Election policies put poverty on hold

With South Africa’s poor constituting a large portion of potential voters — and a significant component of disillusioned voters — it is surprising that no party has come out with a political manifesto clearly aimed at providing for the immediate needs of people living in poverty.

Half of South Africa’s population lives in poverty, earning on average less than R144 — in 2000 values — a month, with broad unemployment figures of about 42%.

Either parties have failed to apply their minds to developing innovative approaches to poverty alleviation, or the immediate needs of the poor continue to be put on hold while they wait for the benefits of debunked “trickle-down” economics. Surprising then, given this apparant belief in “trickle-down” economics, that no political party considers it feasible that all those currently in the second economy — the poor, unemployed and unskilled — will be accommodated in the formal economy.

Nevertheless the development of small businesses is widely hailed as being the engine for economic development, specifically by the Inkatha Freedom Party. The African National Congress incorporates the commitments of the Growth and Development Summit to promote small businesses.
In an innovative approach, the United Democratic Movement calls for the charging of preferential rates to small businesses by postal and telecommunications providers.

Access to credit is seen as a priority, as well as the provision of skills and support for young entrepreneurs. The UDM also calls for a review of the current laws relating to blacklisting, which often present an obstacle to people accessing credit even for productive purposes. Both the IFP and New National Party call for deregulation and tax breaks to incentivise and support aspirant entrepreneurs.

The allocation of government procurement policies as a measure to support such initiatives — especially where linked to broad-based black economic empowerment — is another theme common to most parties.

Clear job-creation targets by parties seem to have mysteriously aggregated at the one million job target set by the ANC, which leaves approximately seven million currently unemployed people outside of these initiatives. The ANC states that its initiatives through skills development, expanded public works and learnerships will generate one million job opportunities — an honest acknowledgement of the temporary nature of some of these interventions. Both the IFP and the Democratic Alliance condition their vision of the creation of one million jobs on the further deregulation of the labour market to include poorer workers.

The DA is calling for the creation of a two-tier labour system, in which formal protection is afforded to the formal sector while the second tier operates on the principle of greater labour market flexibility. But, it is the most vulnerable workers in the labour market who most require protective labour regulation. They have virtually no bargaining power when it comes to negotiating terms and conditions of employment. The DA, however, claims that by easing up their obligations, employers will be happier to employ far more people for far less. This should make the blood of vulnerable workers run cold.

These are the jobs that the DA claims will be sustainable. The IFP also claims that the one million jobs it could generate would be in the informal sector.

Proponents of the informal sector must acknowledge increasing evidence of the rife exploitation of the vulnerable who work in it. Such conditions at best support survivalist existence, and should not be considered as viable employment opportunities, let alone sustainable jobs.

With regard to social spending, few parties offer any sustainable policies that challenge the ANC’s commitments.

The ANC is consistent in its commitment to maintain social grants, in line at least with inflation, and the roll-out of the child support grant to targeted children under 14.

Many civil society groups have called for the child support grant to be rolled out to all children under 18, which is consistent with the provision of the Constitution. However, not a single political party has taken up that call, with both the NNP and the Independent Democrats endorsing the ANC’s apparently arbitrary age of 14.

Affordable access to basic services also appears to be another opportunity strangely foregone by opposition parties. All parties appear to support the ANC’s commitment to expedited roll-out of access to basic services. But the real issue is the affordability of services and their resultant disconnection from households that cannot pay for them. This has encouraged the emergence of local and national social movements, but it has not been seized as a rallying point by any opposition party.

The ID does claim that inability to pay should not rob anyone of their right to basic services, but that does not translate into any real policy suggestions in its manifesto. The DA promises six kilolitres of free water to urban dwellers, with an acknowledgement that alternative methods of delivery of free services would have to be developed to address the needs of rural dwellers. The UDM calls for the subsidisation of basic services, but without setting baseline figures for those who should qualify for such subsidies, or the amount that such subsidies should approximate.

On the side of delivery of basic services, both the IFP and the DA call for the outsourcing of government services and utilities. This flies in the face of the emerging evidence that outsourcing increases costs to the user. In any event the delivery of subsidised services is complicated when it is outsourced.

And finally, what of the political hot potato of a basic income grant?

While the ANC has still not shifted from its commitment adopted at the 51st party conference to engage with progressive proponents of a basic income grant, two other parties have listed this on their manifestos.

The ID appears to be somewhat apprehensive about its support for its version of a basic income grant, stating that “as a temporary measure this might include the provision of a grant such as the proposed universal basic income grant”. Not exactly a position to stand or fall by.

On the other hand, the DA at first blush seems to be committed to its version of a basic income grant, but on closer examination its commitment to allocate real resources to funding pro-poor spending calls into question the commitment from a party that is also advocating a real reduction in available state revenue by cutting all wealth taxes, including estate duty and donations tax.

Acknowledging a rough price tag of R15-billion a year, the DA suggests that this can perhaps be funded by increasing VAT by 1%, with the balance to be funded from unspent millions that lie around government departments. The implications of advocating funding of a government policy through the direct failure to spend other funded mandates is not a principle that good governance is predicated on and deserves to be dismissed out of hand.

The UDM suggests as an alternative a comprehensive food parcel system to address food insecurity. Studies in developing countries with limited infrastructure have routinely concluded that access to cash rather than selected food items is a far more developmental and productive form of subsidisation.

Communities and civil society have missed a perfect opportunity to develop “shadow manifestos” through an inclusive process aimed at encouraging people to articulate their needs and aspirations that they wish to have addressed by politicians who seek their vote. Such a process should have been completed by the time that the political parties began to draft their own manifestos. Perhaps this is a tactic to be adopted in advance of the preparations for the local elections next year to ensure the involvement of the silent majority in using the formal political processes to realise their needs.

Isobel Frye is the national advocacy officer for the Black Sash

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