Guest Column

25 years of progress with too many left behind

2019-05-26 09:00
Sobantu residents blocked the road on Monday during a protest over a housing project that was supposed to have started 10 years ago.

Sobantu residents blocked the road on Monday during a protest over a housing project that was supposed to have started 10 years ago. (Ian Carbutt)

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While the gap between black and white university graduates has declined, the poverty gap between blacks and whites in most sectors of society remains distressingly large, writes Sitsabo Dlamini.

Seeking to mobilise all South African people and the country's resources towards the final eradication of apartheid and the building of a democratic, non-racial and non-sexist future. This was the major theme of the RDP, a government strategy document adopted in 1994 as an integrated, coherent socioeconomic policy framework.

In 1994, the ANC came into power in the midst of a powerful shift in thinking about development, both in South Africa and globally. For much of the first decade of the democratic transition, the country's macroeconomic agenda, conceived in the policy programme of the GEAR strategy was defined by neoliberal principles. The neoliberal economic agenda came under attack from the ANC alliance partners, which from 2003 forced shifts in economic policy in a more developmental direction. This culminated in the adoption of the National Development Plan (NDP) in 2012/13, as government's launch pad and blueprint for a future economic and socioeconomic development strategy for the country.

Since 1994, how far have we gone? Far but not far enough! South Africa has changed remarkably, but in ways that have left many of its citizens behind. With poor economic growth as well as the resultant unemployment and income disparities, the story of South Africa is one of paradoxical progress. The dysfunctional global order, stagnant incomes, rising insecurity and environmental degradation are some of the fundamental concerns in all economies.

While more than one billion people have moved out of extreme poverty globally since 1990, the picture in South Africa is disheartening. The share of global population living in dire conditions of extreme poverty declined from 36% in 1990 to 10% in 2018. However, in South Africa, the share of the population living in poverty according Stats SA has only declined from about 75% in 1994 to 56% in 2018.

Of much concern is the fact that poverty is currently on the rise. From a low of about 53% recorded in 2011, more South Africans have been pushed into extreme poverty as the figure currently sits at about 56%. While global inequality has declined dramatically, a 2018 World Bank report shows that in South Africa, inequality is high, persistent and on the increase since 1994. The report contends that the rich are getting richer, with the poor getting poorer and the gap is getting wider.

ANC a revolutionary movement of the left

Things might have improved around the globe in general and for a few politically connected elites in South Africa, but not for the denizens (ordinary citizens). This has fuelled most of the anger and disgruntlement with the ANC rule. From its inception, the ANC has positioned itself as a revolutionary movement of the left, naturally concerned about the poorest of the poor.

One of the founding fathers of the ANC, Rev John Langalibalele Dube, in his inaugural speech as the first president of the movement had this to say: "Although, as a race, we possess the unique distinction of being the first-born sons of this great and beautiful continent; just awakening into political life, born on January 8, in this the year of grace 1912. Yes, politically, new-born babies, we are still very young and inexperienced, and as such it behoves us to feel our way slowly and warily. While teaching ourselves to walk boldly and upright before all mankind, we must still be careful ever to seek out the way where wisdom leaded, treading softly, ploddingly, along the bright path illumined by righteousness and reason – the steep and thorny path, yet the only one that will safely and surely lead us to our goal, the attainment of our rightful inheritance as sons, daughters and citizens of this beautiful country."

So what went wrong? Where did the ANC miss it? Where did the ANC veer off from "seeking out the way where wisdom leaded, treading softly, ploddingly, along the bright path illumined by righteousness and reason" that Rev Dube envisioned.

There has been progress

Trying to make sense of the current state of affairs, it is easy to hark back to some nostalgic old order that got broken in the hands of some leaders who were found wanting in integrity. It is easy to take for granted the astounding progress South Africa has achieved since 1994. At least 12 million households now have access to electricity, which is seven million more than in 1994. About 80% of households now have access to decent sanitation compared to only 50% in 1994.

Economically, there has been progress, notwithstanding the fact that the distribution of benefits thereof was not equal.

Envisioning this bewilderment, Rev Dube promulgated that, "Many are the difficulties I foresee in our way – enemies without, fierce and frank; dangers within, undersigned perhaps, but still more harmful. It will be an uphill fight, but our watchword shall be 'Excelsior!' – onward, higher; cautiously, ploddingly! By dint of our perseverance, our patience, our reasonableness, our law abiding methods and the justice of our demands, all these obstacles shall be removed and enemies overcome. We have been distinguished by the world as a race of born gentlemen – a truly glorious title, bestowed on few other people – and by the gentleness of our manners (poor though we may be, unlettered and ill-clad), and by the nobility of our character shall we break down the adamantine wall of colour, prejudice and force even our enemies to be our admirers and our friends."

Some strides have been made for the economic emancipation of some segments of the population that were isolated under apartheid. However, while the gap between black and white university graduates has declined, the poverty gap between blacks and whites in most sectors of society remains distressingly large. Despite South Africa's commitment to eliminate gender discrimination in the workplace as demonstrated in legislative reform, there are still concerning mismatches between male and female employment in almost all sectors of the economy. The level of women participation in sectors such as construction and mining is extremely low.

Discontent with economic changes since 1994 has led major parts of our rural communities to feel ignored and left behind. We who are strong in our convictions and of robust credence to South Africa's possibilities ought to bear with the frailties of such communities.

While social grants provide some relief, such communities are groaning for greater economic support where they can take charge of creating their own economic destinies that instils moral dignity. The RDP promise of 1994 was a better life for all. It gave hope to those in rural communities that they would be better off. However, in 1996, GEAR was introduced with a promise to make everyone better off through some form of trickle-down economics.

When I wrote The contribution of the infrastructure sector to economic growth (2016), I contended that some kind of government intervention to address market failure and prevent excessive immiseration was necessary. In the light of the kind of dependency that social grants inculcate in the minds of people, I suggested that it would be better to create meaningful work with decent pay for as many of our citizens as possible, and I explained how such an ideal can be accomplished. Policy reforms that hold out the promise of economic emancipation through trickle-down economics in the absence of a modicum of shared prosperity are shortsighted.

- Dr Sitsabo Dlamini is a senior lecturer at Wits University and convenor of The Economic Forum.

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