SA’s social policies must be resurrected


Unisa recently hosted a conference in honour of the late Dr Zola Skweyiya and some of the sessions focused on the role he played as a Cabinet minister. One of the issues discussed was about the initiatives he led on social policy in South Africa.

The debate about whether South Africa has social policy gets as heated as the debate about whether South Africa can be a democratic developmental state. When it comes to economic policy, there seems to be consensus that South Africa no longer has one.

Social policy can be thought of as a series of public policies that ensure the quality of life in a society improves. This involves ensuring there is cohesion in a society, that a society is functional, that there are decent levels of trust and that social networks and social capital are effective. It is in this context that social policy also has a role in nation building (social cohesion).

Social policy is critical for socioeconomic development insofar as advancing wellbeing — socially, culturally, political and economically. Simply put, socioeconomic development has to be inclusive.

On the other hand, public policy can be viewed as all the formal and publicly known decisions of government that come about through predetermined channels in a particular administration. Indeed, policy-making has evolved since 1994 in South Africa.

One salient characteristic of policy-making in South Africa is that the government has been trying to ensure that all spheres of government (local, provincial and national) and all departments collaborate through a cluster system. For instance, mainly the departments of the social sector come together regarding social policy. In essence, government departments play a big role in policy-making. As a result, ministers are key policy players.

Many reforms, institutionally and otherwise, were influenced by the policy-making architecture that existed in the late 1990s and during the 2000s. In turn, these were shaped by the goals of a democratic society articulated in the 1996 Constitution. Departments were reconfigured and new sections established during the late 1990s and early 2000s, taking a cue from the Constitution.

Another factor that influenced social policy initiatives relates to the notion of the developmental state, which is understood as a state that is active in pursuing its development agenda, maintains strategic relations with stakeholders, and has the capacity and is appropriately organised for its predetermined developmental objectives.

Although it was much later (about 2005) when the government officially proclaimed that South Africa must become a developmental state, the desire for the country to be one can be traced to the 1992 Ready to Govern discussion document and in the 1998 discussion document on State, Property Relations and Social Transformation.

It can be argued that the ANC (and the government) grappled with the notion of developmental states much earlier. In a 2001 Umrabulo article, Peter Mokaba, a struggle activist and parliamentarian, made a point that “the South African developmental state must lead and directly intervene in the black, particularly African, economic empowerment efforts on a programmatic basis”.

Linked to this is the influence that Scandinavian social democracies have had on social policy initiatives in South Africa. For instance, grants were viewed as palliative measures aimed at addressing market failure and retirement reforms as efforts towards a comprehensive social policy in South Africa. This perspective can be attributed to the 2002 report of the Taylor committee.

Given all the work that has been undertaken to ensure that South Africa has a social policy, there is still no comprehensive social policy. Leading scholars of social policy, particularly Thandika Mkandawire and Jimi Adesina, emphasise that social policy should transform social welfare, social institutions and social relations, as well as that it has important primary roles such as productive functions (human capital), and redistributive and protective roles. Linked to this is that, as Adesina puts it, “the transformative role of social policy is not simply in relation to the economy but social institutions, social relations and human capability and functioning”, hence the reference to social policy failure in South Africa.

Essentially, the various aspects of social policy (education, health and social services) are in place but are not effective because of poor follow-through and weak implementation capacity. But when it comes to transformative social policy, it is lacking and the various roles and functions of social policy have not been deliberately pursued.

One issue worth highlighting is that the change from the Thabo Mbeki administration (and the caretaker Kgalema Motlanthe administration) to the Jacob Zuma administration affected policies (as well as implementation).

The reforms that were being pursued (especially regarding social policy) did not continue, the approach to social policy shifted (instead of implementing a comprehensive package, a piecemeal approach was followed in cases such as health insurance), changes in senior public servants and ministers affected the policy thinking and implementation, and differences in ideological orientation (or preferences, if not a lack of understanding of pertinent issues) affected many promising initiatives.

It is still a mystery how the employment subsidy programme, which was part of social security initiatives, was never implemented when South Africa has such a high unemployment rate.

For the advancement of socioeconomic development, more thinking should go into both social and economic policies as well as the interface between the economic and the social. The starting point should be revisiting the initiatives that were being finalised when Mbeki was recalled, because they were taking South Africa towards a comprehensive social policy.

Indeed, the reconfiguration of institutions is necessary (departments to take into account the importance of social policy and its relationship with economic policy) — and co-ordination is critical (so is planning, monitoring and evaluation).

Last, of fundamental importance, though, is that clarity about the kind of society South Africa should be and the commensurate plan is overdue, including the social compact needed, because most of the intractable challenges facing the country require collaboration among all partners and citizenry.

Vusi Gumede is a professor at the University of South Africa. One of his recent books is titled Economic and Social Inclusion in Post-apartheid South Africa (Cambria Press)

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Vusi Gumede
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