More than three years ago, at the height of the Zuma presidency, Professor George Devenish argued that a basic income grant could satisfy the constitutional requirement to cater for the basic needs of South Africa’s very poor. In this column, published in the Mail and Guardian, he tried to stimulate debate on the issue but there were no takers.
I refer to the excellent letter penned by Motsomi Maubane entitled: “R1 million grant to each citizen can empower all” in the Mail and Guardian of January 18-22, 2015. This is wishful thinking. A basic income grant is far more realistic and deserves serious consideration and debate. Furthermore, it could be introduced incrementally to make it more affordable.
I am of the view that such a grant is urgently needed for both political stability and social justice in South Africa. Although, inter alia, the Basic Income Grant Coalition, Cosatu and the DA are in favour of this grant in one form or another, and the ANC, the government, are opposed to it and have refused to implement it, indicating that it is unaffordable.
The Coalition has called for a universal, non-means tested grant. The reason for this is that a means test has proven to be a barrier to the very poor and destitute accessing social grants. A basic income grant is a measure that could give effect to the constitutional requirement to cater for the immediate basic needs of an estimated 13 million persons who are living below the poverty datum line in South Africa. It is submitted that it is a constitutional imperative that some meaningful measure of access to social security is required for these persons. A basic income grant is one means of doing this.
The basic income grant is a bold and innovative proposal that would give social assistance a major role in poverty alleviation. Although it is not a panacea, the proposal of a basic income grant goes beyond the residual function of ad hoc social assistance as a social safety net and could facilitate the involvement of poor people in South Africa in the economic development and upliftment of South Africa. This would occur through what is known as the second or ancillary economy.
Those who propose a basic income grant perceive structural poverty and inequality as a fundamental reality and challenge in the real politik of South Africa. I firmly believe that a basic income grant could play a seminal role in addressing subsistence needs in our society, thereby empowering the poor and destitute to begin to participate in the economy. Given the inordinate inequalities in the economy and society, a major social assistance programme like a basic income grant is also a mechanism for income redistribution that will also promote greater economic equality and social justice and stability.
The Basic Income Grant Coalition has carried out research which shows that the grant is the most effective policy option for eliminating destitution and reducing poverty. It gives everyone a real stake in South Africa’s future and has the potential to transform South Africa.
It can be argued that at this time, when fiscal discipline and austerity is the order of the day, this kind of grant is unaffordable. However, the grant could be introduced incrementally over a period of five years. If the government is able to envisage spending more than a trillion rand on a questionable programme involving the Russians to develop nuclear electric power in the future, the economic feasibility of the grant deserves to be investigated. In my view what is required is a vigorous and informed debate between the different role players on this crucial issue in order to induce the government to commit themselves to the principle of such a grant. I have tried to kickstart such a discourse by raising the issue at party political meetings and by discussion in the media, but alas, without any success.