/ 25 October 2023

It is too painful to write about South Africa

South Africa's official unemployment rate rose from 24.1% in the fourth quarter of 2013 to 25.2% in the first quarter of 2014.

My partner asked me why I have stopped writing about South Africa. In this awful time of genocide in the Gaza Strip, people around the world are finding some relief in sharing a collective voice through writing. Why, he asked, did I stop writing earlier this year.

Political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote that cultures with no empathy are on the threshold of barbarism. After some reflection, my answer to my partner’s question was that I have stopped writing because to write one must think, and to think about why those with power in South Africa choose not to fix the structural problems of exclusion, poverty, inequality and unemployment — to peer into the abyss of our collective barbarism — is too chilling for me to continue to do.

It chills me when I think about what our collective absence of humanity means for today, and it freezes me to the marrow when I think about what it means for the future of this country.

I work with social security policy. I study what is right and wrong with our national systems of income distribution and income security, and the causes and effects of emergent dysfunctions. I also analyse the effects of the policy solutions that the government has implemented, and I extensively study international comparisons to see whether we could do things better, differently or even try to develop new ways of understanding phenomena and introducing new systems to meet these.

In this field of work, one becomes deeply familiar with facts. People who feel uncomfortable about these facts call them emotive, and me, emotional. But, to my mind, facts are facts.

The fact that just under 12 million adults are unemployed. The fact that seven out of every 10 unemployed people are stuck in long-term unemployment. The fact that our 42% unemployment rate is so far beyond the global rate of 6%. The fact that one child in five goes to bed hungry. The fact that the value of the child support grant is only 8% of a decent standard of living, and the fact that these grants are the main source of household income for about 36% of households. The fact that the media has recently reported on at least three mothers who have killed themselves and their children because they could not feed them and could not bear to see them suffer any longer.

The fact that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. The fact that the richest 0.1% of South Africans own a quarter of the wealth, and that 3 500 people (0.01%) own 15% of it. The fact that even having a job does not guarantee you a decent life given the vast inequalities in salaries — despite the official national minimum wage. The fact that legislation has not broken the apartheid racially discriminatory wage policies.

And knowing the fact that, excluding sin taxes, the only tax raised recently was not personal income tax or corporate income tax, but the flat rate VAT that everyone has to pay, whether they are employed or not, and the fact that the recommendations to raise a wealth tax to even up the inequality have been ignored.

And also knowing the fact that while the Constitution guarantees a life of dignity to all and a right to equal protection of the law, the mandate on the state to increase social security until it covers everybody stopped a long time ago because the treasury said we had no more money for grants. Raising taxes would chase wealthy people from the country, so we will not find more money to pay more grants to the hungry. The fact that the department of social development had to pay back R15 billion to the treasury because it underspent the much needed R350 Covid grant as a result of system design weaknesses.

In fact, the state seems to begrudge the policies that it does well in terms of meeting people’s needs. For years, when congratulated on providing small income grants to children and older people — people who are not meant to be in the labour market — government officials would state that they were still committed to “graduating” people off grants.

And the fact that since the state introduced the paltry R350 grant in May 2020 as part of the Nedlac national lockdown negotiations, the treasury has been agitating to withdraw the grant through a variety of measures, including by manipulating the means test. The highly shameful fact that the government failed to spend R15 billion of the earmarked budget for the R350 grant last year because of such machinations and the resultant confusion among potential applicants about eligibility criteria.

And the fact is that the leadership of the parties in waiting, the hopeful opposition, don’t promise much different. Only a few leaders were interested before they drafted their manifestos, in receiving presentations of these facts and suggested policy alternatives.

If the opposition is not interested in introducing new and better policies, why are they in the running?

I used to write to try to make sense of things, and sometimes I would write, as my associate Duma Gqubule says, as a release of rage and anger. I used to share our research findings and policy solutions during radio and TV interviews.

But this year I realised that, for me, there is nothing more to be said. There is nothing more to be researched. No more writing can make any sense of the refusal of those in power to correct what is so awfully wrong.

There is no more processing that can make sense of where we are. Beyond anger. Beyond words.

What lies beyond?

Isobel Frye is the founder and executive director of the Social Policy Initiative, a feminist social security think tank in Johannesburg and a National Minimum Wage Commissioner. She writes in her personal capacity.