Facing SA's real 'triple challenge'

In his State of the Nation address last week, President Jacob Zuma neatly captured post-apartheid South Africa’s most vexing social and human-development predicament when he said: “Steady progress [has been made] in various areas such as health, education, the fight against crime, human settlements, energy, water provision, rural development and others. However, the triple challenge of unemployment, poverty and inequality persists in spite of the progress made. Africans, women and the youth continue to suffer most from this challenge.”

Indeed, 18 years since the end of formal discriminatory policies and practices the president’s characterisation fits the reality of South Africa’s fledging developmental state.

Black people, particularly women and the young, remain locked in unemployment, poverty and inequality.
What is disheartening is the indication that recent policy choices—regarding the economy, labour market and social development—could be largely responsible for slow progress in addressing the “triple challenge”.

It is therefore worth examining the wellbeing of “Africans, women and the youth” to find explanations for this problem. The story of Africans in general and blacks in particular is widely known, so I will focus on women and the youth. They are the main losers in the post-apartheid transformation programme. This should be of special interest to policymakers and leaders in a country that has declared its ambitions to be a developmental and “capable” state.

On paper, there is a lot for women and youth in human development in South Africa. Human development broadly refers to improvement in the quality of life and wellbeing has to do with the lives people live and the choices they make (in economist Amartya Sen’s nomenclature).

Post-apartheid society is littered with legislative, policy and programmatic instruments aimed at improving the social and material conditions of the previously disadvantaged, in particular women and the youth. These are in line with global commitments made under the auspices of the United Nations, other international conventions and the African Union.

It is indubitable that, as the government argues in its various reports and those of government agencies, women and the youth have generally benefited from the broader socioeconomic policies and programmes of post-apartheid South Africa. Access to basic services such as water, sanitation and electricity has increased, easing the burden of traditional household chores on women and girls. We have also seen improvements in the institutional set-up to champion women and the youth. Yet, when women and the youth constitute such a large portion of the population, it is perilous to leave much-needed socioeconomic development to the random probability of policy impact. The human development of women and the youth has, arguably, been left largely to chance.

A rethink of South Africa’s political economy, especially on complex policy questions pertaining to wellbeing, is pressing. The aspects of policy that have marginally improved the condition of the youth and women since 1994 may no longer be ideal in the current context because the global economy is falling apart and it is dragging the labour market with it to the grave.

Failing the youth?
The data suggests that post-apartheid South Africa has failed youngsters. The failure is, simplistically, evident in two forms: labour market failure and economic policy failure.

The South African economy’s performance is pedestrian and an ill global economy means economic growth in South Africa will remain very low. Although infrastructure development and other such critical projects may mitigate the grim outlook, the economy will continue to perform below par until difficult economic policy questions are confronted.

The fundamental question is about the structure of the South African economy. The failure of the labour market is fundamentally a policy chasm: Africans, blacks, women and especially the youth are disadvantaged by a discriminatory labour market and a private sector that is doing little to alleviate a potentially calamitous situation.

For women there is a lot to cele­brate—if the data is to be believed. In general terms, however, their situation is dire. Women bear the brunt of poverty and a myriad resolvable hardships. It can be argued that there is also a social-policy failure in South Africa. I view social policy as a comprehensive and overarching package of social interventions that aim to increase wellbeing directly.

It is difficult to imagine an effective social policy when there are no well-articulated policies on, say, poverty and inequality. The feminisation of poverty is ubiquitous; more women are poor in South Africa than men. Given their “traditional” household roles, women and girls in rural areas usually face problems such as having to walk long distances for water. HIV and Aids have also increased hardships—more women than men are HIV positive and women are more likely to contract HIV at a younger age than men. Add poverty and the other hardships women endure and it becomes a serious social problem. Care-givers are mainly women, a situation that has palpable implications for the survival of other vulnerable groups such as children, the youth and the elderly. Thus, the social fibre of communities and the country as a whole is threatened.

An examination of the situation of women and the youth shows that programmes and institutions without a firm policy base cannot sustainably advance their wellbeing. Without doubt South African society has benefited from broad programmatic interventions and some of the policy reforms since 1994. But the lack of well-articulated policies to push our society and economy to the level they should be at remains a major obstacle to human development.

Dr Vusi Gumede is an academic and the editor of the Journal of African Studies and Development

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