History will judge us harshly unless we act, writes Archbishop Njongo Ndungane.
December 9th 2009 was a good day for South Africa. Over 100 civil society organisations met with representatives from at least six government ministries and departments, led by Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe. The purpose of this meeting was to deliberate on the National Anti-Poverty Strategy and to agree on an integrated approach to address poverty in South Africa. For most South Africans who interact with fellow citizens struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis, this was a watershed moment, since South Africa has operated without an integrated anti-poverty strategy all this time. As a result, despite good policies and programmes by various national, provincial and local government departments - it has been difficult to measure the impact as efforts are sometimes conflicting, duplicated and incoherent. The Anti-Poverty Strategy is meant to bring sense to all of these efforts by ensuring that there is a coherent, holistic and effective strategy.
For African Monitor, the colloquium on the National Anti-Poverty Strategy was a culmination of various efforts which began with the poverty hearings in 2008, where South Africans shared their lived experiences and, for many, their loss of dignity. During these hearings, we learned that hunger, food insecurity and unemployment are the uppermost concerns for many South Africans who came to and testified at the hearings. We also learnt that while most beneficiaries of social grants appreciate the national benefit, they do not want handouts - but rather want the means to sustain their own livelihoods.
Our main motivation for engaging in the National Anti-Poverty Strategy is to ensure that all the various facets of poverty are addressed holistically, as most households living in poverty tend to experience multiple forms of deprivation. In fact, the Poverty Hearings Report correctly termed poverty a “deadly cocktail”, where one household could experience multiple challenges like HIV/AIDS, lack of access to treatment, children dropping out of school to become care-givers, kids feeding from the garbage dumps and young girls selling their bodies for food. Therefore, any strategy South Africa adopts must be holistic and multi-facetted.
It is no secret though that to the most part South Africa has good strategies and policies, but very little capacity to deliver. We have deliberated about this lack of capacity among local governments in particular.
As I said in my address during this meeting in December, the principle of collective engagement is critical not only in developing the anti-poverty strategy, but also in ensuring its implementation. Those without foresight often dismiss the principle of collective engagement as a euphoric unachievable ideal. They fail to understand that without embracing this principle, it is not possible to embrace our collective responsibility for the eradication of poverty. For if we fundamentally accept that we are all responsible, this automatically translates to an understanding that we must pull our resources and work together to end the scourge of poverty in this country.
It was exciting therefore to hear Motlanthe making a commitment that government will establish a National Council on Poverty, not only to investigate and answer some of these questions, but also to facilitate the development of an action plan, and to monitor the effective implementation of the anti-poverty strategy. At this meeting, the Deputy President indicated that, like Prof. Yunus, he believes that South Africa can eradicate poverty in 20 years if we are all willing to work in a focussed way to address food security, enable access to basic services, and create economic opportunities for the poor in a sustainable way. I agree whole-heartedly, and eagerly look forward to a concrete plan from government and the civil society national task force about how this will be done.
On February 11 President Jacob Zuma shared his vision for the nation. The greatest indicator of our commitment to the anti-poverty strategy will be the extent to which it has prominence in the President’s address, as well as how it is translated into the 2010 budget speech by the Minister of Finance.
11th February is laden with symbolic value in South Africa because it is the same day that former President Nelson Mandela was released from prison twenty years ago. I can still remember the euphoria, dreams and aspirations of the people of South Africa during this glorious period - dreams of human dignity, equality and a good life for all. Twenty years on, while we have achieved much, the dream of a fair, dignified life for all is still elusive. 2010 also means that nations only have five years to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, whose deadline is 2015. South Africa set its own deadline for 2014.
Therefore, the 2010 State of the Nation Address has the expectations of history bearing on it. A quick evaluation of the progress we have achieved in the last 20 years shows that in the area of poverty alleviation, we have not done enough. History will judge us harshly, unless we seize the opportunity to do more. Government departments must agree to a mandate to implement the national anti-poverty action plan by 2014. Civil society (including academia, NGOs, faith movements) must commit to support and accelerate poverty eradication efforts. Businesses and trade unions must draw on their resources and vantage point to come to the table as well.
Motlanthe has endorsed calls by civil society organisations to establish the National Council on Poverty. This is an opportune time to clearly outline how this structure will be set up, how it will interact with other government planning and monitoring instruments such as the Planning Commission, and how it will be resourced.
Poverty does not wait for time or convenience. It strikes anytime, all the time and with full force for most households. Our response must be equally charged with a sense of urgency and determination. Having been involved in this national conversation for the last two years, I am confident that our hearts, actions and resources will be pulled together in order to consign poverty to the museum of history!
Archbishop Ndungane is President and Founder of African Monitor, a non-governmental organisation set us to monitor development funding commitments, delivery and impact on the grassroots, and to bring strong additional African voices to the development agenda. This article was first published in The Times website. It is republished here with the permission from the African Monitor.
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