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Bitter harvest: Gail Smith discusses the renewed fight against poverty in the new South Africa. (South Africa in Focus).

Seven years after the first democratic elections in South Africa, the promises of the revolution have turned into a bitter harvest for the majority of South Africans. Nearly 50 percent are unemployed and 53 percent live in conditions of abject poverty. Forty percent of the population earns less than 3 percent of the national income, while the richest 10 percent garner 50 percent. The dual scourge of malnutrition and AIDS is pounding South Africa, with one out of every seven adults now infected with HIV.

The ANC government faces daunting challenges and has certainly made important advances. However, according to critics like Hassen Mohamed of the Development Resources Centre (DRC), an advocacy organization working to mobilize the poor and working class, "It is quite evident that the ANC government is more inclined to accommodate international business and agencies, rather than its grassroots supporters and the population."

For the poor, social security is a right only secured through struggle. This struggle is likely to be spearheaded by labor and civil society organizations. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), South Africa's largest labor confederation, has recently joined forces with organizations such as the Treatment Action Campaign, the Black Sash, the South African Council of Churches, the Catholic Bishops Conference, the Alliance for Children's Entitlement to Social Security (ACESS) and the DRC, to campaign for a more equitable social security system, and to take decisive action against poverty. One of their central demands is that a guaranteed income known as the Basic Income Grant (BIG) of 100 rand (about $10) per month be paid to all South Africans, from cradle to grave. The BIG is seen as a partial antidote to South Africa's current social security system, which excludes most of the poor.

"BIG could be considered a form of reparations," says Fiona Tregenna of Cosatu.

No Security, Much Privation

My work as coordinator of a project to research children's experiences of poverty has taken me from the illusion of wealth among the middle class of Johannesburg to the deepest privation and suffering. Traveling around the country, I have met children who represent a fraction of the millions who are falling between the cracks of the social security system and who are living in the direst of circumstances. Hearing the statistic that one in five children are stunted due to malnutrition does not prepare one to meet children who go to bed hungry on a daily basis or who speak dispassionately about losing parents and siblings one after the other to AIDS.

I have met little girls rendered mute with grief and distress at having lost mothers to AIDS and then thrust into situations that neither welcome them nor have the resources to support them. Many of these girls are extremely vulnerable to the scourge of sexual abuse and to HIV infection from rape or prostitution.

South Africa's current social security system is dogged with problems and contradictions. The Child Support Grant reaches only 7 percent of children in need and only covers children up until the age of 7, leaving people aged between 8 and 60 with no recourse to any assistance.

The Care Dependency Grant covers children up until the age of 18 with severe mental or physical disability who require permanent home care. The grant does not cover children who have chronic illnesses, those infected with HIV, or children with AIDS. The Foster Care grant is paid to children legally placed in foster homes. Foster care involves a lengthy court procedure and this grant does not cover child-headed households (who have lost parents to AIDS) or children living with extended families.

Historic structural inequalities still prevent the majority of children in need from accessing these different grants. To qualify, children must have birth certificates, and their parents must hold bar-coded identity documents. But less than 50 percent of children have birth certificates, and a great proportion of those who are eligible are unaware of the grant. Illiteracy and the fact that relevant forms are only available in English effectively keep a great percentage of the poor out of the system.

The children who fall between the cracks of social security include children with HIV, street children, and all children older than seven. It is estimated that within nine years, over 56 percent of the population will live in a household affected by at least one HIV infection or AIDS-related death. Within that same time period, the number of child-headed households is likely to increase from 46,000 to 900,000.

Think BIG

The Basic Income Grant is one of the most important initiatives to address poverty and inequality in South Africa. Its significance lies not only in the fact that it intends to address poverty, but also that it seeks to expand the social security net.

"The government has inherited an apartheid-era social security system that is based on Western industrialized societies that assume most people are employed and that only a minority will draw on the social security system," argues Professor Sandra Liebenberg, head of the socioeconomic rights project at the Community Law Center of the University of the Western Cape. Not only is the current social security model inappropriate for South Africa, Liebenberg says, but it does not address the country's systemic poverty and inequality.

Proponents of BIG believe its cost (estimates vary from R 20 billion to R 40 billion) can be funded by "progressive recuperation" through the tax system. The idea is that everyone would receive a BIG, but people who earn above a certain wage threshold would pay it back through taxation.

"Social security is not a panacea for the country's ills; we also need redistribution and jobs," says Cosatu's Fiona Tregenna. "A comprehensive social security system goes beyond the payment of grants, and has to include the provision of basic services." Still, the importance of the BIG campaign is that it represents a return to the values of the struggle to end apartheid and to affirm and support the inherent dignity of all South Africans.

The BIG campaign has brought poverty to the top of the agenda and has given voice to many who are concerned with the growing divide between the rich and poor in South Africa. But the government has consistently denied that a BIG is in the cards for the 2002 budget.

According to Tregenna, Cosatu's priority for government is to establish the principle of BIG and then to quibble about the exact amounts to be paid. As we go to press, the fight in Parliament is ongoing.

The South African dream is a living nightmare thanks to poverty, the AIDS pandemic, and increasing unemployment. The disparities between rich and poor in South Africa are so great, and the further away people move from the reality of poverty into the fantasy of wealth, the further they are alienated from the majority--on whose back the revolution was fought. The "blackeousie" continue to seek solace in retail therapy and luxury cars. Whether the government has the political will and commitment to put out the fires of poverty remain to be seen. But the BIG campaign is a reassuring sign that political organizing and revolutionary principles are still alive in South Africa.

Gail Smith is a gender activist, researcher, and writer living in Johannesburg.
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Article Details
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Author:Smith, Gail
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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