Tessa Dooms explores the importance in ensuring that all South Africans have their most basic human rights met–or we will continue to suffer as a nation

Anyone who has lived through the COVID-19 pandemic knows that it has been far more than a health crisis. The pandemic has manifested as an economic crisis with impacts on business, work, and economic policy shifts necessary to respond effectively to lockdowns and health failures. It has also been a humanitarian crisis. Within days of the first lockdown in South Africa in March 2021, the need for food relief, access to shelter, and healthcare disparities were glaringly obvious as the now endemic failures in service delivery, high levels of inequality, and deficiencies in the provision of social assistance were laid bare.

A week before the Level 5 of lockdown was announced, I got a call from Sithembiso Khwesa, a community organiser in Kliptown—the birthplace of the Freedom Charter that was a catalytic document toward the attainment of a democratic South Africa. With a level of panic in his voice, he asked me if I thought that the President’s announcement that the country was now operating under a State of National Disaster meant a lockdown was eminent. As a community organiser who understands the social and economic challenges facing many in his community, he foresaw the devastating impact a lockdown would have on access to food in his community and was determined to proactively plan to intervene, as he had no faith in the state’s ability or interest in meeting the basic needs of Kliptown’s population.

Sthe, as he is affectionately known, and I decided to do an empirical research project, we would take R1 000 and determine whether he could reasonably put together five food parcels that could feed a family for a week. This experiment would become a baseline for requests that Sthe would make for food relief support to feed families in Kliptown during lockdown. I was shocked at how far Sthe and his team at the Freedom Charter Foundation made that R1 000 stretch. For an average of R200 per food pack, he was able to provide a family with a range of staple foods like rice, maize, and bread, as well as meat, vegetables, and a few toiletries. This was the most practical lesson in micro economic and social assistance I had ever had. It showed that with even a little support, people could avert hunger while trying to make sense of their changing realities and reengineer the survivalist activities so many people in Kliptown rely on as economic participation. Sthe went on to provide over 1 500 of those food packs in Kliptown over the first six weeks of the continuing national lockdown. There are lessons to be learned about micro economic and social policy from Sthe’s actions that I will reflect on a bit later.

What my interaction with Sthe immediately reinforced for me was that the time to talk about the role of social assistance in South Africa and the need for comprehensive social security, as argued for by the Taylor Commission Report in 2003, was now. The pandemic sparked calls from non-profit organisations, development practitioners, and academics for extensions to existing social grants to children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities, a roll out of an inclusive disaster relief grant (that was eventually realised as the R350 COVID-19 relief grant) aimed at averting hunger, and increases to social wage spending aimed at improving access to housing, healthcare, and the provision of water and sanitation. These basics are not only foundational human rights, but they are also the basic components of comprehensive social protection. These are the kind of rights that do not only impact significantly on the dignity of people, but on their very ability to enjoy that most fundamental right to life.

If the COVID-19 crisis reminded us of anything it was that social security is about more than unemployment and economic imperatives. Social security is about affording people the very basis of what it means to be human—the ability to remain alive. While it is reasonable to want all South Africans to have the opportunity to work and earn a living wage to provide for themselves on their own terms, what resonated with me strongly, as the consequences of the pandemic settled and interrupted the already precarious access to employment for many, is the idea that people should not have to work to eat. If eating, something that keeps us alive, was contingent on work, then we would need to explain why children, who as a society we have decided should not work, still have the right to eat. We must be able to distinguish between economic and social, even humanitarian, needs, but also see they ways in which these are intersecting conversations. To focus on one over the other leads to many debates that in theory are sound, but, in reality, are destabilised by the complex and messy nature of human life and living as we do in community with others.

As September 2020 was fast approaching, the debates about the need for the extension of the COVID-19 relief grants, that were aimed at unemployed persons aged 18 to 59 who otherwise do not receive any social grants, started in earnest. Justifications for this call to extend such support amidst context of a strained and depleted national fiscus were rising unemployment that reached 50% by the first quarter of 2021, youth unemployment of over 74%, and a reference of the call for the instatement of a basic income grant (BIG) made in 2003 by the Taylor Commission. Professor Vivienne Taylor, the social policy specialist who chaired the 2003 Commission into Social Security in South Africa, in her role as a National Planning Commissioner, also entered the emerging debate. In her last paper as a member of the NPC, Professor Taylor reminds us that all South Africans “have the right… to social security, including, if they are unable to support themselves and their dependents, appropriate social assistance.” She further notes that Section 27(2) of the Constitution states that the state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of these rights.

While economists rightfully debate the merits of the state’s capacity to reasonably extend more social security, the truth is this is also a conversation about the rights of South Africans who increasingly find themselves in a context of poverty, inequality, economic exclusion, and a growing humanitarian crisis that is not of their own making. It is not only COVID-19 that has caused the social and economic problems facing many South Africans, but a build up of many years of crises of governance, corruption, service delivery, exploitative capitalist practices, and concentration of capital in the economy. One would thus be hard pressed to find an economist, regardless of their ideological orientation, who disagrees with the need for social security interventions. Sthe, with no resources, political power or a degree in either sociology or economics, intrinsically understood this. He not only understood that these rights matter as a constitutional imperative, but that without the realisation of these rights, people’s lives would be at stake and any chance for a better economic future would matter less in the wake of the human cost of inaction.

Studies have shown that social security and assistance is not simply about spending and consumption, it is also about outcomes that contribute to the quality of life and economic productivity of people. A 2020 study by Development Pathways on behalf of the International Trade Union Confederation that assesses the impact of investments into social protection in eight developing countries argues that spending on the social wage and the provision of social grants have benefits to the economy that include:

  • Enable more local economic participation in consumptive and productive and consequently adds tax revenue into the economy;
  • Have multiplier effects in local economies and a positive impact on GDP in the medium term;
  • Reduces poverty as well as gender and income inequality; and
  • Increases in investments in human capital supporting the well-being and productivity of economic actors.

Importantly, these benefits do not accrue magically. They are contingent on good policy choices and, more importantly, competent government implementation characterised by prudent spending not hampered by corruption or incompetence.

While economists debate whether we can afford any version of a basic income grant or other social protection and assistance, we must also debate if we can afford not to afford South Africans the social and economic rights the Constitution provides for. While politicians debate the capacity of the current government to spend state resources well, the people who need a state that delivers on its promises cannot be held to ransom by political choices.

South Africans deserve more than what we are getting. We deserve better to live dignified lives. We deserve good governance. We deserve the opportunity to pursue economic opportunities. We deserve to live lives that are not encumbered by survival only. We deserve a social protection floor that ensures that no South African goes without basic human rights such as food, shelter, water, and sanitation.

This is the “why” for the BIG debate that we dare not forget while we contemplate how to realise more rights and better lives for all South Africans.