Inside Labour: The real budgets: SA’s frantic daily juggling act

2015-03-01 18:00

Wednesday’s budget speech was an annual event for the state. But for most South Africans, it’s a daily or – if they are slightly luckier – weekly or monthly calculation they make to try to remain afloat financially.

What happened this week, along with the plaudits and protests reflected in the media, will not cause any excitement for more than half the population.

And who can blame those who live in penury? While the state can effectively wallow in debt, with its functionaries able to live high on the hog, debt for people on the ground often means malnutrition and a slow descent into sickness and premature death.

Unlike for government, big business or the historically wealthy, there is little to no access to loans at anywhere near reasonable rates to help ease poor families through a rough patch.

The mashonisas and money lenders who remain barely onside with the law ensure that repayments are cripplingly high for those who are forced to borrow. And there are no allowances made for the recipients of grants that, in most cases, do not even cover the cost of an adequate diet.

It is an awareness of this that underlines the arguments by the labour movement for more expansionist policies and a more equitable redistribution of resources.

This year, with more fears of job losses and in the face on an ongoing economic crisis, there is greater urgency being expressed about these demands.

Yet calls for such policies run counter to requests for belt-tightening, however these are presented. These calls are also based on the labour-supported assumption of a macroeconomic foundation of widespread redistribution, of labour-intensive work leading to a “virtuous cycle” of economic growth: the opposite of government’s growth orientation.

The focus of these policy debates is invariably on how to create a better life for all.

But according to Stats SA figures, most men, women and children still live below the poverty line. Labour federation Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi maintains that a family of five would need at least R4?750 a month to rise marginally above this.

Most family incomes are less than R3?000 a month. And the generally estimated number of dependents surviving on the incomes of the nearly 11?million people employed in the formal sector is five or more.

Nearly a quarter of the working population is also covered by ministerial sectoral determinations, and these, for the most part, amount to barely more than R2?000 a month.

A domestic worker, for example, now has a minimum wage of R2?065.47. Out of this must come often hefty travel costs to and from work.

And, despite the 25% decline in the petrol and diesel prices since July last year, there has been no reduction in travel costs. Nor, according to a survey by the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Action (Pacsa) has there been any overall reduction in the price of food, where transport – and therefore fuel – costs are an important factor.

In time for this budget speech, Pacsa also produced its latest figures on the current cost of adequately feeding a family, taking into account family size and the ages and nutritional requirements of family members. An adequate, balanced, but basic diet for two healthy, active adults with two children younger than nine costs R2?144.52 a month.

For a family of seven – a more realistic average – that includes a pensioner, two active adults and four children, two younger than nine, one of 10 and one of 16, Pacsa puts the monthly cost at R3?754.05.

For most South Africans, it is these figures, combined with the cost of transport, school fees, clothing and shelter, along with wages of less than R3?000 a month, that constitute economic reality. Wednesday’s budget speech did little to change this, but these facts should give added impetus to labour’s demand for a national minimum wage that makes for a life that is at least tolerable.

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