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Op-ed: Why civil unrest shows South Africa needs to implement a basic income grant

- Abongile Nkamisa

Abongile Nkamisa of CALS argues that recent civil unrest draws attention to the urgent need for universal basic income support

The public disorder and civil unrest of the past week have had devastating effects on individuals and businesses across the country. Although the initial protests were purportedly related to the #FreeZuma campaign, the unrest that followed has a number of complex political and social causes. The catalyst was the arrest of former President  Jacob Zuma, with his supporters blocking the main roads in KwaZulu Natal and demanding his release.

Many were shaken by the riots that then swept through from KwaZulu-Natal and on to the economic hub of Gauteng. Already, the riots had started to take on a different tone. Many felt that the current President had failed to provide decisive leadership – either to quell the anger over Zuma's imprisonment or to reassure people in South Africa that the concerns of job losses and surging poverty are being addressed at all.

The  unrest in the country's two most populous provinces reflects in many ways a unique tragedy in South Africa. The country’s generational struggle for racial equality is an example of economic inequality, where poverty is deeply trapped in the shadow of astronomical wealth. A great deal of coverage from the unrest has shown instances where people could be seen to be looting food and other basic necessities from supermarkets. This part of the protests has prompted questions and debates about the rising unemployment, perpetual poverty, and food insecurity among the majority of black people living in townships and informal settlements of South Africa. Such an occurrence further confirms that working-age adults who are without employment urgently need income support to survive.

The latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey released by StatsSA shows that the country’s current unemployment in January to March this year was recorded at 43,2% overall and amounts to 74,7% for people aged 15 – 24 using the expanded definition of unemployment. What is clear is that this does not affect all racial groups equally. Black people have the highest rate of unemployment in the age brackets 15 to 64, at 47,9% using the expanded definition of unemployment. Along gender lines, women have also been hard-hit by unemployment, the numbers likely even more alarming for black women.

The situation for young people seeking work is significantly more desperate. Many households in South Africa rely on young people between these ages to begin bringing in income; yet these are the same people who are without jobs. Persistent poverty and unemployment severely and continuously attack these groups in all aspects.

The effects of COVID-19 related job losses and the implementation of lockdowns since March 2020 have further worsened the situation for young people. Currently, under the Social Security Act of 2004, the classification for receiving social assistance is limited to children under the age of 18 years, people over 60, and people with disabilities. For adults between the ages of 18 to 59 with no disabilities, no matter how impoverished they are, there are no categories of social grants. Even with the efforts of civil society organisations to push for a state-supported and funded-Basic Income Grant (or BIG), the political will and support for introducing these policies is in question.

While I am well aware that social grants play an important part in alleviating poverty and food insecurity, I also recognise that this intervention alone is not an answer in addressing and dealing with systemic inequality and disproportionate income gaps that exist in South Africa. However, the immediate introduction of the BIG would seek to ensure that young people, who are excluded from the existing framework of social grants, can benefit and become members of society that contribute meaningfully not only to their households, but to the economy.

At a government policy level, the tabling of the BIG has been ongoing since 2002. Twenty years later, the government is still ‘discussing’ the BIG. The Constitution and the government's National Development Plan, adopted in September 2012 as a plan to eradicate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030, has generated very little concrete action to meet these stated goals. There needs to be a willingness in developing firm policies that address the redistribution of resources and equal access to the economy for all.

The government has chosen instead to respond to the challenges occasioned by the pandemic with austerity measures such as cutting down critical and focal budgets allocated for social security, education and healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic. These are some of the reasons which might lead us to think that the introduction of the BIG is ‘wishful thinking’.

The government has over the years tied itself to policies that aim to tackle poverty, inequality, and spatial injustice with little execution. The lack of successful implementation of those policies often lies in the everyday routines, the micro-decisions and daily interactions among everyone concerned with ensuring plans translate into action. There has been a failure of consistency across the three spheres of government namely the national, provincial and local government.

The pandemic has been an opportunity to rethink national planning as government grapples with the question of what a ‘new normal’ might look like and how soon it might arrive. This includes the introduction of immediate interventions such as the BIG. As such, a sustained focus on a small number of priorities is essential.

Abongile Nkamisa is a candidate legal practitioner based at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, Wits University