Civil society coalition condemns South Africa’s report to the UN on inequality

The South African government is stumbling in its mission to address its historical legacy of inequality. This is according to a civil-society coalition that has lambasted a recent progress report delivered to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR).

As a member of the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) — having ratified its position in 2015 — South Africa has committed itself to protecting the socioeconomic rights of its citizens and preventing debilitating disparity. The maxim of the covenant famously states that countries must use the “maximum of its available resources” to achieve this objective, “including, particularly, the adoption of legislative measures”.

The government submitted its latest “state report” to the CESCR in May, missing a 31 October 2020 deadline. The objective of the report was to provide an update on the recommendations previously made by the committee. 

But according to the Civil Society Coalition Campaign for South Africa’s Ratification of the ICESCR and its Optional Protocol, the government approached the exercise in decidedly unilateral fashion.

“The South African state failed, despite the strong words to the contrary issued by the CESCR Committee, to consult with critical stakeholders such as the South African Human Rights Commission, civil society and structures of ordinary people, which flies in the face of the values of our constitution and the [ICESCR],” it said in a statement.

The coalition comprises the Black Sash; the Dullah Omar Institute; the People’s Health Movement South Africa; the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa; and the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute.

The groups argue that the report was submitted without substance, misrepresented critical data points and didn’t sufficiently grapple with the context of Covid-19 and its ramifications on the commitment to fulfil socioeconomic rights. They urged the government to better engage civil society ahead of the planned CESCR session in August.

The CESCR had, in 2018, written severe criticisms — what it calls “concluding observations” — of South Africa’s maiden periodical progress report.

“The committee is concerned that the state party has introduced austerity measures to relieve the debt level without defining the time frame within which such austerity measures should be re-examined or lifted,” it said.

“It is also concerned that these measures have resulted in significant budget cuts in the health, education and other public service sectors, and that they may further worsen inequalities in the enjoyment of the rights under the covenant, or even reverse the gains made, particularly in the health and education sectors.”

Over the past year of the pandemic, there has been scarce evidence that those worries have been assuaged. Last month, Statistics South Africa reported that the unemployment rate for the first quarter of 2021 rose to 32.6% of the labour force. The expanded unemployment rate, which includes discouraged work seekers, the expanded unemployment rate stands at 42.3%.

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s February budget — despite a relief in tax hikes — was characterised by lower public wage increases and fiscal consolidation.  Much of the hope for economic growth evidently rested on a successful vaccine roll-out in the second half of 2021.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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