SA’s promise of true equality still a dream


South Africa has submitted its first report to the United Nations on the progress it has made to overcome the apartheid legacies of unequal access to housing, healthcare, education, social security, work and other socioeconomic rights.

The report follows the country’s ratification in 2015 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It has been ratified by 165 nations, which must report to the UN on the steps they have taken and the progress made in achieving these rights.

When Nelson Mandela signed the covenant in 1994 (thereby signalling the country’s intention to ratify), South Africans from all walks of life were captured by a deep sense of hope for a better future. For the ANC and its alliance partners, political freedom was merely a necessary condition for a much wider socioeconomic transformation. It was this that the ANC was in government to deliver.

This position was summed up by Mandela at the ANC’s Bill of Rights Conference in 1991: “A simple vote, without food, shelter and healthcare is to use first-generation rights as a smokescreen to obscure the deep underlying forces which dehumanise people. It is to create an appearance of equality and justice, which by implication socioeconomic inequality is entrenched. We do not want freedom without bread, nor do we want bread without freedom. We must provide for all the fundamental rights and freedoms associated with a democratic society.”

Signing the covenant — which provides recognition for these socioeconomic rights in international law — was an important and natural step for the first democratic government. The Constitution adopted by the country in 1996 remains among the most progressive in the world for including a comprehensive package of socioeconomic rights alongside civil and political rights.

Though the South African genesis for these rights can be traced to the Freedom Charter adopted in 1955 by groups opposed to the apartheid government, the government’s report to the UN acknowledges that the socioeconomic rights enshrined in the Constitution were largely modelled on the international covenant.

Both the covenant and the Constitution require the government to take concrete steps, using the maximum of its available resources, to ensure that access to these rights is progressively expanded so that all citizens can live a life of dignity, free from poverty and inequality.

The report describes a country with many policies and programmes in place to bring about the socioeconomic transformation envisaged by the covenant and the Constitution.

The state housing programme — one of the largest in the world — has delivered about 2.5-million homes to low-income South Africans since 1994. Primary healthcare has been rolled out to previously unserved areas at an impressive rate. And, after an initial period of disastrous Aids denialism, South Africa put in place one of the most comprehensive HIV treatment and prevention programmes in the world, providing free and reliable access to antiretroviral drugs to 3.5-million people.

Important steps have been taken to modernise the school system, including reforming the curriculum and decentralising the governance of schools in a radical experiment of local, participatory democracy. School enrolment is consistently over 99%, with roughly equal enrolment figures for girls and boys. The school feeding programme provides meals to more than nine million poor pupils and no-fee school policies mean public education is free for about two-thirds of schoolchildren.

In terms of the right to social security and assistance, steps have been taken to build a social safety net for the poorest South African’s, 17-million of whom receive social grants to alleviate the worst effects of income poverty.

The report also acknowledges that, despite these policies, “overall there are still very high levels of inequality across and within population groups”.

Take education. Transforming the apartheid system of Bantu education has presented the government with perhaps its most formidable task. Pupils continue to perform worse than their regional peers. School infrastructure in rural areas and townships, which were systematically underfunded during apartheid, remains well below standard.

The latest government data from 2015 shows that, of 23 589 public schools, 2 854 have unreliable electricity, 5 225 have an unreliable water supply, 9 966 have no sports facilities and 17 678 have no internet access. Moreover, South Africa remains an outlier by refusing to implement free primary education for all, as required by the covenant. This means access to the best public schools (which charge fees) remains divided along race and class lines.

Access to quality healthcare remains just as divided. The health system is split between an expensive private sector, which serves 15% to 20% of (mostly white) South Africans, and a chronically under-resourced public sector that serves the remaining 80% of the population. A plan to undertake systemic reforms and implement the National Health Insurance has been on the cards for more than 20 years, but is still some way off.

Spacial segregation in cities remains stark, with few racially integrated areas. The government’s housing programme has been criticised for building low-cost housing at the periphery of cities and economic hubs. This leads to increased transport costs for the beneficiaries, many of whom prefer to rent their government-subsidised house and live in a shack in an informal settlement closer to economic opportunity. Although the rate of house building under the state programme has slowed down considerably in recent years, the shift towards low-cost inner-city rental housing and the upgrading of informal settlements has been plagued by excruciatingly slow implementation.

Perhaps most damaging is that studies have found that one in four South Africans have inadequate access to food, with almost a third of children stunted at an early age. Stunting retards cognitive and physical development, which becomes a permanent barrier to social mobility for many.

Moreover, although social security has been extended to millions of people, the benefit amounts remain very low. The child support grant, for example, is provided to about 12-million children but works out to less than a dollar a day. Moreover, there is no access to social security at all for people aged 18 to 59.

Yet for this working-age population, access to employment remains out of sight for more than a third, with the stubbornly high unemployment rate disproportionately affecting black South Africans, particularly the youth. Unequal access to employment is compounded by high wage inequality. Black South Africans earn on average about R2600 a month compared with their white counterparts’ average income of about R11 700 a month, according to 2016 Statistics South Africa figures.

These high levels of inequality create the conditions for corruption and crime to thrive. The nation’s ombud, the public protector, recently produced a report providing evidence that the government itself is captured, not by a sense of hope, but by new networks of patronage and nepotism typified by the close relationship between the president and a single wealthy family.

Addressing deeply entrenched inequality and building a transformed society founded on respect for human rights remains the South African dream. The country’s commitment — though under threat from various entrenched interests, both new and old — to respecting and fulfilling human rights both at home and abroad continues to provide a beacon of light from the tip of Africa in a world of rising parochialism and unpredictability.

For this commitment not to ring hollow, the state’s capacity and will to deliver the quality services, essential to fulfilling socioeconomic rights, must be rapidly enhanced.

Daniel McLaren is senior researcher and project manager at the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute, part of a civil society coalition in South Africa that monitors government’s obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the country’s Constitution

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Daniel Mclaren
Daniel Mclaren
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