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  • Introduction: social policy post 1994 in South Africa
  • Steven Friedman (bio) and Robert van Niekerk (bio)

If the reigning consensus on the South African left is to be believed, a study of attempts to address poverty and inequality in the democratic era will be about absence, not presence of re-distributive policy interventions–it will discuss how this task was avoided, not how it was tackled. Since the adoption in 1996 of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR), this consensus insists, social policy has been set on a ‘neo-liberal’ path in which the role of the market has increased at the expense of government action against poverty and inequality (Desai 2003, Terreblanche 2002, Alexander 2002, Adelzadeh 1996, Bond 2005, Fine 2001, Marais 2011, Saul 2005). This consensus has become virtually hegemonic–to challenge it is to abandon ‘common sense’ or, worse, to identify with free market economics.

But, like many consensuses, this one is subject to challenge. While the evidence does show that the post-1994 order has left the structure of the economy largely intact, contenting itself with opening existing arrangements to black participants (Webster 2013, Friedman 2015), the claim that policy is ‘neo-liberal’, that it retrenches the role of the state in the provision of welfare in favour of the market, does not seem to reconcile with the observed realities as reflected in the evidence and the papers in this volume. In the past two decades, government social programmes have expanded–at least 60 per cent of non-interest spending in the national budget is allocated to social spending and programmes ‘to alleviate poverty’ (National Treasury 2015:iii). The growth of social grants is an obvious example but so are housing programmes, the provision of free anti-retroviral medication to millions of people living with HIV and AIDS and the extension of bulk infrastructure to [End Page 1] urban areas neglected by apartheid (Ferreira 2015; see also papers in this issue by Groenmeyer on social grants and Friedman on the courts and AIDS). A collective bargaining system which extends significant rights to workers and trade unions has survived intact. This is in sharp contrast to those parts of the globe where neo-liberalism, or ‘austerity’, has retrenched government social interventions: an obvious example is contemporary Europe, where cuts in social provision are assumed to be inevitable (eg Margaronis 2015) and in which labour rights have been shrinking.

However, to show that social interventions have expanded is not also to claim that they have been effective in addressing poverty and inequality or even that this was their intention. A critic of government social policy argues that, while there is ‘no lack of pro-poor social assistance’ its impact is ‘disappointing’ (Seekings 2011: 39) even though key areas of government social spending were ‘progressive’ in the sense that they redistributed resources to the poor (2011: 37). Whether policy has reduced poverty is hotly contested in the literature. Some studies find that it has been reduced by projects and policy (Bhorat et al 2014), others challenge this view (Meth 2006). But all agree that the post-apartheid period has seen ‘a significant rise in aggregate income inequality’ (Bhorat and Van der Westhuizen 2012: 9). Since race remains South Africa’s most salient social and political fault-line–and it is a core goal of government policy to narrow racial inequality–it is also significant that inequality remains racialised (Bhorat and Van der Westhuizen 2012: 11). Critics of post-1994 policy are on much firmer ground when they point to its failure to address the legacy of minority rule.

These two realities suggest that characterising the trajectory of the past two decades as ‘neo liberal’ fails to grasp its essential dynamic, one in which social provision has expanded rather than contracted but this expansion has often not produced effective action against poverty and inequality. It also accords undue emphasis to the existence of an internally coherent, planned strategy with ‘neo-liberal’ intentions without considering the political limits of such a strategy in terms of political legitimacy, the effects of popular resistance (‘service delivery’ protests) and the associated political burden of redress on the state. While some programmes have achieved...


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