Vol.3 No.23, 12 August 2003

Does this Explain Rejection of the BIG?

By Margaret Legum

Which father, asked for food by his child, would give her a stone? So, rhetorically, goes the question. By extension when people ask for access to incomes and are told to get a job, that is the equivalent of giving them a stone. Telling people to get a job is telling most them to do something that is impossible. A callous reply.

The gap between jobs and job-seekers is growing. The latest South African figures tell us that only a third of our working age population is employed. Every year there are five times as many new people looking for jobs as there are jobs available. And a growing proportion of those vainly seeking employment has matriculation or tertiary education. So education is not the answer either: they are effectively delivered a second stone after battling for the prized entry-point. It is a cruel illusion.

This phenomenon is not limited to South Africa, or even to Africa. It is world-wide. Internationally people with degrees and professional qualifications and technical skills are scraping money for basics in the informal sector. Contractual employment - through jobs that pay regularly and predictably - is being lost everywhere. Growth through hi-tech enterprise - the only kind that survives - is always jobless growth. But political leaders everywhere continue to foster the illusion that full employment is possible if we become competitive. None succeeds.

That is the reason for the international Basic Income Grant (BIG) movement. We have to find a way to get income into the pockets of people who will never find employment in the large industrial and commercial sectors. A BIG directly distributes income from the minority that benefits from capital-intensive enterprise to those who cannot. A BIG moves the focus from employment to livelihoods.

Our government has done more than most to acknowledge the problem. It came to power on the wings of aspiration to transformation. It was totally unacceptable that political liberation should be accompanied by continued poverty and destitution, profoundly embedded through the centuries of racism. Sadly that vision was sapped by the ideology that gave us, world-wide, neo-liberal 'fundamentals' and structural adjustment. Which, in turn, restricted our freedom to redistribute access to income.

And, since our government is not characterised by callousness, it set up a massive inquiry - the Taylor Commission - into a comprehensive social security system. If we could not (yet) spread the fruits of the economy to all our people, how could we at least deal with absolute poverty and destitution? Taylor commissioned and conducted in-depth research into every aspect of every possible solution; and came up with a BIG as the only sustainable solution.

Taylor showed that not only is a BIG the only way to get income into the hands of all poor people - since the other social grants like pensions and child-grants reach only a section - but it is easily the cheapest and most efficient. It makes the least call on scarce public service resources. It is also the only one likely to be developmental, because it enables people to climb out of the dependence of destitution to start their own small livelihoods and develop local economies. Unlike temporary employment for some people on public works, it is a permanent subvention to everyone, so they can circulate the money and make it grow locally.

An international breakthrough seemed likely. Once again, South Africa would show the way in the break-through stakes. So it is especially disappointing to learn that the government has set its face against a BIG. Why?

It seems the government has concluded that a BIG would create dependence. It would encourage people to live forever on that R100 a month. They would lack the ambition and the know-how and the gumption to do anything with it than hand to mouth existence. Many of them would simply drink it or smoke it, leaving their pathetic dependants even worse off than before. A BIG would do people like that no favours.

Does that characature of human nature remind you of anything? It reminds me of the way that White people generally talked about Black people: feckless, irresponsible, dependent, unable to plan ahead, easy prey to drink and drugs. Never pay them too much, otherwise they will stop working and lie about until they run out of money. With no inherent capacity for inventiveness, they must be told what to do by someone else (White, naturally), and need constant supervision. You can't trust them, especially with money.

It reminds me also of the way middle class people in the UK talked about the working class, when the child allowance was to be introduced. It would encourage sloth, drinking and wife-beating. It would produce an underclass of lazy demoralised creatures, constantly producing children to get more child allowance. In fact it produced a generation of healthier children, women less dependent on rotten marriages, more people working at things they liked doing. Of course a few drank it; but gross exceptions make poor law.

It reminds me also of the works of Franz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth and Black Faces, White Masks shows us how easily the victims of oppression adopt the self-image that has been laid upon them over centuries of denial of their own cultures. In South Africa - and internationally - the unchallenged White culture crept like a cancer into the cultures of Black people. Is it possible that this internalised oppression is responsible for the rejection of the BIG?

Nothing else makes sense. There is no way unemployed, landless people can be more dependent than they are now. Rejecting it because some might abuse a BIG is like suggesting we should abolish schools because some louts use them to sell drugs. The BIG is more affordable than the alternatives now being proposed, and gets to more people. At a stroke it would bring hope and joy to millions. And it is a step towards the long-term solution of self-respecting livelihoods for everyone.

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