Poverty in South Africa remains an enormous challenge; it has a dimming effect on the compelling brightness associated with the achievement of democracy in Mzansi and hobbles advancement towards success in relation to many important national objectives.
A researcher working in the Presidency, Neva Makgetla, reports that millions of households merely survive. Using one indicator (income poverty) and 2005 statistics, she notes that about half the population spends less than R800 a month (Business Day 26 September 2007). It is also reported that about a quarter of South Africans, well over 10 million people, are ultra poor (see the work of Michael Aliber, Access and the Global Poverty Research Group).
One may distinguish between three ways of analyzing the seriousness of the poverty problem. The one view puts the emphasis on reports of a reduction in poverty. There seems to be agreement among many, including Neva Magketla and HSRC researcher Michael Aliber, that there has been some reduction in poverty. Aliber says research shows, inter alia, a decline in the number of kids that are suffering hunger. He says social grants and government service delivery are driving this reduction in poverty.
A second view is highly critical of government and emphasizes the depth of poverty. This view, as I heard someone put it, holds that “Mbeki has undertaken no major redistribution of resources in society”. This perspective posits that what was achieved in terms of infrastructure delivery and other government “wins” since 1994 are merely marginal changes to the main social relations. Ironically, this line is to some extent supported by government’s own Ten Year Review (2004) which drew attention to South Africa’s two economies: one globally competitive and the other home to the millions who are unskilled, jobless, often unemployable and firmly in the clutches of poverty.
A third approach starts from a critical look at how government resources in particular are being deployed. This line of thinking would note that a careful and detailed analysis exposes gaps, raises important questions and points to missed opportunities related to the quest of systematically slashing poverty figures. The gaps include human resource problems in the civil service, weakness in a significant proportion of local governments, provinces inability to spend their budgets, and perennial problems with, for example, the National Development Agency and institutions set up to support entrepreneurs. In this viewpoint – which I subscribe to – the focus is less on a critique of the ANC; the stress is rather on measuring ourselves against the highest goals and against the challenges represented by population growth, by the marked increase in household numbers, and the challenges posed by urbanization. This perspective argues that while we have made advances, we must be critical about the pace and momentum of change.
These are not just theoretical or negligible questions. It is also stupid to take the view – as many in a capitalist society do – that “the poor are always with us” and that somehow the social system works fine and is able to cope well enough despite poverty afflicting many people. Poverty feeds into and compounds other societal problems.
Ongoing poverty, and the rise of impatience in so many communities, will affect the functioning of local democracy. In many localities, conflict resolution mechanisms are urgently needed before normal community consultation processes can be brought back on track.
Poverty undermines the input that parents ought to make into the learning of their school-going children. For millions of parents, the realities of being poor often constitute a major barrier to helping children with schoolwork and to participation in school governance activities.
HIV/Aids rolls back national development gains and, for those directly affected, adds to community and household poverty. In addition, the conditions in poor communities presupposes giving attention to particular requirements when devising programmes for treatment, for care and support and for positive living among the infected; otherwise such programmes will be largely ineffectual.
Poverty undermines nationbuilding and social cohesion. Instead of the racially divided communities in cities and towns moving closer together, as they should within the new democracy, they drift further apart in the context of inequality and the continuing problems of social exclusion.
Poverty impedes the advance of progressive agendas such as sustainable housing, preventative health rather curative health care and vibrant local economic development that includes effective support for local entrepreneurs.
It goes without saying that poverty is a problem to poor people themselves. It is also an injustice to them (… you can see from this that I reject the view that the poor and the unemployed are to blame for their poverty and unemployment). It chokes their life chances and makes people die younger. The poor must endure deprivation, hardship, stresses, shocks as well as continuous attacks on their dignity. For the poor person, despite family and community moments filled with all that is good in life, daily life is often a cross to be carried rather than a celebration and a fulfillment of selfhood.
In addressing poverty, the new democracy can take some pride in what has been achieved so far, but there is no space or time to rest on laurels. We must quickly and smartly build on what has been achieved so far. Innovative strategies, constant review of mechanisms and, most important of all, a greater sense of urgency among many more stakeholders is required.