Anti-Social Behaviour.

Attacks on the social grant system operated by the Department of Social Security are becoming quite a common phenomenon. Only two weeks back, no less a person than Deputy President Motlanthe denounced social grants, saying that they promoted dependency. A little more recently, a journalistic article by Moloetsi Mbeki appeared in several newspapers making essentially the same point (which he had earlier made in his facile little book Architects of Poverty). To show that this trope is prevalent even at the lowest intellectual levels, the Mail and Guardian’s Thoughtleader website recently housed a similar diatribe. It appears that open season has been declared upon social grants. One wonders when the season will close.
Social grants are given to the poorest, most vulnerable, most needy people in our society. They are provided to the chronically ill, the physically disabled, and mothers with children, generally below a certain income bracket. These grants are fairly small in actual quantity supplied to each individual — generally, less than ten rand a day. However, even these apparently insignificant sums loom large for people living in rural areas on very little money. A few hundred rand can supply the necessities over and above what can be scratched from a smallholding — a replacement blade for a hoe, a little meat, some spices, an opportunity to go to town one day a month. One can’t overestimate the desperation lived by unemployed, prospectless people in rural areas far from access to transport.
So what is the justification for denouncing these grants?
The core argument is that they are quite expensive. It is difficult to assess how many people are getting the grants, but a figure of some 14 million has been put forward. Social security and welfare used some 16% of the budget, up from 11% in 1997. This isn’t a gigantic increase, and of course not all that money goes on social grants — but what does go on social grants generally goes very effectively. Still, it takes a lot of money.
The contrast usually made is between the possibly 14 million social grants recipients and the 6 million-odd income tax payers. The argument here is that since there are more than twice as many social grants recipients as there are taxpayers, therefore the country can’t afford to have social grants.
This makes sense provided that you failed Form 5 arithmetic. If not, you would understand that income tax payers provide about a third of state revenue, the balance being provided by corporate tax and by value-added tax, of which there are 50 million taxpayers. You would also understand that whereas social grants recipients receive a couple of thousand a head per annum, income taxpayers — because the income tax only applies to relatively wealth people, the richest 12% of the population — provide tens of thousands a head per annum. In other words, comparing taxpayers with social grants recipients is like comparing cabbages with Brussels sprouts.
It seems obvious that no sane person would make this mistake. (Indeed, there is no sign that the social grants system is putting a major strain upon the national economy.) Evidently, either the people making this argument are mad, or they very strongly want to put an end to the social grants system.
A somewhat less selfish and stupid argument is that the social grants system is demeaning. To be a social grants recipient is to be identified as very poor, obviously. That could be humiliating. However, poor people need not resent to receive help. Most poor people need help, and indeed want it. Therefore it does not seem likely that granting a poor person a small stipend is going to turn that poor person into a greedy lazybones incapable of personal action. Of course, some might be affected that way, but then why stop at poor people? Why not argue that increasing the pay of CEOs promotes a dependency culture among CEOs which discourages initiative? The same arguments would apply if they were taken at all seriously.
It is possibly true that some kind of dependency culture has arisen in South Africa. However, there is no sign that it has arisen out of the willingness of the government to give money to the poor. On the contrary, to the extent to which it has arisen among the poor, it has appeared because the poor are unable to take initiatives for themselves. This is not because of the inadequacy of the poor as people, it is because there are no opportunities for the poor to take action; there are no jobs and there are few occasions for job creation or even for mutual aid. The whole tendency of South African popular culture since the end of the struggle has been to undermine social solidarity, and this seems to have had its desired effect. In the underclass which makes up half of our population, people with skills and opportunities disappear from their communities in the same way that middle-class people with a rich university education disappear from the country. Overall the tendency is for opportunities to diminish and for the people who might create opportunities to go elsewhere instead. Against this situation of decline, social grants are nothing more than a Band-Aid to cover an amputation — but doing something is better than doing nothing.
This doesn’t stop some commentators from claiming, on the basis of no evidence, that people are deliberately becoming disabled in order to get disability grants. The claim is particularly that young women are falling pregnant in order to get child support grants — there was much talk of “Mbeki babies”, since the social grant system was being associated with President Mbeki in order to secure its discrediting among the affluent classes who hated him. This runs against actual experience; teenagers tend not to think in such terms, especially not about their sex lives. It would be impossible to do meaningful research on the subject, but it seems probable that the reality is that women falling pregnant to get the grants is approximately as plausible as people contracting HIV in order to get the grants. What this reveals is not the fecklessness of the poor, but the willingness of wealthy political propagandists to sink to incredible moral depths to discredit policies which they don’t like, and the willingness of the public to allow those propagandists out in public without pulling their trousers off and chasing them naked down the high street beating them with quirts. (The Creator has met some of those propagandists and regrettably took no such action, so is as guilty as anyone else.)
This more or less takes care of the arguments against. Of the arguments for, the obvious one — that giving to poor people can help them get themselves out of poverty — has already been made. Another is the simple one of justice: Since we have dramatic inequality, should we not at least do something, even if it is obviously inadequate, rather than nothing? (It is, incidentally, interesting that the affluent NGOs who promote the Basic Income Grant are virtually silent on the social grant system, which has expended to the point at which it is a mini-BIG; the reason for this seems to be that campaigners for a BIG, including the DA which is merely pretending to support a BIG whereas its actual plan is to reduce social security spending, are doing so out of political motives and have no interest in helping the poor.) In short, criticism of the social grant system should rest on the fact that it is inadequate, not that it exists.
A possibly more salient point is that the social grant system is one of the most effective economic stimuli the government has ever come up with. Every cent given to the poor under the social grant system is spent, is spent in South Africa, and most of it is spent on goods or services produced in South Africa. Therefore, the social grants system is a huge boost to South African retail, services and manufacturing. Money which the middle and upper classes might otherwise invest overseas is instead pumped into the South African economy. It is not only a matter of equity; social grants are an excellent Keynesian stimulus which probably have helped the economy survive the depression every bit as much as banking regulations did.
There remains another argument raised by Moeletsi Mbeki; that social grants are a political stunt. Mbeki contends that the ANC gives people social grants as a bribe, to make them vote for it. (Here he is plagiarising from Venezuelan right-wing propagandists against President Hugo Chavez.) It is obvious that social grants are not merely a political stunt, and it is probable that even if social grants are a political stunt, they are nevertheless desirable. However, are they a political stunt? Moeletsi Mbeki has not bothered to answer this question, preferring to assume it — his constituency is chiefly white people who hate the ANC, and therefore proclaiming that the existence of social grants is good for the ANC is a good way to get his white audience to hate social grants.
It is hard to determine the answer. On one hand, poor people might be grateful to receive social grants, as they are grateful to receive healthcare, education, electricity, water or housing. (Again, this might be used as an argument against healthcare, education, electricity, water and housing.) On the other hand, poor people living in impoverished areas without any prospect of employment might blame the government for their problems, and being given a modest stipend might not compensate for that at all. Therefore it is possible that the social grants, by themselves, are not significant. One would have to go out and ask people, and they might not give an honest answer, and since the vote is secret, how can one know the answer?
There are, however, some hints. In 1999 just over 16 million people voted, supposedly some 72% of the voting population (this may be based on inaccurate census data), and 66% of these, or 10,5 million, voted ANC. Thereafter, the social grants system was introduced, and in 2004 just under 16 million people voted, supposedly some 58% of the voting population, and 70% of these, or 11,1 million, voted ANC. This does not exactly suggest a surge in support for the ANC as a result of the introduction of social grants. Subsequent to 2004 the social grants system expanded considerably, and in 2009 just under 18 million people voted, supposedly some 60% of the voting population, and 66% of these, or 11,9 million, voted ANC. In other words, there is no sign of a significant increase in ANC support as a product of the introduction of social grants. If the ANC introduced social grants in order to bribe the population to vote for them this does not seem to be working, and one must wonder why, if this was the motive, the party persists.
Of course, an alternative might be that the ANC’s support would plummet were it not for the social grants. It is, however, odd that the proportion of the ANC’s vote has remained so stable through the evolution of the social grants system. If this is due to the social grants, one has to assume that by some mysterious coincidence, the social grants has led the ANC’s power-base to appear stable when in fact it would have declined without the social grants. Here we are getting into hypotheticals which can never be tested and which would probably be congenial to Moeletsi Mbeki. But the reality seems simple; there is no evidence that social grants play any real role as a political bribe; this is simply a desperate smear against the idea of social grants.
The reason why so many people are denouncing social grants is painfully obvious; rich people want to pay less taxes and therefore they want to cut public spending. Social grants spending is targeted on the poor. Rich people are not poor. Hence rich people want to cut social grants spending so they can invest more overseas and buy themselves more imported cars and whisky. The next time anyone discusses social grants, it should be easy to test their motives.


One Response to Anti-Social Behaviour.

  1. Dawie says:

    Interesting article …

    I personally don’t have a huge “problem” with social grants (although as normal I am a rather huge grudge tax complainer … ). What scares me is the fact that the ones crying for it to be removed don’t see that if the poor of the poor get really nothing, and that there is no opportunities for them, that they will have to resort to crime to stay alive …

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