Of all the sad things we’ve learnt this year, surely the saddest news came on Tuesday, when Pali Lehohla, our Statistician General, told us that absolute poverty is on the rise in South Africa, and that our children are suffering more than any other group.
This is our clearest call to action yet. Each passing day, more South Africans slip into poverty, more children fall into deprivation. It is time for a new beginning and that new beginning can’t come soon enough.
More than half of our country lives in poverty. One in four South Africans cannot afford to feed themselves adequately, let alone any other necessities. StatsSA’s Poverty Trends in South Africa report reveals that between 2011 and 2015, the proportion of people living in poverty (below the poverty line of R1138 per person per month in 2017 prices) increased from 53.2% to 55.5%, equating to 30.4 million people. Of these, 13.8 million people (up from 11 million in 2011) live in extreme poverty (below the food poverty line of R531 per person per month), lacking adequate nutrition.
And of course, the burden of poverty is almost entirely borne by black people, courtesy of our deeply unjust apartheid past and the failings of a callous, corrupt ANC government.
Shockingly, 67% – two in three – of South Africa’s children live in poverty – a much higher proportion than for any other age group. Over 13 million children, almost all of them black, are growing up in poverty, their early childhood development compromised and their life chances stunted. Millions of children go to sleep on an empty stomach and sleep badly as a result; they go to school on an empty stomach and perform badly as a result. Some 15 000 children per year are admitted to hospital for severe acute malnutrition, of whom around 1 500 die from it. South Africa will never flourish while so many of our children are caught in this cruel poverty trap.
We must never, ever accept poverty as normal. Absolute poverty must always be absolutely unacceptable.
Tackling and eliminating poverty must be our top priority as a nation, the yardstick by which we measure our success. The DA in national government will take a two-pronged “protect and empower” approach. We will give as much protection as possible to those who remain in poverty, while moving as quickly as possible to provide the opportunities that empower people to lift themselves out of poverty.
A strong social safety net is a social and moral imperative, but the fact is that in SA, the key driver of poverty is large-scale unemployment. There are more people receiving social grants (17 million) than people with jobs (16 million) in SA. Clearly, the only sustainable solution to the challenge of poverty, is to bring poor people into the economy en masse, through inclusive, job-creating economic growth.
In national government, we will be relentless in seeking to grow income-generating opportunities and to improve poor people’s access to these opportunities. Over and above its capacity to empower the poor, a thriving economy also provides the revenue that funds greater social protection. Without a thriving economy, our welfare system itself is at risk.
How will we grow an inclusive, thriving economy? By growing people’s capacity for economic activity through improving access to quality education and healthcare. By de-concentrating our economy and supporting small, medium and micro enterprises. By investing in rural development and giving people title to the land they live on. By providing the infrastructure that connects people to each other and opportunities – broadband internet, transport networks; and that underpins all economic activity – water and energy infrastructure. By ensuring that state-owned enterprises are a benefit rather than a cost to the public.
But undoubtedly, the single most important requirement for a thriving South African economy is political will: a state that is genuinely committed to the wellbeing of the many rather than the enrichment of the few; a state that is committed to democratic accountability; a state that inspires confidence through coherent and stable policy; a state that understands that inclusive economic growth and true broad-based economic empowerment are mutually reinforcing; leaders who seek to unite rather than divide and who are genuinely committed to righting the wrongs of the past; leaders with a social consciousness so that they do not squander resources that should go to the poor. I am confident that the DA will lead a state such as this; that we will unite the nation and work hard, together, to rapidly reduce poverty and build the bright future that every single one of our children deserves.