In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Ideology and social policy:'handouts' and the spectre of 'dependency'
  • Charles Meth (bio)


As so many commentators have observed, alongside the AIDS pandemic (and related to it), poverty, inequality and unemployment are the most daunting challenges facing the South African government. To begin dealing with the poverty part of that dreaded triad, the Committee of Inquiry into Comprehensive Social Security in South Africa (the Taylor Committee) recommended that a basic income grant (BIG) be introduced. The primary purpose of the BIG, as the Committee understood it, was to address the problem of destitution in South Africa, consequent largely upon mass unemployment. Although it was argued that it would have developmental effects, the BIG was not seen as being able to eradicate poverty - the poverty gap is simply too large to make politically feasible the redistribution through the fiscus required each year to do so. The BIG can veradicate most destitution, and lift as well, some substantial number out of poverty.2

Cabinet's initial reception of the Taylor Committee's recommendation was lukewarm.3 Demands for a basic income grant (BIG) have, however, not yet been rejected outright. Instead, the BIG is either slighted; damned with faint praise; or worried over as being either (a) being unaffordable, and/or (b) likely to cause 'dependency'. On the former score, there is little cause for concern - the BIG is affordable (Meth 2003a). The current package of measures designed to address poverty - education and training, limited grants, the social wage, and the extended public works programme (EPWPs), is clearly inadequate.4 It is this package, rather than the BIG that should be causing anxiety. If government were serious about reaching all of the poor with this package, especially the EPWP part of it, it would definitely not be affordable. Despite the failure so far, of government to [End Page 1] look seriously at the BIG numbers, the debate over those numbers, when it finally takes place, will at least revolve around familiar unknowns. Opponents and proponents alike will have to justify the claims they make, claims whose foundations will be laid bare for all to scrutinise. Not so the assertions made about (welfare) 'dependence'. Here we enter a terrain where values collide with murky 'facts'. It is this 'worry' with which the paper engages, attempting to separate 'fact' from 'value'.

Although there is growing acceptance of the notion that evidence must be the basis of government policy, there are grounds for believing that as far as the BIG is concerned, neither the President nor the Minister of Finance has, as yet, applied his mind to the facts of the matter. Following the July 2003 lekgotla, President Mbeki is reported to have said that:

We discussed BIG some time ago and we have said our approach should evolve through a comprehensive social system that includes old age pensions, disability grants and a free public health system.

If you give everybody a R100 a month (sic) it will not make a difference. The notion that one single intervention will help is wrong. To introduce a system which indiscriminately gives R100 to a millionaire and a pensioner does not work.

(Mail & Guardian, August 1-7, 2003:6)

This extraordinary assertion is not inconsistent with other official pronouncements (or silence) on the matter. The Cabinet statement on the July 2003 lekgotla reproduced in ANC Today contains no reference at all to the BIG.5 The lekgotla confirmed the direction spelled out at the Growth and Development Summit (GDS), from whose agenda, BIG was excluded. In the passage cited above, the President manages, within the compass of a mere 70-odd words, to make five major errors. Here they are:

  1. 1. 'Evolving a comprehensive system'. A social system that excludes more than half of those suffering severe income poverty is NOT 'comprehensive'. It is a mistake to think that a partial substitute measure for social grants (public work programmes) can make the system 'comprehensive'.

  2. 2. 'R100 per month will not make a difference'. R100 per month would close about 70 per cent of the poverty gap, and would reach every poor person. No other social programme can achieve this. Table 1 below shows what a difference it...


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