SOCIAL SECURITY: Editorials: Edition: June / August 2020

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Transformation
at the grassroots

The extended grants to poor communities have potential far
beyond handouts, Sipho Shezi* argues. Properly handled,
they can spark widescale reconstruction.

The relief interventions currently spearheaded by various actors, including government, are excellent in demonstrating the indelible goodwill deeply entrenched both in the psyche and social fabric of SA society.

Our social security system, now ranked amongst the most successful in the developing world, has a single agenda as its underpinning element. It is the fundamental socio-economic re-engineering of our society in which the conditions of underdevelopment — characterized by mass poverty, inequality and unemployment — are eradicated. This is what the system aims to achieve.

The litmus test of all we do during the Covid-19 crisis period and its aftermath will be the degree to which all our interventions enable us to gravitate towards the attainment of this strategic objective. It is in this context that I believe the irony of the Covid-19 crisis and its aftermath could once more usher SA’s reputational emergence at the top of the world; paralleled with our achievements in recognizing human rights undergirded by the constitutional order.

We need to make sure that every layer of social relief that we put in place during this challenging period, in its own right yet inter-dependent with other interventions, is a contribution to social investment.

It must have a headstrong, straitjacket approach and deliberate intention to rig the SA economy from the state of peril in which the Covid-19 crisis found it. Depending on how we manage, sequence and execute the myriad interventions, both at state and civil-society level inclusive of the private sector, we could blow or advance this opportunity. It’s our greatest opportunity since President Nelson Mandela laid the foundations in 1994 for irreversibility of democratic gains and national reconciliation. Yet we still have the highest socio-economic inequalities in the world, framed along racial privilege. Unless we get them to belong to our past, we face a scenario that constitutes humongous risk to peaceful co-existence and social harmony.

At present we have 30% of the population practically dependent for their livelihood, food security and nutrition on the social assistance system. This does not include those that are reliant on other statutory social support mechanisms such as the Unemployment Insurance Fund and Road Accident Fund. It does not need rocket-science or super-intelligence to conclude that the direct and indirect impact of the Covid-19 crisis will quadruple the level and extent of dependence on the social assistance system for a considerable period of years, if not decades. This is not about painting a gloomy picture. It is about facing a graphic reality.

The solution, as during the struggle against apartheid, will have to be rooted in SA’s apartheid legacy of economic exploitation, social stratification and political repression. Given that we disburse R220 billion (US$12 billion) per year in transfers to poor/low income communities or households facing destitution of one form or another, we have an outstanding opportunity to demonstrate how the building of a strong, dynamic social economy can serve as a bedrock for economic reconstruction.

The quantum of our social transfer disbursement could be the catalyst not only for social engineering in favour of accelerated socio-economic development and empowerment of the low-income communities, but equally it could serve as a springboard for the long-sought financial inclusion of these communities (TT July-Sept ’19).

More than this, it provides the impetus to revamp the developmental role of the financial sector as well as the invention of appropriate financial management systems and practices that truly satisfy and meet the needs of these low-income communities.

*Sipho Shezi, a retired director-general of public works (then the youngest DG appointed by Nelson Mandela), resigned some years ago as special advisor to Social Development minister Bathabile Dlamini. He has long warned that the social security system, as practised, is unsustainable.