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Khwezi Mabasa - 21 March 2023

60 years since the Sharpeville Massacre. Photo: Supplied

South Africans commemorate Human Rights Day annually by drawing attention to the historical and political significance of this day. Sixty-nine people lost their lives on 21 March 1960 while demonstrating against the unjust pass laws. This massacre illuminated the apartheid state’s brutality and intensified the need for using armed resistance in challenging the authoritarianism prevalent across society.

The formal adoption of a democratic Constitution in parliament in 1996 signalled a shift towards a society that protects basic political, socio-economic and civil liberties. Former president Thabo Mbeki, who delivered his lauded “I am an African” speech on this occasion, stated that the Constitution “recognises the fact that the dignity of the individual is both an objective which society must pursue and is a goal which cannot be separated from the material well-being of that individual”.

He was alluding to the importance of addressing political and socio-economic injustices simultaneously. Democratic consolidation and the substantive realisation of human rights necessitates democratising politics, the economy and other social institutions. South Africans’ lived experiences and researched policy evidence shows this human rights vision has not been fully achieved.

The country is ranked highly in several international comparative indexes on democracy and civil liberties, such as Freedom House and the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, yet it performs poorly in essential socio-economic and human development indicators. High levels of socio-economic exclusion, poverty, inequality and uneven spatial development characterise post-1994 South Africa. Unequal race, gender and class power relations underpin this exclusionary socio-economic structure, which often produces conflict in what author Karl von Holdt describes as a violent democracy.

Hence, many residents believe the human rights celebrated annually have not addressed historical injustices or improved their livelihoods significantly. In other words, systemic race, class and gender inequalities in the economic structure undermine the consolidation of democracy in South Africa. Economic and social policy shortcomings limit efforts aimed at democratising the country’s economy to address past and present socio-economic injustices.

These policy choices, based on the prescripts of dominant international financial institutions, continue to fail South Africans. The policy directives place primacy on market-led development models that elevate labour market flexibility, lessening financial exchange controls, privatising public goods and decreasing welfare support as core measures for sustained economic development.

They equally coerce governments in less developed countries to adopt rigid macro-economic targets, which focus narrowly on debt containment, attracting private investment and inflation targeting. We need alternative human rights-centred economic and social policy frameworks, highlighting the following points for transitioning beyond a market-led democracy.

First, we need broader concepts of labour and livelihood development that do not confine society to wage-led industrial labour as the only solution to the employment crisis. South Africa’s economy (historically) has been run by big corporates operating in different private sector markets and a public sector at different governance levels.

Society’s thinking about jobs and livelihoods is confined to formal wage labour or economic participation in these institutions. However, there are innovative ideas emerging about diverse policy strategies for addressing South Africa’s socio-economic crisis which provide more policy options for increasing decent work and supporting community-led livelihood strategies. These proposals factor in the effects of the nascent low-carbon and digital technologies.

In addition, there is a call for more emphasis on the care economy and its relation to expanding social security systems. Social redistribution and transfer interventions are positioned as enablers of multiple livelihood options rather than non-productive expenditure line items.

Second, the country’s labour and industrial relations regimes should protect the rights of all workers in the economy. Strengthening labour rights, institutional oversight and adapting laws to structural labour market changes are important for achieving this goal. Several industrial relations conflict case studies and continued worker exploitation illustrate that human rights violations are still prevalent in labour markets.

Race, gender, class and national inequalities determine the form and patterns of exploitation. And there are sectors, such as domestic work, retail, construction and hospitality, where labour-related human rights violations are more rife.

Furthermore, economy-wide labour market restructuring, anchored on emerging technologies or lean business models, has deepened this trend in most cases. Technology and industrial upgrading are presented as benign product market and business operation changes by large corporates. The proponents promote the efficiency, profit and production cost gains associated with these technological innovations. But the technologies are equally used to undermine labour rights, collective bargaining and lower labour costs exponentially. This is alarming because labour market disparities are the main driver of socio-economic inequalities.

Third, there is a need to draw from the policy literature about interesting economic experiments that diverge from market-led democracy policy prescripts. Alternatives such as the solidarity economy, eco-socialism, circular economy and social economy are instructive. These development models challenge market primacy, concentrated ownership patterns, ecological destruction and labour exploitation.

The alternatives encourage us to think about economic development beyond the confines of growth that is measured using market or financial indicators, such as gross domestic product and rating agency assessments. All these models place human development indicators, equal access to public goods and broader non-market social returns at the centre of economic development.

In summary, human well-being, universal human rights, socio-economic inclusion and social redress must become central economic policy targets in South Africa.

‘Disclaimer - The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the BEE CHAMBER’.


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