Bottom-up approach to tackling inequality can benefit the poor more than trickle-down redress
DA’s draft economic justice policy identifies the main areas of disadvantage and focuses on their eradication
At the dawn of our democracy there was widespread (not to imply majority) agreement that it was less than ideal that a postapartheid dispensation would continue to perpetuate race classification. Those who supported race-based redress often expressed discomfort at the idea, and hence discussions about sunset clauses were abundant.
The apprehension was unsurprising; race would be used to address the historical legacy of apartheid but race itself was also a historical legacy of apartheid. When would we then attend to the race question?
This was not clear, but what was clear was that the deconstruction of race as a mobilising force in SA would have to wait until economic freedoms could be achieved. Twenty-five years later we are nowhere near to an economically inclusive society and even further away from one in which race essentialism has been overcome. Race as a social construct is not past tense; we reconstruct race every day in SA through legislation.
It stands to reason then that the holy grail of economic redress is a policy that could address economic injustice while simultaneously overcoming the need for sorting South Africans according to illegitimate categories. The draft economic justice policy released by the DA at the beginning of the month makes the ambitious attempt of putting forward a policy that would achieve exactly that.
The urgency for policy alternatives would be less pressing if current measures were making a dent in addressing economic exclusion — some could then make the argument that we risk compromising success in search of the ideal. As it happens, there is little to recommend current policy.
Briefly, the picture painted by a range of statistics is a bleak one: about 55% of South Africans live on less than R992 a month. The majority of SA pupils drop out of basic education before the 12th year, and those who do stay achieve poor educational outcomes. Furthermore, one in four children is stunted, and there remains a huge gulf between the state of public and private health care.
When surveyed, 53.8% of South Africans indicated being very satisfied with public health care compared to 92.6% who were very satisfied with private health care. Worsening this overall crisis is a shrinking economy and rising unemployment. And the jobs that do exist are often too expensive, and difficult to find, for those living far from economic centres.
Any redress policy worth its salt must be focused on these types of issues. It is precisely because the majority of those disadvantaged are black that we can afford to say that a policy that focuses exclusively on the poor, without using race classification, is also pro-BEE. This approach has nothing to do with ideological purity, as those who analyse politics from their desktops would have you believe. If not from me, take it from a socialist.
Neville Alexander; professor, activist and self-confessed socialist, wrote almost 15 years ago in the same vein: “In short, we need to study each domain in which corrective action is to be undertaken in detail, so that we can identify the real sources of disadvantage suffered by the relevant individuals and groups. By using the shorthand of “race”, we not only give advantage to middle class black people as against working class people, we also entrench — avoidably — the very racial categories that undermine the possibility of attaining a truly non-racial democratic SA.”
The DA’s draft economic justice policy does exactly as Alexander prescribed; it identifies the most pressing areas of disadvantage and focuses redress policy on their eradication. These areas are poverty, education, unemployment, low savings, childhood stunting, health inequality, the breakdown of the family and spatial inequality. To this end we propose a number of interventions aligned with the UN sustainable development goals.
There is emphasis in the economic justice policy that ours is a growth-first agenda; we want shared prosperity not the sharing of economic misery. Thus we must prioritise interventions that are conducive to growth first and foremost. To ensure growth is inclusive we propose numerous measures, including that no child drops out of school before 12 years in the education system. We make the case for a food grant that would bring grants in line with the food poverty line.
If this expense helps us curb child stunting it saves money down the line on interventions that must deal with the social consequences of a stunted generation. We are considered in the measures we wish to propose to support the family; including introducing shared parental leave to replace maternity leave and prioritising families in the allocation of urban housing. There is no summary that can take the place of reading the full proposal and engaging with it, which is why we have developed an online policy portal for this purpose.
Everyone has their pet policies — if we went around the country and asked South Africans what interventions we should put in place to tackle these eight areas of disadvantage we would receive as many interventions as there are people in the country.
It is thus not surprising that every commentator has their own suggestions to punt. For example, Business Day columnist Peter Bruce’s idea of giving every child in the country R50,000 in an account at birth, and in the past of giving every South African half a hectare of arable land.
But it is a superficial analysis to say, as Bruce does, that the proposed approach is weak because it fails to include his personal pet projects. Should they stand up to scrutiny (the land one does not — we would have to invade Namibia to make this possible) such interventions could be included because they do not negate our proposed approach; that of focusing on bottom-up rather than trickle-down redress.
Trickle down redress has assumed that by enabling a top-level transfer of assets, positions and contracts we can achieve broad-based prosperity. This has not happened.
What we propose is bottom-level redress that tackles the key areas of exclusion faced by the majority. We can quibble about the specific interventions that would best address the identified areas of exclusion, but a shift in priorities is required as the crucial first step to a new consensus.
• Ngwenya is DA policy head