In his State of the Nation Address, President Jacob Zuma set out priorities for his government over the coming five years. From his speech we can actually learn some interesting information as to where the country under his leadership would be forging ahead.
Zuma is indeed worried by poverty, inequality and unemployment. Of 200 or so countries in the world, how many can say they have conquered poverty, defeated inequality and have no problem with unemployment? These are universal themes, albeit (although, though, even though, notwithstanding) shaped in South Africa by its own history, the legacy of apartheid and its effect on land and business ownership, among many other factors.
For any citizen, the closely related problems of poverty, inequality and unemployment are of great and grave concern.
One needs to ask why these are indeed so demanding on society. Why do they demand solutions and why is solutions cardinal to success in any society?
Poverty can be understood in two ways.
A life of absolute poverty is one in which a person lacks the resources to meet the very basic needs of life, such as adequate nourishment. One study suggests that in 2011, 13% of South Africans regularly went hungry. A dispiriting (disappointing, hopeless, gloomy, daunting) statistic, but a vast improvement on the 30% from only 10 years before one can say.
Relative poverty is defined in a different way. People can also be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to participate in the normal activities of their society. They are, in effect, excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities.
People could be counted as poor if they could not afford the clothes that would allow them ‘to appear in public without shame’.
Perhaps this is why all human beings, at all times and in all places care so much about how they look: we all want to fit in, to be included.
How many people in South Africa suffer from relative poverty? It is a difficult question to answer, but it must be a substantial number, however it is measured.
Poverty is often a consequence of unemployment, but the problem of employment, for many people, goes much deeper.
Just as most of us want to fit in, most of us also want to work, and not only for the wages and or salaries that we would earn. We want to be able to contribute to the life in our communities. We want to be needed. To be unemployed is another way of being left out, of being excluded from the main life in society.
Disadvantaged compounds - A society where some are in poverty or unemployment while others prosper in a society of inequality.
And those at the bottom are disadvantaged in another way.
People in desperate situations will take risks others would not. Perhaps they will turn to crime. Perhaps they will take dangerous jobs, if caught, they will go to jail. If injured at work, they die or not work again.
Zuma tells his audience he is taking steps to reduce crime and improve the situation of people with disabilities. He must, of course, be aware that crime and disabilities are often as a consequence of the risk taken by people in poverty. If the only way you have of trying to improve your life runs the risk of making it even worse, you are truly disadvantaged. And this is the situation many unemployed people in poverty face, here and all over the world.
What does Zuma propose to do to overcome the triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment? No society has found an easy way out, but Zuma proposes economic growth, though this faces its own challenges, such as energy shortage and infrastructure deficit. Economic growth can create jobs, but it will only overcome poverty if those jobs are well paid.
For this reason, Zuma says he will consider introducing a minimum wage. He also emphasis the creation of highly skills jobs and a labour force educated to a level that will allow these jobs to be filled which remains to be seen?
Will economic growth address inequality? This is less likely. If anything, it could increase inequality, if the business class keeps most of the benefits itself, as happens so often elsewhere. But perhaps this is less important if poverty can, over the next 10 years, fall at the impressive rate it did over the previous 10 years.
We can only wish Zuma every success in his goal to address poverty, inequality and unemployment and to preside over a South Africa moving forward economically, politically and socially.