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2022 BIG resolution: ANC must act now on rights-based stance

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Picture: Department of Social Development – The ANC in 1943 under Dr Xuma, developed its African Claims document that called for ‘full civil and political rights’, including that ‘the African worker shall be insured against sickness, unemployment, accidents, old age and for all other physical disabilities’, the writer says.

By Isobel Frye

How does social security feature as a policy within the ruling African National Congress?

The ANC in fact adopted the key principles of current social security thinking as early as the 1943 ANC Bill of Rights.

The most recent resolutions of the 2022 55th National Conference of the ANC affirmed a universal rights-based stance on an unconditional Basic Income Grant which is a progressive development since their early reluctance to engage with the policy in the 2002 Stellenbosch conference.

But the fullness of the story of the policies adopted by the ANC between these two moments in history also conveys the awful distance that has always existed for the majority of people in South Africa between their living conditions and a decent life. For the majority of poor South Africans, it is hoped that exemplary policy will translate into concrete change in the immediate future, whether the ANC is returned as an outright ruling party or within a coalition government.

The current government social security policies have been shaped and adopted under the ANC as ruling party in a democratic South Africa. The cover is significantly greater than in any other African country, but South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. And the material conditions of the majority of people continue to worsen as exogenous factors affect earning and spending power.

Historic dispossession of assets including land mean that most people are dependent on wage income, and with unemployment stubbornly sticking at above 40 percent for working age adults, the conventional contributory social insurance schemes have a limited reach as a relief. We need to create new solutions to meet new problems with the foresight that can be seen in past times.

The history behind the ANC’s 1943 Bill of Rights is interesting, as African leaders fought for justice in a western world that seemed to appropriate the right only for themselves. The closing words of Dr Xuma at the launch of the document were a foreshadowing of Nelson Mandela’s closing speech in the 1964 Treason Trial. Matters of life and death and the daily battle for survival are still constants in the lives of too many South Africans. That is why social security policies must create a seamless floor for all in future administrations.

The oppressions of freedom at the heart of WWII led to the establishment of the current international human rights machinery. One of the first rights instruments was the 1943 Atlantic Charter adopted in 1943 by the Allied leaders. The Charter was a declaration of fundamental human rights issued as part of a call by this leadership for courage and fortitude in the midst of the carnage of the Second World War.

It led to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many subsequent covenants and treaties including the ILO’s labour standards. However, well before this, on December 16 1943 the ANC adopted the ANC Bill of Rights. This Bill of Rights pre-empted the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights by five years, the Freedom Charter by 12 years and the South African final constitution with its Bill of Rights by 53 years.

But back in 1943 the ANC and other African leaders in South Africa were wary of empty promises. People under Burgher and British rule had already been dispossessed of their land and civil and political rights in relentless, successive assaults on life and dignity since 1855. The 1913 Natives Land Act and the then still growing discriminatory legislation intended not to recognise the rights of millions of South Africans, but to take way these rights. As Dr Xuma explained in his introduction, while FD Roosevelt was arguing for the universal extension of the Charter rights, already British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had argued that their application be restricted to Europeans under Nazi occupation.

And so the African Committee on the Atlantic Charter came together to draft a response to the Atlantic Charter and to develop a Bill of Rights that the ANC adopted in their 1943 December Conference under the title of the African Claims document.

The main thrust of these claims was to have full civil and political rights restored and the restoration of land was paramount. Land provided security for people, it provided food and enterprise, and then it was taken away. In recognition of the growing industrialisation that impacted on the livelihoods of the dispossessed, the African Claims called for African workers receive the full protection of the right to social security as ‘Europeans’ had. The section on Industry and Labour demands that ‘the African worker shall be insured against sickness, unemployment, accidents, old age and for all other physical disabilities arising from the nature of their work;’ and all labour protection for industrialised workers must also be extended to ‘Africans engaged in Agriculture, Domestic Service and in Public institution or bodies’.

And the call for ‘equal pay for equal work, as well as equal opportunity for all work and for the unskilled workers in both rural and urban areas such minimum wage as shall enable the workers to live in health, happiness, decency and comfort’; has a haunting beauty.

For the 1943 ANC leadership the vagaries and whims of global leaders blew a cold wind on their lives and the ability to command any agency or autonomy for themselves or the people that they led. And their concerns about their exclusion from human rights was completely justified as history tragically shows.

Fast forward to the Social Transformation Resolutions adopted by the 2022 55th ANC National Conference. The resolution on the universal Basic Income Grant captures a sea change in the ANC about the role of social security in meeting people’s basic needs. The final resolution on the BIG affirms the importance of universal provisioning which is in line with international human rights and developmental best practices and shows a similar courage and pioneering spirit that characterised the 1943 Bill of Rights.

The full 2022 resolution recognises that the wheels of policy adoption grind slowly and so it urges government to maintain and expand the reach and value of the Covid Social Relief of Distress Grant. This grant should be immediately indexed to the Food Poverty Line of R663 per person per month and then moved expeditiously to the higher Poverty Line of R1,417 per month. The resolution does not see a BIG as a silver bullet. The resolution concludes with the call that government should develop better labour market activation strategies to link the unemployed to some form of economic and development activity.

In his closing to the African Claims introduction, Dr Xuma concluded: “As African leaders we are not so foolish as to believe that because we have made these declarations that our government will grant us our claims for the mere asking. We realise that for the African this is only a beginning of a long struggle entailing great sacrifices of time, means and even life itself.”

These words foreshadowed Nelson Mandela’s closing words in his 1964 Treason Trial statement, in which he said: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people … I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

The right to social security is a universal right that guarantees access to daily bread and to life. The ANC has a long history of social security guarantees. It is hoped that this will be a fundamental election promise in its 2024 election manifesto.

Isobel Frye is Executive Director of the Social Policy Initiative

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