10 June 2014

South Africa: Social Compact On a Decent Living Level in South Africa - Is It Possible?


With each passing day, the impact of the platinum strike increases its toll on workers and shareholders alike. The earlier announcement of the involvement of the new Minister of Energy appears to have dissipated to nothing.

At the heart of the apparent failure of constructive social dialogue about the resolution of grievances - beyond the work of the Farlam commission looking in to the deaths at Marikana - appears to be an inability for actors in this tragedy to be able to agree on what constitutes a living level that would enable people to live a life of basic decency.

Is it possible to have such a conversation in a nation as divided along so many fault lines as ours?

Income inequality certainly lies at the heart of many of these struggles. Conspicuous opulence observed by people who struggle daily to survive, combined often with covert messages that link wealth to worth, and poverty to a lack thereof, will always spark flames. Many of these we see blazing on a daily basis.

Gendered inequalities are equally complex - while young women appear less likely to obtain a job than young men, at the same time much of the social protection income is received by women. Spatial inequalities also determine the reality and the perceptions behind being able to access opportunities in the search for a 'better life', leading to high levels of urbanization into areas that already are too overcrowded.

Central to much of the social policy informing the National Development Plan is the concept of, through social dialogue, moving as a nation to agreement regarding what would constitute a basic, but decent, living level that all in South Africa should be able to aspire to.

The Constitution enshrines the fundamental rights to equality, to dignity and to life, as well as the socio-economic rights that, through progressive realization, are seen as the tools of the transformation project so critical to reach the constitutional principles.

Over the last few months, Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute (SPII), a not for profit research organization, has begun a very participative process to find out if such consensus exists across geographical and class divides, and, if so, what would constitute such a decent living level in terms of concrete goods and services, thresholds and costs.

This work is being undertaken through the auspices of NEDLAC, in conjunction with some of the pivotal structures of organized Labour as well as some of the Business stakeholders.

This work has many emerging applications, including the development of a national wage policy (on both minimum and maximum wages) with reference to a nationally agreed on basic basket; enabling us to establish the adequacy of social protection payments, and also enabling us to keep in mind the impact of price increases, especially on food and transport, on low income households. The findings have bearing too in the more aspirational demands for a 'living wage', which in South Africa seek to 'normalise' wages after generations of Apartheid wage-dampening.

This work is close to completion, and it dovetails very well with a new initiative of the National Planning Commission. This initiative has just begun to look at processes that could be followed to scale up such an enquiry into a national dialogue.

Rather than telling people the limited amounts that they need in a top down approach (such as the minimum survivalist calorific intake that informs the Food Poverty Line used by Statistics South Africa), these initiatives are characterized by letting ordinary people tell their story about what their needs are.

More conservative (and middle class) people have at times remarked on such initiatives with dismay, anticipating that certain fiscal ruin should be sure to follow such a process.

However, from our work and that undertaken in similar enquiries internationally, it is clear that using the structure of a focus group, a clear intergroup discipline emerges that restricts people to focusing on basic goods, but those that would enable people to thrive, and not just survive. In our planning frameworks, we need to replace 'poverty' with 'decency', and 'destitution' with 'dignity'.

Of course, what has yet to be finalized regarding the NDP is whether the economic vision contained in the Plan is one that is best structured to suit an economy that could in all honesty claim to be committed to enabling people to realize a decent living level. That is very clearly another conversation that must be had with an equal amount of urgency.

Given the deep divisions that appear to have brought us to an impasse on so many fronts, a discussion on what constitutes a life of decency is critical for people to feel that they have been heard.

That a recognition exists that because you currently live in destitution, you too are entitled to a life where focused policies better align to provide access to that which brings us together in a common humanity, that allows us to live lives that are not principally characterized by stigma and shame, the demoralizing cousins of poverty and inequality.

In conclusion, this is a conversation that is necessary and long overdue. It has roots in the principles of the Freedom Charter, but also, traction in the current commitments to radical social and economic transformation. If we are looking for the elusive social compact, this is the conversation on which it could successfully be grounded.

Frye is director of the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute.

Read more articles by Isobel Frye.

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