UN: Almost half of South Africans under poverty line

Almost 21,9-million South Africans live below the national poverty line of R354 a month, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

”Absolute poverty has declined significantly, with the percentage of people living below the national poverty line falling from 51,1% in 1995 to 48,5% in 2002,” said John Ohiorhenuan, resident coordinator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in South Africa.

”However, the number of South Africans living below the poverty line of R354 in 2002 is still almost half of the total population [21,9-million people],” he said at the release of the UN Human Development Report in Johannesburg.

He said South Africa faces the challenges of 30,5% unemployment and vast wealth inequalities.

”Significantly, inequality has worsened within all racial classifications in South Africa but, comparatively less so within the ‘white’ group,” he said.

The report identifies five key challenges for sustainable development in South Africa.

These include eradicating poverty and wealth inequality, while providing access to social services. South Africa also needs to focus on job creation, sustainable growth and promoting environmental sustainability.

The UN warned that if there is no major creative change to economic policy in South Africa, these high rates of poverty, unemployment and inequality will continue.

Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, said the central finding of the report into the state of South Africa’s sustainable development is contradictory.

”For us the central finding is paradoxical: that since 1994 our government has dramatically improved services and social grants for millions of South Africans, but has barely dented the overall picture of poverty and inequality left by apartheid.”

According to the report, the reasons for this finding are various.

”First, since the late 1980s investment and production have shifted steadily to capital-intensive sectors, which cannot provide jobs on a large scale,” Vavi said.

”Thus, while the economy has grown relatively rapidly in the past decade, it has created relatively few jobs.”

Under apartheid the majority of people could only participate in the formal sector as cheap labour. This has led to an ”inequitable allocation of infrastructure … inequalities in health and education, as well as the exile of millions to depressed rural areas”, he said.

Vavi said the report found that a failure to reverse these trends since 1994 could be blamed on a ”two-track” development strategy.

”The democratic government moved decisively to shift spending on services to poor black communities. At the same time, it adopted economic policies aimed primarily at growing exports and holding down inflation, with an enormous belief that this would lead to poverty alleviation and job creation,” Vavi said.

”Critical elements [of] the government strategy included freeing up markets, commercialising and partially privatising government services, cutting budgets and maintaining high interest rates.”

Vavi said these policies were ”inherently contradictory” as job losses and cuts in overall spending cancelled out the effects of improved services for the poor.

High interest rates also slowed down investment.

”As the UNDP report emphasises, the restructuring of the economy requires innovative thinking, consistency, the prioritisation of employment creation and equity,” Vavi added.

Herbert Mkhize, executive director of the National Economic Development and Labour Council, agreed: ”We are dealing with a patient who is very sick but not yet in intensive care … [the report] makes us begin to think we need to come up with creative solutions.”

Vavi said: ”Cosatu is convinced that the country will not succeed in attaining the objectives of cutting unemployment and poverty by half in 2014 unless this fundamental review of our economic strategies has taken place, as suggested by the UNDP report.” — Sapa

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