By Isobel Frye
The French Revolution brought a violent and absolute end to an epoch based on irrational beliefs of divinely anointed unaccountable rulers across some pretty eviscerated European states.
Taxes were raised from the people to pay for the lavish lifestyle of the ruling class and their wars of acquisition. People’s hunger and starvation left the elites cold, satisfied as they were of their divine right to rule, to subjugate and to exploit.
In the cries of the French revolutionaries for Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite are the seeds of fundamental human rights of people that informed the subsequent 1941 Atlantic Charter, the 1943 Africans Claims of the ANC, the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1955 Freedom Charter and the 1996 Constitution of South Africa.
The lesson for those who ignore the fundamental rights of people should not be ignored. The Revolution swept aside the political and social order of the Ancient Regime. It was replaced by a new order that was based on a radically fairer foundation, but countless lives were lost and properties destroyed in the total destruction fuelled by the anger of discounted people.
South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. The top 10% of South Africans own 81% of financial assets, while income inequality is driven by abhorrent wage gaps. The most recent reminder of this was the revelation of Sibanye-Stillwater CEO Neal Froneman’s 2021 take home package of R300 million.
What made this even more incredible was that the same company is locked in a two-month strike because they refuse to meet the R150 difference between their offer and workers’ demands. The company says anything more than their R850 offer would have a significant impact on the profitability of the company. And yet their justification for the CEO’s package was the 560% increase in its share price between 2018 and 2021.
That this massive increase in wealth was shared by the executives and the shareholders, but not the workers who extracted the wealth, is at the heart of our failing society. That this reasoning was felt to be acceptable is at the core of our disintegrating nation.
Sibanye-Stillwater effectively bought Marikana in 2019, the mine where 34 striking miners were shot dead by SAPS in August 2012. This dualism of values is not only to be seen in the private sector. In the last week we saw the shocking reduction by the government of the eligibility for the R350 grant. This, in the immediate aftermath of the devastating floods, the March Labour Force Survey’s confirmation of the jobs bloodbath with 12.5million adults unemployed, and the dramatic rise in food and fuel inflation on the back of the Russian incursion into Ukraine.
President Cyril Ramaphosa received well-deserved praise for introducing meagre cash grants to unemployed adults during the hard lockdown in 2020. After a combination of social justice activism and the July 2021 protests after the end of the R350 grants in March 2021, the Treasury announced a 12-month extension of the R350 grants in February 2022.
Two years’ inflationary increases should have seen the R350 increase to R382.20, but there was never an attempt to do so. The crumbs thrown to the poor must show society’s disdain for their humanity. This is the R350 grant that featured so positively in the president’s State of the Nation Address as the seed money for Thando Makhubu’s ice cream venture in Soweto. The regulations drop the means test threshold from R595 to R350, effectively penalising anyone who tries to use the money to make more money.
Livelihoods for the poor are precarious and unpredictable. The grant provided the security of basic income. This will now be lost if you are foolish enough to match the government’s R350 with anything more through your own endeavours.
The government has removed all incentive for the poor to create a better life for themselves. The justification for this move is that there is not enough money in the fiscus, that to meet people’s constitutional rights for decent social security will be irresponsible.
In 2020, the SA Revenue Service received a commodities windfall of R100billion, and in 2021 a further R200bn. This past weekend, NUM workers booed the president away from a May Day address. Ramaphosa was the NUM’s first general secretary.
In the president’s letter to the nation of May 3, Ramaphosa wrote “the workers have spoken and we must listen”. He commits to taking “necessary action to improve their lives” and as illustration he claims that “some measures, like the R350 (grant), remain in place”. He also says the workers’ actions communicate a loss of faith in political leaders.
The French Revolution signalled a bloody end to a most unequal and unfair regime. The government has chosen macro-economic policies that enable it to claim, in this most unequal country in the world, that we do not have money to give to the poor.
They choose to ignore the many detailed research reports proving that universal basic income distribution will feed people and lead to positive economic growth and jobs. I wonder often what lessons future children will be taught from this epoch. Don’t you?
* Frye is the Executive Director of the Social Policy Initiative