Can social security build a more inclusive society?

Current social security reforms provide necessary opportunities to ensure the dignity and social protection of all citizens, writes RATULA BEUKMAN.

Recent developments in the reform of retirement provision policies suggest that continued work is taking place within government towards the building of a comprehensive social security system for our country.

Sceptics have variously construed these reforms as a ploy to pacify the electorate, another step down the slippery slope towards a welfare state, or simply more handouts for the poor. However, civil society has read these developments as an important and long-overdue response to the recommendations of the 2002 Taylor Committee. The current reforms should be seen as a genuine opportunity for progress towards a comprehensive social security system that delivers on the promises of our Constitution, and which is in line with international labour and human rights treaties and laws.

Our Constitution guarantees every person who lives in South Africa the right to access social security, including social assistance, if they are unable to look after themselves or their dependents. Like decent and accessible health care and good quality basic education, social security is a right that needs to be realised if we are to build a society which is cohesive, more equal, and values human dignity.

However, social security on its own is clearly not the answer to all our problems. It is not going to reverse the structural poverty in our society or bridge the yawning inequality gap that exists between rich and poor. It won’t make a major dent in our high unemployment figures either. But research conclusively shows us that it has, and will help to lessen the unacceptable burden of poverty endured by so many South Africans.

Our current social security system, although de-racialised and more accessible since 1994, is still premised on the full employment guaranteed to the white minority under apartheid. This system was designed from a European or Anglo-Saxon social security paradigm that does not take into account our high levels of unemployment, inequality and poverty.

The reform proposals currently being debated provide us with the space to find unique solutions for our particular problems. The Black Sash and other civil society groups will continue to advocate for reforms that are more inclusive of those who are still excluded from the current system, like the unemployed and working poor.

Unemployment in South Africa is as high as 36% nationally – and much higher in some provinces. Much work remains to implement economic policies that enable decent work for the majority of our people, never mind full employment. For this reason, the new design must be underpinned by principles of social solidarity and universalism, and not be dependent on every adult finding regular work.

The work of the Black Sash provides insight into the experiences of those excluded from South Africa’s current safety net, and the impact of this exclusion. It also provides evidence supporting the positive effects of assistance to counter the devastating consequences of unemployment, poverty and inequality. Research shows that government social spending, particularly on social security and grants, reduces poverty, increases access to education and employment, and improves health outcomes.

Critics argue that South Africa’s social security infrastructure is well-developed in comparison to that of other countries in Africa, Asia and South America. They contend that instead of more grants, government should spend its limited resources on job creation.

Certainly, decent work is an irrefutable priority. In fact, we believe government and business must take this obligation more seriously, as millions of unemployed adults, skilled and unskilled, are desperate to find work. Decent work provides dignity; it provides security for a family, and means that people are able to contribute towards, rather than depend on the social security system. But until the one in four unemployed adults in our society have decent work, the Black Sash will continue to argue that their right to dignity is most effectively guaranteed through social protection and assistance.

Both the social insurance and social assistance components that make up our current system exclude the working poor, unemployed and millions of vulnerable workers.

The social insurance component of our current social security system (which includes private retirement schemes, unemployment insurance, compensation for occupational injuries and diseases as well as road-accident cover) only provides for those who are formally employed and have made contributions.

Although the social assistance component of our current system does deliver some financial support in the form of grants, it is only to our most vulnerable – children, the disabled and elderly. Almost 70% of grant recipients receive the Child Support Grant of R250 per month. Other grants include the Foster Care Grant of R710 a month, as well as the Care Dependency Grant, Older Person’s Grant and Disability Grant of R1 010. Some further assistance is available in the form of the Grant-in-Aid (R250) for those in need of special care, and the Social Relief of Distress Award, which is a temporary intervention for those facing undue hardship.

We have long argued for domestic and other vulnerable workers employed for less than 24 hours per month to be included into the Compensation of Occupational Injuries and Diseases Fund. Currently, public servants, irregular migrants, the partially employed and those with learnerships or apprenticeships are excluded from the Unemployment Insurance Fund. Most low-paid workers find it difficult to contribute to a pension or provident fund for retirement whilst informal sector workers who are able to afford to save towards their retirement do not have the benefit of an employer contribution. Adults aged 18–59 do not receive social grants, nor do people who are chronically ill.

The Black Sash has also called for greater support in the form of a Basic Income Grant for the unemployed. At the moment, unemployed adults are forced to rely on the grants of older people and children.

Many South Africans are chronically ill and live with HIV/AIDS, respiratory diseases and diabetes, which impacts on our health resources and poor households. We have also lobbied for the introduction of a Chronic Illness Grant as an effective health and anti-poverty intervention.

Consideration also needs to be given to including destitute foreign nationals who do not have refugee status in this system.

It is not an easy task to provide social security to everyone at the same time, yet we are committed to pursuing its progressive realisation and prioritisation within available resources.

At the very least, our society needs to come up with a clear road map for how we are going to realise this important constitutional right.

Ratula Beukman is the advocacy programme manager of the Black Sash.

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