The National Council of Provinces (NCOP) held the Statistician-General's ministerial briefing session on South Africa's poverty index to get an insight on the extent of the effects of poverty in the country, and what policy directions should be pursued to avert its spread.
"This presentation will afford the delegates to the NCOP a range of strategic approaches to address job creation, infrastructure development and the basic consumption needs of South African households, many of whom still live below the poverty line," that was what the Chairperson of the NCOP, Mr Amos Masondo, said in his opening address.
While he commended the efforts made to reduce poverty in a meaningful way, he reckons that the gulf between the poor and the rich is widening. He said out of this session there is a need for the NCOP to forge ways to realise the key choices stipulated in the National Development Plan. He said: "That directs us on how to eliminate poverty and inequality in 2030 by raising the living standard of our population through employment, economic growth and development."
In keeping with the spirit of the Constitution, he pointed out that delegates need to utilise the work of the statisticians to oversee the adherence to the values on non-racism and non-sexism, which are enshrined in the Bills of Rights.
He said that is not an easy task, "but we should not tire to pursue this mission that belies the fundamental values of our society and influence our work across all spheres of governance".
The presentation of the Statistician-General, Mr Risenga Maluleke, gave the session a broad perspective of the poverty index, utilising the South African Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index. The picture he painted is bleak and is tied to the dire economic outlook of our country, mired in unemployment and inequality.
According to him, to determine the country's levels of poverty, the entity looks at three indexes to arrive at its findings: education, health, and income. The last-mentioned has a direct correlation to the rising unemployment because people who don't have income are bound to experience high levels of poverty.
Tied to that, he said, are the years of schooling of each individual. They are utilising this measure because in his view, access to education has a direct bearing to poverty levels because one's level of education can determine the future prospects of one's quality of life. As such, education can have a direct bearing on one's social mobility. That is why there is a need to promote education as a direct intervention to high levels of poverty.
When it comes to the income index, the entity utilises money metrics which use one dollar per day per household expenditure as a universal comparative measure of basic poverty lines. This is critical, he said, because it is related to expenditure of households on food and non-food items. "When we measure households' access to food, we do so in relation to the number of calories they consume per day, and whether they consume enough calories for daily energy requirements," he said.
But according to the entity's report poverty is, as in the past, still racialised. "The black majority still experience high level of poverty as compared to the white population. Little has changed in this regard and much more needs to be done to turn this tide around," he said.
Given that the presentation reflected on the 2016 stats, there is no data to reflect on current poverty trends as such, "we don't know how many people are at the risk of hunger currently," he said. But he assured members of the NCOP that "grants provide a greater intervention to poverty in the country".
But ultimately, "apartheid's spatial configuration has a bearing on the current poverty lines that South Africans experience today. And much more needs to be done in terms of policy interventions to address this problem because if it is not addressed, it could have a devastating effect on the government's endeavour to eradicate poverty and its interconnectedness to inequality and unemployment".
Delegates to the NCOP make contributions on the presentation
During the members' inputs, Mr Dennis Ryder decried the grim picture drawn by the Statistician-General and commented that "your stats should be the basis of every department's work".
"Twenty-six years on, how did the government fail to address income inequality so dismally?" asked Ms Sonja Boshoff.
Mr Mohammed Dangor interjected: "The stats should also reflect the disinvestment and tax boycott that have led to gross inequality and unemployment. And it is sad to see that those who were privileged in the past are still privileged today, and those who were disadvantaged in the past are still disadvantaged even today, because of disinvestment and tax boycott by those who were privileged by our past."
"It is not acceptable that our food economy is still in the hands of white people, who are resistant to the idea of eradicating inequality," said Mr Andrew Arnolds.
He also said that given the rising tide of poverty, "it would be unwise to cut the R350 Covid-19 grant. It should be continued because we need a permanent solution for those in distress".
There is a need to offset the plight of women who are subjected to poverty, said the Deputy Chairperson of the NCOP. And we must reflect on the grants versus the cost of living. "We must reflect on the grants against the general cost of water and electricity. Poor people, most of whom are women, can't survive on grants alone. This shows that we are sitting with a real challenge."
This presentation is important in filling the policy gaps on what are the major poverty drivers and what are their multi-dimensional nature, said the Chief Whip of the NCOP, Mr Seiso Mohai.
He said the spread and impact of poverty is complicated by the changing patterns of the labour market, which further alienates women. He decried the fact that data on poverty and consumption is still defined by race, class and gender, which are perpetuated by the apartheid spatial planning, whose impact can be felt to this day.
He stated unequivocally that what is clear is that poverty and inequality have deepened. He commended the government's R40 billion intervention for providing assistance to more than seven million households during the lockdown, which lifted many people above the poverty line.
But further than that, the Statistician-General report will, in his view, "be an instrument that will inform the NCOP's oversight work, going forward".