“Talk Left, Walk Right” Strategy Common in South African Social Policy, says UKZN Academic
Development Studies and the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) recently hosted a seminar led by the Head of the CCS Professor Patrick Bond looking at what he terms the “tokenistic” extension of state welfare, in contrast to the bottom-up commoning of services – the best example of which is the delivery of AIDS medicines.
According to Bond, South Africa’s welfare state expansion is said to be one of the leading “social democratic” achievements of the post-apartheid era. ‘However, the tokenistic features – including a neoliberal (fiscally-austere) context, the extension (not transformation) of apartheid’s inheritance, and commercialisation of state services – mean the deeper crises of society and economy are not being effectively mitigated, in spite of alternative strategies of decommodification pursued by civil society activists.’
He said South Africa was the world’s most unequal large country, according to the Gini Coefficient, with more than 10 000 protests recorded by police annually over the past 15 years. Its political leaders included many who were formidable revolutionaries, trained in exile in Moscow at the Lenin Institute or in the fires of internal struggles where conflicts over social reproduction were as important as any component of the freedom struggle.
‘These men and women did service to the cause of justice in the most liberatory sites of struggle across Africa. Many were anti-apartheid heroes, jailed and tortured from the 1960s until 1990 when most prisoners were released. They came to power on the back of one of the world’s greatest international solidarity movements, which in turn had been inspired by the near-revolutionary situation in the townships and workplaces of apartheid South Africa.
‘That is why it is so ironic that the policies adopted by the African National Congress leadership, including the extension and tweaking of apartheid-era social welfare policies, are consistent with the neoliberal economic regime that came to rule the world at the time they took power in 1994. In addition to the Government’s greatly intensified reliance upon cost recovery – now extending even to the sole megacity’s highways using a controversial e-tolling system – the state maintained what can be termed tokenistic welfare policies.’
According to Bond, who in 1994 was a final Editor of the Reconstruction and Development Programme and Drafter of the new Government’s first White Paper, the neoliberal “cost recovery” dogma has to be reconciled with state subsidies, and hence a tokenistic approach to policy offers subsidies based mainly upon capital grants, while insisting upon full payment for the operating and maintenance costs of a state service.
‘As a result, the “free basic services” policy adopted in 2001 provides a bare minimum (eg 50 kiloWatt hours of electricity or six kilolitres of water per household per month), and then allows service providers to charge extremely high rates for subsequent consumption, resulting in unaffordability and disconnections. It represents a strategy for “talking left” while “walking right” – or more precisely, “turning the tap right”, disconnecting those unable to pay.’
In his discussion, Bond set out some of the seminal experiences in the extension of the South African government’s social policy after 1994 – including the oft-praised social grant to elderly people – and he contrasted these with activist initiatives informed by a more robust decommodification logic.
‘For accessing AIDS medicines and water – and many other decommodification agendas – the South African commoning cases are both inspiring and useful. But likewise, South Africa is also instructive for assessing how to avoid tokenistic welfare policies that might have a rights-talk empowerment disguise but that do not take forward the broader liberatory politics so urgently needed in many other spheres of social policy,’ said Bond.
- Melissa Mungroo