South Africa Faces the Challenge of Poverty
South Africa Faces the Challenge of Poverty

South Africa Faces the Challenge of Poverty

January 1 st 1997

A recent survey of South Africans showed that when we are asked what most concerns us the same four matters crop up time and again: crime, jobs, health care, and education. In that order, except for one small difference: for the most poor, jobs take the number one spot, while for the most affluent, crime does. (The boom in crime since the first democratic elections has changed shape in recent months. According to official police figures, car hijacking and theft, armed robbery, and housebreaking have decreased, while murder, rape, assault, and robberies at businesses have increased. But crime will not be the focus of this article.)

Dealing with poverty

The achievement of a democratic South Africa with less blood spilt than anyone could have reasonably expected was a gift from God. Now, however, our nation is faced with the immense immediate challenge of poverty.

The new government, the African National Congress (ANC), started off in their attempt to address poverty with an impressive document drawn up after wide consultation, also beyond their own support-base. The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) set out broad ideals and the outline of a national agenda for achieving these ideals. All sectors of our society (with the exception of a handful of libertarians and some entrenched supporters of the old ideal of racial separation) seemed ready and willing to contribute to this grand effort to redress the imbalances of the past.

And then suddenly, quietly, the government let the RDP slip. Not officially. Just for all practical intents and purposes.

What replaced the RDP is a macro-economic framework with the acronym GEAR (Growth, Empowerment, and Redistribution), which seems to be aimed at achieving two goals: appeasing the World Bank with a fiscal and trade policy along the neoliberal lines currently in vogue, and manoeuvring the new political elite into a position where they can get their hands not only on the gravy of the political gravy train, but also on some of the gravy to be had from corporate profits.

Admittedly, GEAR does commit the ANC government (for the first time) to a market economy, rather than increasing nationalization along the tired socialist lines of yesteryear. The stated intention of the government to reduce the budget deficit from six per cent to three per cent by the end of the century also seems like good housekeeping.

Growing economy

Insofar as governments can affect these things, the first democratic government in South Africa has certainly done better in macro-economic terms than the last government of white domination. While the South African economy experienced average annual growth of only one per cent in the decade before our first democratic elections in April 1994, it has grown by 2.7 per cent in 1994 and 3.3 per cent in 1995. Similar growth can be expected for 1996 and 1997.

Similarly, the outflow of capital characteristic of the 1980s and early 1990s has been reversed, with an inflow of about R30 billion from April 1994 to the end of 1995. (Foreign investment is crucial for the growth of the South African economy in view of the dismal saving habits of South Africans).

To some extent, the volume of inflowing capital can be discounted by the slippage in value of our currency (the Rand) relative to most major currencies—30 per cent relative to the US dollar in the past year. But this slippage has rescued our tottering gold industry and given some breathing room to industries under pressure from foreign imports, especially in textiles. It has already stimulated a 23 per cent increase in exports in the first 10 months of 1996, relative to the same period in 1995.

Export growth for the first time is mainly in manufactured goods, rather than the traditional mainstays of the South African economy: gold, other minerals, and unprocessed agricultural goods. The top three growth categories of manufactured export goods were food and beverages, optical equipment, and footwear. It is instructive to consider the changes in the relative percentages of total exports between 1980 and 1996. Gold and diamonds have declined from 57.5 per cent to 37.7 per cent, while manufactured goods have increased from 11.5 per cent to 27.9 per cent. Unprocessed agricultural products changed from 5.4 per cent to 6.4 per cent.

No better off

But in the meantime, the poor are no better off. Of the economically active population, 30 per cent (4.2 million people) are unemployed, while an additional 1.7 million people work in the informal sector. Almost a quarter of all South African households earn less than US $1,500 a year. Where our society had in the past been divided fairly clearly on racial lines—white people had the power and the money, black people did not—the lines have become blurred. The division, however, has not disappeared—it is actually becoming even greater.

Those who are able to tap into the resources of the state and the large (internationally linked) corporations can live well in South Africa. Even an academic with an office at a university—like myself—can still come by handsomely by local standards.

But people who only have the honest labour of their hands to offer are not plucking any of the fruits which they had expected from democracy—especially if they are among the 20 per cent of black women and 14 per cent of black men who have never received any formal education. We continue to live in a dual society with a dual economy.

While the way in which our society is structured continues to make the alleviation of mass poverty unlikely, all of our ills cannot be ascribed to these social structures. Whatever one might want to call our work ethic, it certainly does not resemble the so-called Protestant work ethic, which undergirded the emergence of European and North American economic power since the Reformation. South Africans do not work hard. And without hard work no effort to change our political, economic, and social structures for the better will make any difference to the poverty so pervasive in our nation.

Hard work and prayer

South Africa has never been a country conducive to progressive optimism. A Christian point of view, however, demands hope. We have seen the miracle of democracy without a bloodbath. We are on our way to becoming (in Bishop Tutu's words) a rainbow nation, in which ethnic and language differences are treasured as sources of mutual enrichment rather than as lines of division or problems to be solved in a great melting pot of American-style homogeneity.

Next, South Africa needs a turn-about from the fatalism endemic in pagan Africa and from the materialism endemic in the modern world to good stewardship and the recognition that this country is also part of our Father's world. This will require, again, the prayers and prayerful hard work of Christians.

We must and can hope for a future beyond poverty and affluence for the beloved country. Not for a pot of gold, but for work for all, and an honest day's wages for an honest day's work for every working man and woman in the rainbow nation.

Gideon Strauss
Gideon Strauss

Gideon Strauss was the editor of Comment from 2000 to 2010. He is currently Associate Professor of Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies, a graduate school of philosophy in Toronto, and a senior fellow with the Center for Public Justice in Washington DC. Gideon also facilitates vocational discipleship in churches in his native South Africa.


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