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BIG: Social security and people’s well-being need to be a political project

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander/African News Agency (ANA) – The ANC policy resolutions on the Basic Income Grant (BIG) is an interesting and progressive departure down this road of seeing where people are in their current existence, says the writer.

By Isobel Frye

Last week, The State of Social Protection in the Context of Covid-19 in Southern Africa was released by the Southern Africa Social Experts Network (SASPEN).

This 10-country study highlights best practices in social protection programmes adopted by countries in response to the social and economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on people within SADC. In the same week, the 6th National Policy Conference Report of the ANC was released.

It is encouraging to see a congruence in social policy from these two very diverse sources in affirming the need to develop policies that meet people where they are as being critical to a thriving country and region.

The stark message of the SASPEN report was that formal social security programmes were developed around social and societal institutions that have little relevance for the majority of people in SADC countries.

Social security is a universal right of income security. Contained in all human rights treaties since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to social security means that no one should go without sufficient income to live a decent life.

The systems that were developed in Europe last century to institutionalise income security were premised on full employment with contributions for unemployment or retirement made throughout a worker’s career by workers and employers into a pool of money that cross-subsidised the labour force.

In addition, tax-funded assistance schemes were available for the few that fell right outside the system, but this was the exception and not the norm, as full employment with single-digit levels of unemployment was and, for many countries, continues to be the norm.

However, as we apply the principle of secured income to SADC, unemployment, precarious work, self-employment, and informal livelihoods appear to be the norm.

In colonies, formal social security systems were introduced for the colonial administration, and usually, a small spill–over of the system was created for settler communities. There was no universal inclusive system for the whole population. For the majority of the ruled population, the rulers referenced the traditional systems of social safety nets that had existed in pre-colonial eras as being sufficient for the well-being of the people they ruled over.

After World War II, the colonial powers began to introduce universal social security schemes in their own countries as part of the reconstruction of developmental states in Europe. However, the newly liberated states were not encouraged to do the same, and in fact, under the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the IMF in the 1980s and onwards, equivalent per capita spending on the welfare of decolonised populations were actively prevented through loan conditionalities.

What is the current state of social security across SADC?

According to the SASPEN report, the most prevalent form of social security cover lies in the mandatory pension systems for the civil service. Self-employed people, informally employed or the unemployed, have very little cover.

South African policymakers frequently claim that SA has one of the highest levels of non-contributory social assistance (cash grants) in the developing world. This report shows a different reality. Looking at pre-Covid data, the report reveals that Botswana had the greatest number of social assistance programmes – 10 – that covered 43% of the population. Namibia had 9 programmes, and South Africa, 7. After Namibia, a greater percentage of Malawians were covered by social assistance schemes (39%) than 31% of South Africans.

The report also found that since Covid, 16 new social security programmes were introduced, and 24 programme design changes were introduced. The report strongly recommended the development of social assistance schemes that provide support for the self-employed, informal and migrant workers in the region.

And, of course, as Women’s Month in South Africa draws to a close, it is critical to recognise that women are heavily over-represented in all of these vulnerable groups.

Social security and people’s well-being need to be a political project that asserts the centrality of human dignity in all development planning or discourse. Covid-19 showed us that human well-being could not be an afterthought to a country or a region’s economy. Human and economic well-being are integrally linked and need to be constructed as interconnected. Social protection and social security policies are not just about poverty reduction. They are the only way to build a stable and thriving society.

The SASPEN report describes the vulnerable in the SADC countries as people who are often highly atomised from any kind of formal organising institutions such as worker trade unions.

So how do we create policies that meet people where they are, unorganised and vulnerable?

The ANC policy resolutions on the Basic Income Grant (BIG) released this week is an interesting and progressive departure down this road of seeing where people are in their current existence.

The ANC Social Transformation Commission report recognised as a point of departure the overwhelming existence of poverty and unemployment faced by the majority of people in South Africa. In response, the resolutions on a BIG – a regular cash grant – are located in an unambiguous commitment to universal access to income security for all.

This reflects a welcome departure from previous targeted minimalist programmes for the ‘poorest of the poor. The resolutions reflect that with a universal policy, financial benefits will be ‘clawed back from the middle class and the elites through the tax system, but no one will be denied eligibility. This is a principle that needs to find greater resonance across the region as people’s vulnerabilities are often fluid, and effective policies need to take cognisance of this.

The second shift in the ANC BIG resolutions is that they are drafted to address the society we are in, recognising that many people are currently involved in economic activities that would thrive with a little bit of support, rather than trying to create new jobs for the 12,4 million unemployed adults in SA.

The draft resolutions recommend the second tier of social grants that are intentionally predicated on recognising the existing unpaid care work undertaken mostly by women, providing enabling and incentivised support programmes to grow the existing informal activities and new SMME development.

These two very different documents released in the last week provide reassuring empirical evidence that many people are recognising that we need to transform our economic realities by providing support to people where they are and that principles of rights-based development such as income security don’t deserve to be rejected because of different contexts. Instead, this is where policy work needs to begin.

Isobel Frye is the Executive Director of the Social Policy Initiative.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.