Empowering the poor and the destitute

2008-05-19 00:00

The soaring price of basic foods and the effect they have on the poor make a discourse on the merit of a basic income grant necessary.

Different views have, however, been expressed on this matter.

The debate on the question of a basic income grant took a significant step forward with the support given to this idea by the Social Welfare Minister Zola Skeweyiya (Business Day and Daily News, November 10, 2007: “Cosatu hails Skweyiya stance”), despite the fact that Finance Minister Trevor Manuel has warned against a culture of dependency and that its cost is unaffordable. He has estimated that a grant of R100 per month would cost R95 billion per annum.

This appears to be excessive and a more realistic estimate is R58 billion.

If this is indeed the case, it is submitted that it is affordable and would be money well spent. There would, however, be problems of capacity, but careful and comprehensive planning could overcome these.

Skeweyiya was expressing his personal opinion, and not that of the government or the ANC. Although, inter alia, the Basic Income Grant Coalition, Cosatu and the DA are in favour of this grant, the government and the ANC are opposed to it.

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 13 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 people. 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 the economic development and upliftment of South Africa.

Those who propose a basic income grant perceive structural poverty and inequality as a fundamental reality and challenge in the realpolitik of South Africa. 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.

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.

A vigorous and informed debate is required on this crucial issue at this time of escalating basic food prices, and their prejudicial effect on the poor in South Africa.

• Professor G. E. Devenish is a DA councillor in Durban.

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