Make good on these promises

2009-02-11 00:00

throughout this presidency, South Africa has lacked a comprehensive and sustainable strategy to address the urgent needs of the more than four million South Africans who don’t have work or access to any form of income support.

President Kgalema Motlanthe’s State of the Nation speech contained some worthwhile sentiments, including a positive shift on government’s commitment to deal with structural unemployment. It was reassuring to hear that the government will pay particular attention, albeit now more consultatively, to the war on poverty campaign and finalising the draft of the Comprehensive Anti-poverty Strategy. It was reassuring to hear that the government will pay attention to continuing research and consultations on the comprehensive social security system, including the matter of national health insurance.

To consult genuinely and remain attentive to the needs of people, requires political leaders and civil servants who have a true sense of Batho Pele, which will be reciprocated by a more receptive populace. One-day imbizos and road shows, while they may have merit, represent the least participatory modes of engagement. Other, more sustainable forms of engagement, including active listening (rather than quick solution posing), participatory decision-making and budgeting have been well documented in the developing world.

Therefore, the creation of a space in which broad consultation can happen should be prioritised. It is something which civil society has long been calling for.

Hopefully, the consultations will address the growing concern that the government’s approach to poverty alleviation continues to target specific households in dire need, ignoring the scale of the crisis. Our country urgently needs a developmental strategy that is made up of a comprehensive social security system that includes a basic income grant for the unemployed, the generation of decent, sustainable jobs and food security for all. Indeed, the creative measures to prevent layoffs and extend public employment programmes announced by the president deserve applause.

As this is likely to be his first and last State of The Nation address, the point that the president should bear in mind is this: he will be judged on the promises he keeps — not the promises he makes. For me, if there is one promise that this government must keep, as it completes the mandate it was accorded in 2004, it is to “sustain and expand social expenditure, including progressively extending access to the child support grant to children of 18 years of age and reducing the age of eligibility for old-age pension to 60 years for men”.

We cannot take lightly the important role that government has played in the eradication of poverty, especially in the face of rocketing interest rates and inflation, rising food, fuel and utility costs, as well as harder-to-get credit. The developmental state must not only intervene to protect the interests of citizens, but must be especially concerned with the wellbeing of the poor, who remain an inordinately large percentage of our population. That is why it is important to enact legislation to guarantee the promise of rolling out these grants in order to prevent these commitments from getting lost in the electioneering process and the subsequent changes in political leadership of government in the future.

Furthermore, there is a real threat that the value of these grants will continue to be eroded by the government’s piecemeal approach to tackling our biggest national emergency — poverty. That is why keeping a promise will mean so much to those who invested their hopes in this government that must see the mandate through. A government that leaves a lasting legacy is one that will deliver more and promise less.

• Nkosikhulule Nyembezi is the advocacy programme manager for the Black Sash.

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