You are here: Home » Blogs & features » Print features » South Africa’s poor question the power of the ballot

South Africa’s poor question the power of the ballot

Democracy was supposed to bring economic empowerment for the majority blacks of South Africa. But a decade on from its first multi-racial elections, many are losing faith in the vote.

The vote is still new to most of South Africa's blacks, but after just a decade of democracy many of the poorest among them are already unconvinced of its power to deliver better standards of living.

Veronica Rasi, a domestic worker in Cape Town says she has refused to register for next year's elections because the government has not delivered on its promises.

"What's the use of voting – it hasn't brought me any benefits. The ANC and the other political parties only know us when they need our votes – otherwise we don't see them."

While the African National Congress-led government has improved people's access to health, education and land, one hard fact remains: South Africa is still one of the most unequal societies in the world, despite the introduction of democracy in 1994. If anything, poverty has worsened.

A government audit of how far it has lived up to its responsibility to its citizens and redressed apartheid's injustices, concludes that "two economies persist in one country".

President Thabo Mbeki, in his November Letter from the President on the ANC Today website, writes: "We have made the point in the past that a defining feature of our country is that we have two economies, one belonging to the developed world and the other to the underdeveloped world."

Those in the "underdeveloped world", he adds, "do not have the skills required by the modern economy and society".

In an effort to accelerate the redistribution of wealth, the government is promoting a black business class through its new Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act. The Act, passed in September, encompasses a raft of legislation, including those advancing the transfer of skills and capital from whites to blacks in major industries.

But Terry Crawford-Browne, spokesperson for Economists Allied for Arms Reduction, which is fighting to overturn the government's purchase of over $5 billion of arms from European countries, is not impressed with those who have benefited from previous black empowerment legislation, especially those who were leading figures in the liberation struggle.

"The politically well-connected have used their contacts for personal enrichment and have little regard for the majority. It is tragic… how quickly the new elite forgot where we've come from."

When the ANC-led government first came to power, it introduced an ambitious Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) which promised to deliver social services and infrastructure to communities that were previously marginalised by apartheid.

Social grants were no longer allocated on a racial basis, free health care was made available to women and children, and new health clinics were built. The government also provided piped water supplies to seven million people and redistributed 1.8 million hectares to landless blacks since 1994.

But according to government figures, unemployment has risen from less than 20 per cent in 1996 to 30 per cent in 2003, and the number of households living below the poverty line ($60 per month) increased from 28 per cent in 1995 to 33 per cent in 1999.

Margaret Legum, an economist with the South Africa New Economics Network, a Cape Town-based think tank, says: "The ANC, with its roots deep in egalitarian political values, was joyfully elected to promote redistributive development. It promised economics that would match the political miracle to benefit everyone."

"But the government's review of the past ten years shows that even more people now live in destitution than in 1994, that redistribution of access to utilities is undermined by poverty, that utilities are privatised to foreign companies and that at the top, galactic incomes are earned."

Legum believes the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy which replaced the RDP in 1996 militates against redistribution. The thrust of GEAR is to create work for all job-seekers by liberalising the economy; to redistribute income and opportunities for the poor; and to make health, education and other services available to all. But it aims to improve economic growth by lowering restrictions on capital movement to and from South Africa, and by lifting protections on local companies so that global corporations can compete with local companies as equals.

Critics of GEAR say the government assumes that economic growth in the private sector will produce an economic elite who in turn will share the government's vision of developing what Mbeki calls the "underdeveloped" economy. But this has not yet happened.

Legum says one problem the poor face is lack of political choice. "While the Communist Party and the unions stick with the ANC, and the ANC with GEAR, it is hard to see any other political channel. The other political parties are worse in this respect," says Legum.

ANC spokesman Smuts Ngonyama protests at this criticism: "We are the party that represents the poor – proof of that is the fact that two thirds of the electorate voted for us at the last election."

Patrick Craven, spokesperson for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), says although COSATU remains committed to its alliance with the ANC, it will always campaign for policies which defend and advance the interests of workers and the poor. "That is why COSATU has consistently opposed policies such as GEAR, which damaged those interests."

Steven Friedman of the Centre for Policy Studies at the University of Witwatersrand, writing in a paper titled Equity in the Age of Informality, believes GEAR's policies are the solution to South Africa's inequality. But he says the poor must find a way to articulate their concerns and demands.

"The demands of black professional and business classes for greater racial equity compete with those of the coalition of trade unions and other civil society organisations who champion the poor.

"While poverty is not ignored, the preoccupation of the more affluent black groups tend to take precedence."

This was shown recently when the government decided last year to privatise the parastatal Iron and Steel Corporation, with an anticipated 3,000 job losses – despite strong union protests.

Particularly vulnerable are the over 1.7 million South Africans who work in the informal sector. With few resources and no union membership, they have been unable to articulate their interests effectively in the new democracy.

But there is a growing movement of non-governmental organisations which is representing and organising poor people, including the Anti-Eviction Campaign, the Landless People's Forum and the Rural Development and Services Network.

Fonky Goboza, spokesperson for the Anti-eviction Campaign, says they plan to highlight their plight at next year's elections by not voting or by rolling out a programme of mass action.

Says Veronica Rasi: "I think if we demonstrate and show the government that we are unhappy, maybe they will listen."

Mohammed Allie is a South African freelance journalist and Cape Town correspondent for the BBC's African Service.

Comments are closed.






Issues: , , , , , , ,

Related links

“What women need is economic independence”