IN AN article last year, The Zombie Argument that Refuses to Die, Oxford English professor David Womersley lamented the existence of spurious arguments that refuse to surrender to statistics, research and reason. No matter how often they are dealt with, they will not disappear. He wrote: "No matter how often they are — and you might think — overwhelmed by evidence to the contrary, these arguments find new advocates, are reanimated, get unsteadily to their feet, and stumble groggily along."
One of the most popular South African zombie arguments — despite a lack of evidence — is that social grants are responsible for high unemployment. The argument goes that cash grants discourage the jobless from looking for work, by giving poor people money they have not "earned". Proponents argue that this money would yield better economic and social benefits if it were directed towards job creation.
There are at least two problems with this argument. First, it is underpinned by condescending imagery of a lethargic poor class and completely ignores the structural nature of South Africa’s unemployment. The mismatch between the jobs created and the type of labour supplied to the job market cannot be resolved by simply withholding a social protection from households affected by the result.
Second, the argument is rooted in a popular urban myth of the existence of a basic income grant or a similar equivalent. South Africa has Africa’s largest social security system, a combination of social services and direct cash grants. The social grants include old-age, disability, foster care, child dependency, child support and social relief grants. The largest in terms of number of recipients is the child support grant, which had 11.1-million recipients in September 2012 and is expected to grow to 12.1-million by the 2015-16 budget period. The closest South Africa comes to a basic income grant is the social relief grant, a package that consists of temporary income and other forms of relief, which is projected to cover just fewer than 300,000 people in the 2015-16 budget year.
South Africa spends about 80% of its social assistance budget supporting people over the age of 60 and children who are younger than 18. Very few recipients would fall under the economically active population, and most sensible citizens would agree that they should complete their schooling. In fact, one of the benefits of the child support grant is exactly that — recipients are not only receiving better nutritional support, they stay in school longer. This in turn supports South Africa’s early childhood development and education objectives.
A complex pot of social challenges means that we must carry this weight for some time. Even with signs of improvement, our education system will take some time to yield satisfactory outcomes; saving rates are unsustainably low and working adults save too little for a comfortable retirement; and despite the gains in the fight against HIV/AIDS, many children will still grow up without one or both of their parents.
Our rights-based system puts a legal obligation on all of us to provide social protection to the most vulnerable members of our society. The real South African tragedy is that, as things stand, many young people who were once somehow protected from poverty through the child support grant graduate into absolute poverty. For some, the breakout from poverty will arrive on their 60th birthday.
We cannot wish away our social obligations towards each other, which are the very foundations of our state. We cannot sentence people to a life of both poverty and unemployment. However, how we choose to meet our obligation must be both affordable and sustainable. Our aim should be to reduce the proportion of our budget spent on social protection through higher and job-creating economic growth.
Social protection grants are no silver bullet against the three challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment. They do very little to reduce inequality and do even less for unemployment — but that is not their role. We need significantly higher economic growth to eradicate poverty and inequality, but this takes time. To argue against social cushioning that makes life bearable by those most affected by these challenges is callously unconstitutional.
• Ndlovu is the author of A Bad Black’s Manifesto.