Wasteful and fruitless expenditure. State-owned enterprises. Qualified audits. It’s a toxic word salad, terms you hate confronting, but they circulate in reviews of government expenditure year on year, deep into post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa.
Social grants. Belt-tightening. Increased taxation. More words to add to the salad. And all the while ordinary South Africans negotiate the economic woes they find themselves in, at both the personal and the national level. Low growth, shrinking per capita GDP, chronic unemployment, high levels of youth unemployment, instability in the labour market …
And the most vulnerable have to make the best with the least, eking out a living just barely above or below a line which divides a life from an existence. Many people in this country, in their old age, rely on the pension paid out by the state: R1,510 for those older than 60, and R1,530 for those older than 75. They may not earn more than R69,000 or own property in excess of R990,000 if unmarried, or double that figure if married.
So as Pravin Gordhan stands up in Parliament to account to the people of South Africa on how the government in which he serves will collect money, and spend money, we may want to remember where that money comes from. It is really our money, the money of ordinary people, all of us who pay the various forms of tax, from the value added tax we are charged for goods and services, to the income and corporate taxes many of us are subject to.
So the highly paid members of the South African Parliament’s two houses, along with the members of the executive arm of government who may be attending the Budget Speech 2017, are really doing so on the taxpayers’ ticket. And the contrast between the largesse they enjoy and the deprivation many millions of South Africans have to scrape by on, is too obvious to ignore for many of us.
The total annual income of many pensioners may not exceed R20,000. This is not through any fault of theirs. The active policies of colonialism and apartheid against Black people, by way of education and job segregation policies, are such that the effects of the past live on in the present of our most vulnerable, aged fellow citizens. The social, political and health blights of the last generation, particularly the effects of political violence, HIV/Aids, and the maternal mortality rates of the first decade after 1994 could explain how people in their 60s, 70s, and beyond, are the primary caregivers of their children’s children. These elders are survivors in so many senses, and far from having additional support from families, they are sometimes the primary cash income sources.
When the president of the Republic of South Africa mentioned the need to break monopolies and cartels in his State of the Nation Address 2017, many may have assumed that the first significance was the ways in which this impacted on economic growth, and preventing the transformation of the economy, keeping it concentrated in the control of a minority defined along racial lines during apartheid. However, perhaps more frighteningly, the consequence of such monopolistic economic patterns is felt harshly by consumers through measures like price fixing and collusion.
The cost of food, the cost of public transport, and the cost of energy ought to be of major concern for all of us, but for those on a fixed income of approximately R1,500, it is cause for alarm. And now the stand-off between Treasury and the Department of Social Development around a Constitutional Court judgment on the disbursement of those social grants threatens to reduce the pittance people have to rely on to nothing altogether. This would plunge many of the most vulnerable back into the horror of late apartheid, detailed in Uprooting Poverty: The Second Carnegie Report on Poverty in South Africa by Francis Wilson and Mamphela Ramphele (1989).
Yes, the Budget speech is important for what it will tell us about government’s plans around its spending priorities in economically tough times. However, if we are being asked to tighten our belts, the instructive lessons may not come from cabinet members (including the Minister of Finance and his deputy) or members of Parliament. The people who may be able to teach us most on how to maximise the value of our rands may be those who are often most derided for being a financial burden, or rendered invisible for being "economically unproductive" (as if the only worth human beings have lies in their role in the economy): the elderly who make a life from a social grant.
The most vulnerable deserve our respect, and much more, a better deal; we, in turn, have much to learn from them about making do in lean times.