Seventeen years into the new democracy of South Africa, the formal freedom heralded by the defeat of apartheid is yet to be matched by economic liberation for millions of poor, particularly black, South Africans. Poverty, unemployment and inequality continue to restrict life choices and opportunities in a manner similar to the laws of the former regime. Despite the fact that almost half of South Africans are poor, poverty and the poor seldom receive sympathetic recognition by key social actors. While the apparent intractability of poverty is indeed deeply rooted in the policy designs and choices implemented under apartheid, the ease with which so many millions of marginalised people appear to live outside of the mainstream discourses challenges the very essence of the value of solidarity that characterised the years of opposition to racial oppression and segregation. It also runs contrary to the human rights framework embedded in the Constitution, which has been hailed as one of the most progressive globally.
There is a conspicuous silence around issues of poverty in South Africa. The ongoing impact of ‘separate development’ spatial planning under Apartheid means that the majority of poor black people live far removed from urban centres, either in rural areas or at the peripheries of cities in formal townships or in the increasingly sprawling informal squatter camps established on vacant areas of peri-urban land. In 1913, 4 million South Africans were removed into ‘homelands’ that comprised one eighth of the area of South Africa under the Native Reserves Land Act. Many millions continue to live in these over-crowded and underdeveloped areas, where the poverty rate is around 74%. As such, the face of poverty in urban areas is generally that of individuals begging at street corners. The extent of the destitution and exclusion driven by poverty becomes masked behind bland statistics, and policy promises.
The media tend to approach poverty from a welfare perspective – the othering of the poor as ‘them’. Headline stories have tendered to focus either on older women or children. The realities of the ‘able-bodied’ working age poor, for whom no social security exists, are not news. Poverty is thus confined to categories that are deemed to be ‘charity cases’, rather than acknowledging the need for structural reforms to the distribution of available resources in the country. Instead, through glossy advertising and features on the lifestyles of the ‘new’ rich, the media tends to portray the extreme wealth enjoyed by those at the top as being indicative of personal value and worth, and thus, by implication, poverty suggests personal failing or inadequacy. Political leaders talk with concern about levels of ‘conspicuous consumption’ epitomised by large properties and expensive imported cars that congregate in the shopping malls where imported luxuries are snapped up at alarming rates, and yet government ministers themselves drive such luxury vehicles and defend such acquisitions as being ‘permitted by the rules’.
There is a further racial undercurrent in how wealth and consumption is portrayed, with the critical focus mainly on the new black elite, which in turn generates race-aligned defensiveness. This complicates the rights-based approach to poverty as the issue of ‘equality’ then becomes focused on the ‘right’ for black elites to be equally wealthy as whites, as opposed to the right to basic dignity and life and equality for poor people.
There has however been a recent shift in the mainstream media’s approach to issues of poverty, since the advent of the ‘Arab Spring’. This shift was begun by a number of key social commentators, such as Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of the former president, who used the media to air warnings about South Africa being close to a ‘tipping point’ for an uprising by the poor against the wealthy. Since then, a number of more empathetic stories have been carried, including in The Times of 12 October 2011, whose headline ran: ‘NO JOBS, NO HOPE, NO FUTURE. This is the unacceptable face of unemployment in South Africa in 2011 – 6 to 8 million are without jobs.’
What we have witnessed in recent years is the ‘de-politicisation’ of poverty, as it became more equated with the discourse of ‘development’ and ‘underdevelopment’. Addressing poverty is thus seen to be linked to delivery of specific planned programmes and policies to designated beneficiaries who are then deemed to have had their needs addressed. Structural questions of the distribution of resources from the perspective of justice thus become silenced, which has led to an undermining of the previous sense of urgency around respecting rights. Over the last three years, frustrated poor communities have increasingly turned to protests to make their voice heard. These protests were overnight labelled ‘service delivery protests’, and yet the level of community mobilisation suggests that these are more fundamental articulations of anger with structural marginalisation and exclusion, and at seeing the hope for a new future for people and their children apparently indefinitely deferred.
Increasingly these protests have been criminalised as the police, often armed, are brought in to break them up. On 13 April 2011, Mr Andries Tatane, a community leader, was beaten with batons and then shot dead by police in a town called Ficksburg, for trying to rescue an old man during a protest. Protests often escalate into violence on both sides, and protestors have begun to resort to burning down municipal buildings and local government officials’ houses on being dispersed. According to a recent article, 56 major protests of this kind took place between January and August 2011, including during the May 2011 local government elections. The Minister of Police said in the same article that the severity of the police reaction to the protests needed to be ‘revisited’, citing the ‘constant negative public scrutiny’ of police action.
Where is the language of human rights principles and values, and how should the narrative around poverty, exclusion, and about wealth and inequality, change? The Constitution of South Africa guarantees the rights to equality before the law, human dignity and life. Chapter two of the Constitution contains the Bill of Rights, guaranteeing socio-economic rights (able to be brought before the courts and settled by court action) to all, including the right to social security and social assistance to those unable to provide for themselves and their dependants. Much more rigorous use of the transformative elements of the Constitution must be made by policy-makers and advocates. Rights to life and dignity and equality must to drive our thinking, and the socio-economic rights of the Constitution, potential drivers of fundamental change, need to be rescued from bureaucratic top-down development policy dictates.
Amongst policy makers, the concept of the rights foundation in the Constitution, especially in respect of the realisation of the socio-economic rights, is often absent. Despite clear directives from the judiciary through Constitutional Court judgments - for instance the Grootboom case, brought by a community living in severe poverty in an informal settlement in 2000, in which the court ruled that they had the right to demand that the state act to extend access to housing for all South Africans - in general policies do not reflect a clear commitment to the progressive realisation of rights. Delivery is focused more on targeting ‘the poorest of the poor’, and the ‘most vulnerable’ as being sufficient, rather than seeing progressive realisation as a constant dynamic process of improvement of enjoyment towards universal access. The Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute (SPII) is developing a monitoring matrix of progressive realisation of socio-economic rights, to use both as a guide and an oversight tool. The research project is looking at three dimensions of progressive realisation: access - an increase in the number of people accessing the right in an affordable manner; adequacy - the provision of the service corresponding to the right as sufficient to meet basic needs; quality; and spatial location - in both rural and urban areas.
A populist discourse has emerged that equates the rights in the Constitution with entrenching past inequalities and preventing progress in favour of the majority. The slow pace of redistribution of land, for instance, is blamed by many on Section 25 of the Constitution that protects private property; the rights of prisoners in the Constitution is blamed for high levels of crime. Such discourses lead to people calling for a dilution of the Bill of Rights, rather than addressing the real causes of their frustrations. When rights begin to be seen as hindrances to development and change, people begin to question why they should be observed at all.
It is crucial, if real transformation is to take place in South Africa, to ensure that the rights framework of the Constitution again becomes central to our society and values. Respect for fundamental rights, including socio-economic rights, must be rebuilt through national debate and discourse. If we fail, we risk losing the values that were so long fought for.