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Social policy and citizenship in South Africa.

Date Released: Fri, 29 April 2011 15:09 +0200

Professor Robert van Niekerk, Director and Professor of Social Policy at the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER), recently shared his thoughts on the emergence and development of a social democratic tradition of thinking in South Africa, reflected in inclusive social policy proposals developed since the era of the 1940s.
Speaking at a recent Critical Studies Seminar hosted by the departments of Politics and International Studies and Sociology, Prof Van Niekerk presented “Social Policy, Social Citizenship and the Historical Idea of a Social Democratic Welfare State in South Africa” and highlighted the complexities and contradictions that can be found in some key ANC documents. 

In analysing the ANC’s policy documents since at least the 1940s, he said, you can trace the overall thinking of the times. “What you begin to see is a consistent transformational agenda centred on recognisably social democratic ideas around the universal and comprehensive provision of health, education and welfare to all citizens as a right of social citizenship protected by the state. But these ideas fail to reach their full fruition,” he said.

Prof Van Niekerk, who attended the London School of Economics and completed a PhD at Oxford on social policy and social citizenship and contestations over the development of inclusive, de-racialised social policies since the 1940’s, said a key problem with current analysis of social policy was that it was a historical, failing to consider the emergence and development of policy trajectories over time.

In studying the ANC’s key policy documents such as Africa Claims of 1943, the Freedom Charter of 1955, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP)”base document” of 1994, the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Programme (GEAR) of 1996, the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (AsgiSA) of 2006 and the recent resolutions of the ANC’s Polokwane conference, Prof Van Niekerk argued that one can begin to see ANC policy as an historical continuum and compare and contrast changes in its development over time.
“If you consider these documents historically you can see a gradual diminution of the social democratic thinking in the ANC which emerged in the 1940s under the presidency of Dr AB Xuma. Although today there is a commitment to the extension of health, welfare and education systems, this social democratic impetus is often at variance with some of the public pronouncements of government officials who use a discourse of ‘welfare dependency’,” he said.
He explained that the shift in the post-election era to a more fiscally conservative discourse under Thabo Mbeki expressed in documents such as GEAR represents a departure from the social democratic values and principles the ANC advocated in the era of the national liberation struggle.

According to Prof Van Niekerk, whose research interests include the institutional history, ideologies and understandings of social policy and social change in South Africa, whereas prior to 1994 the ANC focused on the primacy of redistributive social policy and the “good society” what can be witnessed in the Mbeki era was a focus predominantly on economic policy with social policy reduced largely to a palliative for market failures.
While the shifts from a social democratic agenda to a more reductionist growth-oriented approach may have been the result of global economic pressure, Prof Van Niekerk said he believes the changes are more a result of “specific choices of certain politicians” than influences of global economic trends.

“There was a transition moment for South Africa, and I believe at that moment, despite the evident constraints, there was begrudging tolerance for a non-socialist but more radical redistributive pathway from international actors, who would not want to be seen as blocking the agenda of the emerging post-apartheid democracy led by Nelson Mandela. But this was never exploited,” he said.

Prof van Niekerk said the promise of the “Polokwane moment”, a fundamental recapturing of the social democratic ideas, has still to be realised, and that current policy still largely reduces the problem of poverty and inequality to a problem of the poor. “What is needed is the revisiting of the social democratic agenda, which would encourage government intervention, not in relation to the poor but in relation to the wealthy and the middle class who are much greater beneficiaries of government policies through system of tax subsidies for their retirement and medical aid provision, for example,” he said.

He added that this would push the state to intervene through regulatory, taxation and other mechanisms in the market to secure social rights of citizenship, and tie in the middle class to establish equally shared public social goods which would be shared and defended by all citizens, across the class divide.
Story and photo by Sarah-Jane Bradfield
Photo: Prof Robert van Niekerk