Policymakers are faced with many urgent and competing challenges with very limited resources. They also have to balance the priorities of the government, business, labour and communities which sometimes pull in different directions. In this context, it is easy to lose the big picture of the direction in which the country hopes to move.
Recent work we have undertaken reveals several important big picture issues. Firstly we have shown that there is a broad level of agreement about what comprises a decent standard of living in South Africa that should be enjoyed by everyone. This is an important and powerful starting point when considering how to tackle the country’s challenges.
Second, our work has revealed the extent to which the vast majority of people in South Africa don’t have a standard of living that is regarded as decent. This means bluntly that the country is in crisis, with most people surviving in sub-optimal conditions rather than thriving. People’s dignity is not being protected and respected. People are unable to participate fully in society and are being denied their social rights of citizenship. So something urgent has to be done to put an end to poverty.
Third, there are a small number of people who do enjoy a standard of living way beyond the socially derived standard of living, and this sets up tensions that put society under stress. There is plenty of evidence from studies internationally that inequality exacerbates ill health and violence and places social relations under strain. We see continuous outbreaks of violence against the vulnerable in society including non-nationals, women and children. So something urgent has to be done to reduce inequality.
Fourth, different subgroups of the population have very different standards of living. Our work revealed that possession rates of the socially perceived necessities (items essential for a decent standard of living) follow certain trends. Younger people, female-headed households, black people, people living with children, people in households without anyone in employment, and people living outside urban formal areas are generally worse off in South Africa. In short: policies need to prioritise these groups.
Fifth, there is widespread anger at the extent of inequality. As part of another recent study, we analysed a question in the nationally representative South African Social Attitudes Survey in 2017 about reactions to income inequality. A very high 82% of respondents said that they were angry (extremely, very, moderately or slightly angry) about the income differences in South Africa. Anger was expressed by both rich and poor. Two-thirds of people who define themselves as finding it “very difficult to make ends meet” were either extremely or very angry. For better-off people (those who said that they find it “very easy to make ends meet”), two-fifths said they were extremely or very angry about the income differences. The extent of reported anger about inequality implies a considerable openness to something being done about it, and urgently.
So what should be tackled urgently? The decent standard of living work provides us with a set of issues that people have identified as essential. Some relate to housing and possessions, some to features of the neighbourhood, and some to social networks. Resources are limited, but this work provides information about what people want. Local government elections are coming up in 2021 again. Policies anchored in this big-picture vision that sets a decent standard of living centre-stage are needed now.
Authors: Dr Gemma Wright, Director of Research at the Southern African Social Policy Research Institute (SASPRI); Jabulani Jele, Research Officer at SASPRI
This article was first published in The Citizen.