy option for eliminating destitution and reducing poverty. It gives everyone a real stake in South Africa’s future and has the potential to transform South Africa.

It can be argued that at this time when fiscal discipline and austerity is the order of the day, this kind of grant is unaffordable.

However, the grant could be introduced incrementally over a period of five years. If the government is able to envisage spending more than a trillion rand on a questionable programme involving the Russians to develop nuclear electric power in the future, the economic feasibility of the grant deserves to be investigated.

What is required is a vigorous and informed debate between the different role players on this crucial issue in order to induce the government of the day to commit itself to the principle of such a grant.

As far as civil society is concerned, far greater co-ordination of the manifold efforts made by religious and secular organisations is required. Government should be involved in facilitating such co-ordination and soliciting greater assistance from the private sector in relation to poverty alleviation. There is no doubt that hunger threatens both our people and the economy.

A mammoth effort is required to address the problem. Meaningful and effective poverty alleviation is not an option; it is an imperative issue from both a moral point of view and for political stability.

Devenish is Emeritus Professor at UKZN and one of the scholars who assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993

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