The textures of freedom in postmillennial, post-apartheid South Africa are on display for any who want to see it. One of its more moribund displays happened during Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s 2016 Budget Speech.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Even those among us who have major ideological and political differences with the policies promulgated by the government department headed by Mr Pravin have to admit that his speech was a master class in negotiating difficult terrain. As he steered government’s plans between the Scylla of capital demands and the Charybdis of ordinary citizens’ expectations in an election year, the dexterity as well as the smooth, self-effacing delivery were striking.
Additionally, he negotiated the politically tense situation of being the third man in the job in as many months with aplomb. The middle classes were happy because they were promised income tax relief. Corporations were supposed to be happy as transparency measures and anti-corruption measures were supposed to make doing business easier. The imagined community which is supposed to be South Africa could be relieved to hear concrete suggestions on education, drought relief, and food and water security.
The moment that startled, though, was the announcement of a modest increase to old age pensions and other such social grants. The house applauded. For a moment, if one did not reflect on the actual numbers involved, one could be swept up in the delight taken. By October 2016, we were told, a 70-year old pensioner would receive a R1,510 grant from government. Members of parliament, some of them ministers, who earn just less than or in excess of that magic number: R1-million.
Watching the members of parliament applauding the increase for social grant recipients, one could have mistaken it for parody. Perhaps it was a post-industrial morality play. People whose monthly incomes exceeded the annual allowance a pensioner gets were applauding an R80 increase. With that R80 a pensioner could not buy both a loaf of bread and a litre of milk each week: they would be confronted with a dreadful, sub-Saharan Sophie’s Choice of what to leave the store with on R20 per week: bread, or milk, but not both.
Now, these are elderly South Africans, who have all contributed tax across their lives, whether the General Sales Tax of apartheid South Africa, or the Value Added Tax which replaced it. Throughout their lives, as they spent the meagre incomes they received, even the poor Black people now on social grants, would have contributed their labour, many of them their reproductive labour, to the making of the society we have today. Whether they were income tax payers is not the only question to consider.
Where empathy failed in the gathering of the people’s representatives, one would want ordinary South Africans who elect them to exercise that empathy. What life can be had on R1,500 per month in South Africa 2016? One respondent to this question on a social media website indicated that it was enough that such people existed, that to exercise empathy was to think in middle class terms because poor people had survived on less, and lurking just beneath these obscene expressions of entitlement and dismissal, the view that they did not deserve more for not having saved in their lifetimes so that they were dependent on ‘government hand-outs’.
What history has to be deleted from the world and our recent experience of it for someone to state such obscenities? How quickly the amnesia seems to have set in. How far is R1,500 expected to go? Not all pensioners have families that help support them. Given other events in this country’s recent history -- our slow response to HIV/AID and the consequent human cost to whole groups of people must not be so quickly erased; youth unemployment has resulted in deeply discomfiting dependencies and role reversals – we must remember that many pensioners are not resting in the comfort and embrace of families able to care for them; many of them are caught in having to care for young people with their meagre resources.
So housing and its challenges, water and energy, food and clothing, and the commuter transport many human beings have to engage in to do the business of being human in a modernised society: all of this on R1,500 per month? This is what the elected officials and their amen corner applauded.
Batho pele? Ubuntu? These are, after all, phrases often invoked in the state, both in its public and private incarnations, to appeal to our sense of justice and the moral responsibility which goes with that. How are people put first when we serious applaud R1510 as a living allowance for a person in precisely the time of their lives when health complications increase, and they already carry the social and economic burdens historical tragedy have thrust upon them?
One does not know what the better number would be. But one knows that a simple exercise of the imagination, asking oneself to envisage the kind of old age R1,510 affords in this time, in this place, is absolutely essential. Embarrassed silence feels like an appropriate response to an announcement like that, from anyone who earns even half of what the members of parliament earn, never mind what they cost us, the people who elected them.
Empathy is a political value. Exercising empathy is good for us. It forces us to stop, to examine the lives of others around us, and to place ourselves inside their lives, and ask ourselves how decent or good our own lives could be if such is happening in our midst, and worse, in our names. This is not an argument about whether we can afford the financial burden of increasing the social grants to a figure less obscene. This is also about what that number says about us, and our expectations for the most vulnerable in our society, and what we are willing to celebrate as victories.
Empathy, as a political value, demands that we set the bar higher, for the vulnerable among us, and for ourselves. The low bar is a mark of moral torpor, and in these difficult times, the shared humanity which is constantly being invoked by those who are secure in comfort to discipline others whose conduct they disapprove of, requires a better response than applause. We know the cost of our shame: R1,510. Is it just another item on the list of our collective shame we are willing to budget for with applause?
We once dreamed of being better than that. We must dream again, to escape this nightmare of expediency masquerading as realism.