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Introduce the BIG Idea Mr President, the Time is Now

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Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA) – Without a doubt, President Cyril Ramaphosa epitomises the empowered elite, a person who is at ease among the historically privileged. Yet Ramaphosa is also a leader who has promoted pro-poor administrative acts such as the R350 grant, says the writer.

By Isobel Frye

THIS has been a most remarkable past few days as the world has watched at least two leaders fall, their rules brought to an end by the protests by ordinary people, people protesting that their leaders have brought their economy to its knees and that the soaring cost of living has made their lives unaffordable.

Beyond rhetoric, people have said that under the watch of their leaders, food and fuel are no longer affordable for ordinary people, the electorate. And these leaders have walked.

It is powerful signalling for a leader to resign. It is complete capitulation, an absolute weakness when a leader gives up. The leader does not believe that they have any chance of convincing their followers that tomorrow has any chance of being better than today.

A Sri Lankan protester who walked 130 km to the capital Colombo said: “I came alone all this way because I believe we need to see this through. This government needs to go home and we need better leaders.”

What kind of leadership has President Cyril Ramaphosa shown towards the poor in South Africa?

Poverty rates have been climbing steadily since before Covid-19. The last Poverty Trends study showed an absolute and constant reversal in the gains made in defeating poverty, since 2011.

A quarter of all South Africans live below the monthly food poverty line of R624 per person. And more than half of all South Africans have fallen below the upper bound R1,335 per month poverty line. Forty-five percent or 12.4 million people are unemployed, with almost 80 percent of them in a state of permanent unemployment.

Everyone is holding their breath to count the cost of the current energy crisis.

While annualised GDP growth for 2021 was 4.9 percent, real GDP still lags pre-Covid figures, and the economy is already 1.8 percent smaller than in 2020. Decline is the antithesis of growth. The beginning of 2022 saw South Africa as deeply affected by the Ukraine war as most countries. Food and fuel price hikes are hitting everybody’s pockets painfully. In May 2022 the SA Reserve Bank increased the repo rate to 4.75 percent, the largest of four consecutive rate hikes as the orthodox monetarists focus myopically on keeping the inflation rate below 6 percent while unemployment advances above 45 percent.

Without a doubt, President Ramaphosa epitomises the empowered elite, a person who is at ease amongst the historically privileged, but he is also a leader very intentional to put at ease the class whose accumulation is firmly rooted in pre-democratic South Africa.

He is a person who has tasted power. Few arguably have held more power than President Ramaphosa when he rose as first General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1982.

He controlled the mining wealth of South Africa through the hungry, angry, radicalised and for the first time, legally organised mine workers utterly loyal to his command.

Which of course is why the sense of betrayal was all the keener for workers who believed that he owed mine workers a special duty of care. A historic allegiance to protect, surely more than wealth and property, the lives and well-being of the miners brutally killed by police on 16 August 2012 at the Marikana mine.

Later, President Ramaphosa apologised at Rhodes University in May 2017 for his actions in the build-up to the Marikana deaths, and more specifically, for his choice of “inappropriate language”. President Ramaphosa, the skilled constitutional negotiator.

As the NUM proclaims: “The history of the NUM is a history of class struggle … embedded in the inherent contradictions that exist between capital and labour.”

And the need to accommodate this contradiction perhaps lay at the heart of then-President Zuma’s 2014 Sona commitment, the beginning of the first post-Marikana administration, when he dedicated his term to tackling three interconnected dangers of low wages, wage inequality and violent and protracted strikes.

The sharpened laws that controlled strike actions and protected property, even sanctioning the use of private security firms to protect private property, were leveraged against the passage of the National Minimum Wage Act through the next three years of Nedlac negotiations. But the minimum wage is a critical gain for the most vulnerable workers in South Africa.

The three-year negotiating process was extremely expertly negotiated by then deputy president Ramaphosa, leader of government business in Nedlac. The process was stonewalled on many occasions, but the former deputy president was adamant that a national minimum wage would be adopted, one that protected the most vulnerable against the perpetuation of apartheid wages, wages that were still the equivalent of slave labour.

President Zuma was the political head of the process, but without the former DP driving the process, after work, over weekends, until an agreement was reached, it is not clear that a law would have passed. This Act vests wide-ranging power in the Minister of Employment and Labour on behalf of the Cabinet to investigate wage inequality in South Africa and to shift the minimum wage progressively towards a living wage.

The second pro-poor administrative act that President Ramaphosa promoted and protected was the introduction of social grants to working-age people during the Covid-19 lockdown, the R350 grants.

In the days running up to the hard lockdown, many people in and outside the state worked around the clock to develop a system of cash grants to meet the basic needs of the working-age unemployed and precarious workers. The Constitution guarantees the right of poor people to receive cash grants if they can’t provide for themselves, but government had always limited grants to non-working age people – poor children and older persons.

Repeated calls for a universal Basic Income Grant dating back to the 2002 release of the recommendations of the Committee of Inquiry into Comprehensive Social Security, were dismissed with the mantra that government preferred to create jobs for people than to give them money to meet their basic needs.

An admirable principle, and one that we all would agree with, but in the cold light of day, the total number of people unemployed in South Africa rose from 5.9 million in December 2008 to 12.5 million in December 2021. And government had consistently refused to extend social security grants to working-age poor people, alleging that giving money to poor people undermined their dignity.

And then in April 2020, the president announced the introduction of a cash grant to poor adults during the lockdown. The grant is only half of the food poverty line value, and much less than the call for a basic income of R1,335 per person per month. But in the 2020 announcement a transformative vision of life for millions of people was seen, and the seed of things to come.

This grant has been protected against repeated threats by successive ministers of Finance. And the constant protector of this grant and the seedling hope for a better BIG has been the president.

Even to a previous minister of finance who poured cold water on a tabled call for a universal basic income grant, the president said that it wasn’t clear that the BIG idea would not outlive the minister’s political term. A neat deflection made by the President in defence of the BIG idea, and correct, it appears.

The class interests of the poor and working-class are not the class interests of the President in 2022.

Has he left a pro-poor legacy? Certainly. Could he learn from other global leaders and strengthen the gains of the poor in coming days?

The time is ripe to roll out a universal basic income grant: the need is overpowering, the benefits have been well researched and the financing has proven itself. Introduce a BIG Mr President, it is the right thing to do and the right time to do it.

Isobel Frye is Director of the Social Policy Institute.

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