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Wednesday
Mar082017

Is the Church failing the nation? On Minister Dlamini and South African social grants

In our 3rd year Public Theology / Ethics class today we discussed the notion of a just society in which all citizens have the right to have rights, and the resources of the nation are shared for the common good.

We considered that a just society is one where power is used to safeguard the rights of the least powerful, and where economic policy is implemented, not for the benefit of the privileged or the elite, but for the benefit and protection of poorest of the poor. 

John Rawls's theory of justice was discussed, as was God's preferential option for the poor. In particular, however, we pointed out that in a country where 83% of our citizens say that they are members of the Christian faith, denials of justice and the abuse of the less powerful are failures in our witness and work as the church! 

Minister Dlamini is a member of a Christian church. Has her denomination held her to account for her poor servanthood, for her failure to be a good steward of the trust of the South African people? Have the members of her family, her community, her Church, reminded her that a nation is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens, not its richest and most powerful?  

Christians in South Africa, we have so much work to do to witness to justice and work for the common good. We are called to do so - it is a responsibility.

I am grateful to be able to wrestle with these issues with colleagues and comrades in Christ. Thank you for your companionship on the journey!

Here is the article that prompted this post:

PAYMENT CRISIS 

Dlamini unwittingly gives grants support 

08 March 2017 - 06:57 AM Steven Friedman 

Poor people across the country owe a debt to Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini. Entirely by accident, she may have produced a national consensus in support of social grants.

Dlamini presides over perhaps the most disgraceful incident in the past two decades, an exercise in breathtaking contempt for 17-million people who receive grants. There are two possible explanations for the crisis her ministry has created for the grants programme.

Either it did not care, over several years, about making sure grants would be paid after the Constitutional Court overturned its agreement with Cash Paymaster Services — or someone sought to benefit financially from ignoring the order. Both explanations mean her department sees the people who are entitled to grants not as citizens with rights, but as a means to some other end. Which, of course, makes it all the more ironic that it has given grants an unexpected boost.

Before the grants story became national news, the programme’s only friends were a handful of academics, activist nongovernmental organisations and the poor themselves.

Elites here are divided on most issues, but not on prejudices against social grants, which are often derided as hand-outs that create dependency. The right complains that they place a burden on middle class and affluent people, who are expected to sustain others who lack their abilities. Many on the left, and within the governing party, see them as an embarrassing admission of defeat by a state that should be running employment programmes rather than giving money to the excluded.

Commentators across the racial and political spectrum join in this assault on grants, sometimes by spreading legends. A former ANC Cabinet minister claimed, without any evidence, that rural people avoided working the fields because they receive grants. A bank economist claimed that tens of thousands of women fell pregnant simply to receive grants: when asked for his information source, he said a friend told him.

Dlamini’s disaster may have changed all that. None of the commentators or politicians who have criticised her, which means everyone outside the ANC’s patronage faction, have questioned the need to pay grants. It could be a long time before it will again be fashionable to denigrate them. If the assault on grants ends, Dlamini’s scandal will be a disguised blessing for the economy as well as the poor. Grants are, with the programme to provide treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS, the country’s most important success story in the post-1994 era.

Research shows that, contrary to the urban legends, grants are not only a lifeline for poor people: they also help to kick-start local economies. Few people fritter grants away — they are more likely to use them to meet social needs. In some towns, before the grants programme was rolled out, men stood in line for a handful of mining jobs. After grants arrived, people were more likely to be standing in line at stores or, more importantly, buying and selling on the streets. No wonder that studies have found that grants are the most effective antipoverty tool introduced since democracy arrived.

One reason grants are effective is that the decisions on how to spend them are made by the recipients rather than policy makers.

One of the greatest blocks to development here is the gap between what many policy makers think poor people need and what the poor know they need. The more people are able to decide for themselves what their priorities are, the more likely is it that the money will not be wasted.

An end to the campaign against grants might also help the debate to focus on the real world. As this column has pointed out, millions of South Africans will remain outside the formal job market for a very long time, whatever we do and so they will require support to enable them to live productive lives.

Finally, the political costs of harming the grants programme may be severe. Research shows, predictably, that people who receive grants value them and would be angered if they did not receive them, so protecting grants is essential to maintaining a semblance of social calm. The fact that no one in the debate has denied that failure to pay grants would be a catastrophe suggests that this reality too is now accepted.

For all these reasons, if Dlamini’s indifference to those who receive grants has made them a source of national pride and their protection a priority across the spectrum, she will have made, despite her best efforts, a real contribution to the campaign against poverty.

• Friedman is research professor in the University of Johannesburg’s humanities faculty

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