Struggling to alleviate poverty

2010-08-05 00:00

ALMOST all developing countries struggle to alleviate poverty, with the hope of ultimately abolishing it from their societies. No doubt all of them have a tendency to underplay the nature of the problem: governments don’t like to be constantly reminded of their greatest challenges. South Africa is no exception in this regard. In this country public discourse spends far too little of its energy on the question of poverty and on the related issue of unemployment.

On July 28, on page four of this newspaper, there appeared an unobtrusive report, based on figures from Statistics SA, which noted that the unemployment rate for the second quarter of 2010 is “virtually unchanged” at 25,3%. The report added that the results suggest that “the government’s commitment to halving unemployment by 2014 may be going nowhere.”

In my view this should have been a headline, splashed across the front page. The question of unemployment, and of the poverty that flows from it, is arguably the biggest issue in this country — even more important than corruption and other crime (appalling though these are) and service delivery protests (significant though these are). On the whole unemployed people do not band together and protest: they tend to be too weak, too poor and too demoralised to do so.

The issue is crucial from a humane point of view. It is a blot on everyone in a society when some are very rich while others struggle and starve. Those who feel this most strongly in the political arena are those on the left, particularly many members of the SACP and Cosatu. Concern for the poor, indeed identification with the poor, is also at the heart of the world’s great religions. But those who prioritise economic growth should be aware that even potential investors are concerned about a high unemployment rate: it is an indication that a society is not functioning successfully.

What then should be happening? Well, to start with, prominent members of the government should drop their disgusting habits of conspicuous consumption. It is shameful, for example, that Blade Nzimande, who has seemed to be a committed member of the SACP, should be known now for his grand car and huge hotel bills. Then please let us have no more absurd talk of a bid for the Olympic Games in 2020. The World Cup was a great event, and we hope that it will prove to be positive, psychologically and sociologically. But it would be mad to think of spending more billions on sporting facilities while many South Africans are without shelter, water and food.

The great task, really, is to develop or manipulate our economy in such a way that, without losing the gains that we have made, money and employment flow through the whole of society, as in developed countries, and not just through certain sections of it.

This requires innovative thinking, and huge advances in education. In both of these respects South Africa is at the moment lagging behind.

Two countries which also struggle with unemployment and extreme poverty are Brazil and India. Brazil has begun to turn things around through a great increase in social spending, and by decentralising its social policies. In many parts of Brazil municipalities appear to be strong (as on the whole they are not here), and local government has made it possible for poor people to participate in social policy making and implementation. In India a significant boost to employment has been provided by the country’s rapid economic growth. The government has also devised wage employment programmes and given assistance to those opting for self- employment.

The South African government gives out large sums of money in social grants. This is wise and humane, but it hasn’t greatly alleviated the poverty, and it isn’t a way of solving the real issue. The government has also mounted public works programmes, though probably not on a sufficiently large scale. Much more needs to be done. And there needs to be a far stronger spotlight on the whole issue.

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