Is South Africa a welfare state? Are current grants and handouts enough to sustain the poorest of the poor? What is the South African government doing to help citizens become self reliant? These are some of the questions that the television talkshow, 2009 Election Debate, addressed on 14 February 2009.
The weekly programme is hosted in partnership with the University of Johannesburg.
The programme provided civil society organisations with the opportunity to understand various political parties’ approaches to eradicating poverty and also to get some insight into the views of ordinary South Africans who participated in the show via SMS.
Representatives from the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), African National Congress (ANC), African People's Convention (APC) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) discussed the root causes of poverty in the country. The programme included messages from leaders of political parties not represented at the show.
Director for the Centre for Social Development in South Africa at the University of Johannesburg, Leila Patel introduced the debate and pointed out that 15 years into democracy South Africa has one the highest levels of poverty in the world. She commended the government for providing social grants to the elderly, children and people with disabilities and described concerns that social grants create the culture of dependence, as “unfounded”.
The ANC’s secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, said the high level of unemployment is leading to increasing poverty in the country. He warned that this poverty affect both white and black South Africa.
He said interventions such as social grants have contributed to the decrease in what he described as “household poverty”.
The PAC’s Shadrack Pooe argued that South Africa needs to gradually move away from a social welfare approach to one of social development. Pooe, who favoured investing in rural economies, argued for the creation of an enabling environment in which citizens can produce their own food and industrial products.
He further criticised the ANC for not providing enough resources to the Department of Trade and Industry, which he says is responsible for entrepreneurship in the country. In addition, he said it is disappointing that the national treasury allocated only R1,5 billion to the Department of Trade and Industry instead of the anticipated R9 billion.
“This means the current government does not even have confidence in its own trade and industry policies,” said Pooe.
Like the PAC, the APC also emphasised the development of rural economies as the first step towards eradicating poverty. The party promised to invest more in rural communities in order to help poor people to create their own jobs and feed themselves. It is of the view that this will help reduce the number of people who migrate to the cities in search of employment.
“This will enable people especially those in rural areas to come out of the poverty,” said APC president Themba Godi.
While the ANC focuses on increasing the number of people who receive social grants, the IFP views such intervention as a “short-term solution” to the problem of poverty. It is of the view that self-help should become the basis of how the country deals with poverty in future.
IFP’s Narend Singh said the party would ensure that it puts in place a government that capable of using funds allocated to it in order to improve the lives of the people. He was referring to a situation in which government departments return unused funds to the national treasury as a result of lack of capacity to utilise them.
Mantashe said the ANC would focus on food production in the upcoming years and that social grants will cease “being just grants” as they will be money circulation in rural communities. This he argued, would contribute to the economic growth in the country.
Pooe slammed the ruling party of not speeding up the land redistribution process. He argued that when one talks about food production in a country where the poor do not own the land, it means they will only participate as labourers. He further warned that land is still in the hands of very few and nothing is being done to get Africans into the commercial side of farming.
Reiterating this view, Singh argued that the government needs to put more money into land-reform projects. In addition, he argued that more money needs to be also channelled towards education and skills training.
SMS’s from viewers watching the show included:
“One cannot solve poverty by throwing money [at it]. Educate and train people to be self-sufficient. How are the parties going to do that?”
“Mr Mantashe, my only concern is about better jobs that the ANC is promising. We as workers don’t need the recruiting agencies are using us as employees. If you can fix that we’ll be happy.”
“As the debate on poverty and social welfare continues, the question that South Africans should ask themselves is if more than 14 million depend on social grants, can this be supported by four million tax payers. How are the parties going to make the system sustainable?”
Linked to the debate on poverty is the news that the head of the National Development Agency (NDA), Godfrey Mokate, has resigned. These developments come at a time when the country looks to institutions like the NDA to help intensify the fight against poverty. City Press (22 February 2009) reports that Mokate’s resignation follows allegations that he used millions of state funds to set up structures for the newly-formed political party, Congress of the People (COPE). Mokate has also been accused of under-performing.
The 2009 Election Debate brings political parties, independent analysts, party supporters and other role players to tackle major problems and challenges that the country faces in the run up to the fourth general elections on 22 April 2009.