Rising fuel costs hit the poor hardest

In June this year, the price of fuel in South Africa was hiked to a record high of more than R15 a litre. Three months later, there was another sharp increase, almost poetically in the month set aside for transport awareness.

The potential harm to South Africans, especially the very poor, looms large.

The increases in the price of petrol, which is expected to reach R20 by the end of the year, come hot on the heels of a value-added tax increase. All these regressive and indiscriminate hikes have been effected while the salaries of those fortunate enough to have an income have remained the same. But it is the unemployed who have had to bear the brunt of poverty and increased inequality.

According to data released by Statistics South Africa in August 2017, more than half of all South Africans were found to be poor in 2015, getting by on only R992 a month.

It creates the feeling that, just when we think we can reclaim some normality, something else comes along. When Cyril Ramaphosa became president, hope was ­generated throughout the nation. But it now feels as if the economy — or the vaunted invisible hand of the ­market — is squeezing every last cent out of South Africans.

When there is a petrol increase the story is mainly framed around its effect on motorists. Headlines forewarn that “motorists should brace ­themselves for steep fuel price hike”. Implicit in this is that fuel price hikes affect only those South Africans who have vehicles and enjoy the privilege of moving about independently.

In essence, it is a working- to middle-class narrative. As it is couched, it elides the effect of a fuel hike on those who don’t even have a vehicle. It ignores a large part of the population who bear the less seen but heavy costs (besides just the monetary cost) of fuel hikes on their lives. The projected R20 a litre for petrol by the end of 2018 will not be a heavy burden only on motorists but also on anyone who needs transport.

Fuel costs also affect the price of food. The already struggling low-income earners and unemployed citizens have no or very little disposable income. This further ­widens the gap between the rich and poor, delaying much-needed socioeconomic justice. Unemployed citizens have to fork out more money for day-to-day living, including for the simple act of going to look for a job or to attend an interview.

The 2017 South African Reconciliation Barometer found that, when asked whether they or anyone in their ­family had gone without a cash income several times, many times or always, 36% — 14-million people — responded with a yes. This means that almost 14-million people believe that they are not guaranteed a cash flow.

If we, and those we elect to represent us, truly care about the poor, we must consider the effect that fuel price increases have on the poorest of the poor and urgently look at bringing them necessary relief.

Samantha Kambule is a project leader for communications and advocacy at the Institute for Justice and ­Reconciliation.

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