Holding our Leaders Accountable
The 2005 MDG Country Report for South Africa paints a glowing picture of a country well on its way to halving poverty by 2015.
However, the reality on the ground highlights some fundamental flaws in the overall poverty eradication plan.
Finding and agreeing upon a definition for poverty is an important exercise that scholars and other stakeholders have been involved in over an extended period of time. However, as theories get stretched between absolute and relative notions of the concept; consensus about what exactly poverty is, still remains elusive. In the meantime, there is an unhealthy pre-occupation with quantitative indicators of poverty relief, which feed foggy misconceptions about South Africa’s development scorecard.
The Development Scorecard
It is estimated that 11% of South Africa’s 47.4 million people live on less than a dollar a day and 5.2 million people are HIV positive. While better-off urbanites are cushioned from the spectre of poverty by enduring segregationist planning practises, the cold facts on the ground reveal a shocking reality of hardship for the other half.
The MDG country review speaks of a significant success in the rate of primary school enrolments, i.e., 95% of 7-13 year olds attend school. However, education analysts contend that the poorest 40-60% of schools do not function properly and that 70% of learners are functionally illiterate and innumerate. More alarming in light of the unemployment crisis, is the fact that over 30% of adult South Africans are functionally illiterate.
The MDG review also acknowledges significant increases in state health expenditure over an eight year period, which have funded a comprehensive HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment programme.
However, AIDS activists argue that South Africa’s HIV treatment programme was implemented under duress and only came into effect in 2004. They also argue that the recorded deaths per annum rose from 316,505 in 1997 to 657,488 in 2004. These figures refer to deaths by all causes, including AIDS.
Moving outside the realm of MDGs, government also lays claim to delivering two million houses since 1994, however, housing NGOs argue that they’ve delivered nothing more than ghettos that are dislocated from socio-economic centres of activity. It is argued further, that nine million poor South Africans are in the housing queue.
The Dual Economy
South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy was exemplary for its peaceful execution. With high hopes, the Black population embraced the conciliatory stance of the new democratic government, convinced that their newfound political freedom would lead to improved material conditions.
The strategic imperative of the new government was the expansion and stability of the national economy to attract investment, coupled with a labour market strategy aimed at increasing employment to alleviate poverty.
The South African economy has indeed grown under the democratic dispensation. From September 1999 to June 2005, South Africa’s annual economic growth rate averaged 3.5% and reached a high of 4.5% in June 2005.
However, this new economic growth has failed to result in any significant job creation for the poor. It is estimated that 41% of those who should be productively engaged, are unemployed. Critics engage in complex debates highlighting the economy’s inability to produce adequate and appropriate employment for the poor. The rate and quality of employment creation, in particular, has been questioned for creating too few jobs, which at the same time are at the low end of the market where people’s incomes are so insufficient that they remain entrapped in poverty.
Moreover, as the formal economy has not been able to absorb many of the unemployed, a burgeoning informal economy has established itself as the employer of the poor. This is a competitive environment where the vast majority of incomes place people below poverty line measures.
Race and gender continue to play an important role in the material conditions of South Africans. A staggering 86% of the people working in the informal sector are African and 67% are women. At the same time, there is increasing official acknowledgement of the informal economy as a permanent feature on the landscape. This quiet segue that is being made from one economy to two, signals a disquieting shift in consensus that we can’t pluck our poor out of poverty.
The key development challenge in South Africa is a lack of social and economic rights, which do not give genuine meaning to the country’s Constitution. The ideal of a just South African society where each individual has the right to a life of dignity continues to be undermined by gross social and economic inequalities, underpinned by institutionalized racism and exacerbated by a flaccid political will to overcome these problems.
The social and political implications of the current situation threaten the fundamental tenets of our young democracy. Civil society’s capacity to engage effectively with these issues has been weakened in the past decade by a re-routing of traditional donor funding that now favours the state. However, civil society has been silent for too long and must embolden its stance in holding our leaders accountable for their failures, past and present.
The National Development Agency
On 17 October 2006, SANGONeT will co-host a National Poverty Conference with the National Development Agency (NDA) to commemorate the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.
One of the objectives of the event is to assess the role of the NDA in coordinating national poverty eradication efforts. Accordingly, SANGONeT is creating a platform for civil society leaders to engage in a constructive dialogue with this state agency about South Africa’s poverty eradication agenda within the framework of partnerships for development.
For its part, the NDA has yet to demonstrate how it gives true meaning to its mandate as articulated in the National Development Agency Act (Act No. 108 of 1998) , which states that the primary objective of the NDA is to contribute towards the eradication of poverty and its causes by granting funds to civil society organisations for the purposes of:
carrying out projects or programmes aimed at meeting development needs of poor communities;
and strengthening the institutional capacity of other civil society organisations involved in direct service provision to poor communities.
It will be interesting to hear from the NDA how it intends to transform itself from an organisation that has been dogged by scandals of corruption and incompetence, to an organisation that works in support of civil society initiatives.
- Fazila Farouk, Deputy Director/Editor, SANGONeT.
Related Article: Research Report on the NDA
Photograph Acknowledgement: Chris Kirschhoff