Picture: African News Agency (ANA) – The South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) payment system and the cards used.
By Isobel Frye
In the run up to the 2024 national and provincial elections, South Africans are likely to become highly fatigued with the ins- and- outs of coalition politics. South Africa appears to have an incumbent ruling party reluctant to actively contest an election it fears it will not win outright, and two main opposition parties for whom the idea of ruling seems less attractive than opposing. It will be interesting to see how the new political parties manoeuvre a treacherous and sometimes deadly stage. This is also the first election that will be contested by independent candidates after the amendment to the electoral act that was directed by the Constitutional Court in June 2020.
A national social security system is required in every modern state. How that system is constructed will both reflect the current soul of a society, and determine the fullness of its possible future.
In this column we will scrutinise the existing and emerging social security policies of key South African political parties as an aid to understanding the core principles that drive and distinguish contesting parties. This should also serve readers as an aid in identifying which coalition possibilities might fit well and which parties are so far apart in their core values that a marriage should be avoided at all costs.
While of course the idea of a Basic Income Grant with all its variables – and electricity solutions – may prove to become proverbial election footballs, the broader principles and objectives of a comprehensive social security within a society is a greater litmus to testing the more existential questions that should drive sober political critique.
In this first column we provide key concepts or ideas that will be used in these future assessments of a political party’s social security policies. Social security policy fundamentals should transparently flow horizontally into skills development and labour market policies and upwards to macro -economic fiscal and monetary policies in a coherent manner.
What should drive a sustainable national social security system?
According to Dr Wujczyk, in the 2016 International Labour Organisation (ILO) The Right to Social Security in the Constitutions of the World: “what should be considered in identifying the scope of generally accessible social security benefits. It seems that, above all, an appeal should be made to human dignity.”
Human dignity accords with one of the fundamental rights in the South African constitution, with the right to life and to equality. That needs to lie at the heart of any party’s principles to pass constitutional muster.
We need to develop a matrix of necessary principles to allow for an objective assessment of adequacy as well as an inter- party comparison. For that we shall look to the founding international documents on social security.
Key principles of social security have been forged through some key international instruments including the 1952 ILO Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention 102 and the UN International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights of 1966.
According to these instruments, social security is the guarantee that everybody should have sufficient income to live a decent life, across all stages of life and despite the unavoidable accidents that life throws at an individual in society so that each person can live a dignified life.
The premise is a collective one: we are as strong as the most vulnerable person in a society.
A state should by law therefore develop, implement and continue to modernise a national system that mandates people to provide for themselves when they are no longer earning through contributory social insurance systems. The state must create a system that forces people to save for when they can’t earn their daily bread. In addition, the state must provide an underlying social protection floor for people who fall through the gaps of society either because of high levels of structural unemployment, or due to personal difficulties such as where someone is born with disabilities that prevent them from working. This second pillar of social security is made up from social assistance or state funded cash benefits to the vulnerable to ensure that no one lives in destitution.
The tax system is used to redistribute from those who have surplus, to those in their vulnerability in need of assistance. There is a circularity in this that keeps society and the economy ticking along.
The traditional risks against secure incomes that national schemes are obliged to provide protection for are loss of income due to old age, maternity leave, unemployment (short term UI benefits and longer social assistance grants for people who have depleted their funds or never contributed), cash payments for short term sickness cover and longer term disability income where people cannot hold a job, and family and child benefits to ensure the autonomy and integrity of the family as the core of well-being, and benefits for survivors and orphans where the primary breadwinner dies.
These standards were set a long time ago, and while their application was universal, they were set by industrialised European countries who had almost full formal employment.
The international standards drove social and economic policies in these societies for decades. Many countries adopted them when they were economically broken after the world wars and slowly built up the shared prosperity that we still see today, although the globalisation of finance and the rise of anti- egalitarian neo- liberal principles that seek profit over the public good have eaten away at national systems in every country.
A critical characteristic however was that the state and not the private sector must direct and drive the whole enterprise. National social security schemes should not be administered to provide extractable profit to shareholders, but for the public good, and any surplus should go back into the scheme.
South Africa inherited a highly exclusionary social security system in 1994 that shared many characteristics with other former colonies, but with its own Apartheid stamp. Most colonial administrations provided a tiny social security system for public servants who were responsible for running the country. Under colonial Britain and Apartheid this was set up, but the private sector also stepped in to provide parallel systems that covered the growing localised white population that worked outside of the state.
These often began as mutual or ‘friendly’ societies, a bit like stokvels, but grew into the financialised giants of Old Mutual, Sanlam and others, and these players and these funds wield a vast influence and power that is unaccountable to the national development needs today.
South Africa is a developing country facing unsustainable high levels of un-and under- employment.
Contributory systems are for the very few, and that raises key questions for plans for financing for comprehensive schemes. That is why for many people a redistributive decent basic income grant provides an immediate solution that gives space for medium to longer term pillars to be refined and implemented, including building appropriate interfaces with public works schemes, as well as targeted programmes that stimulate jobs and link the unemployed to new jobs in positive rather than punitive ways.
In the coming weeks, we will explore the various policies that the main political parties have published on their principles of social security, including the universal basic income grant, as we move towards the election manifesto season.
We hope that this will ensure that critical decisions about how you use your vote are well informed by party values, so that we all get the government(s) we deserve in 2024.
Isobel Frye is Executive Director of the Social Policy Initiative.