Our Current Economic Policies Lead to High Unemployment (Day 2 at the ASRI Future Leaders Programme)

I woke up today thinking of Shonda Rhimes.  I am reading her book “The Year of Yes” as a library ebook, and at some point today – 20 something hours from now to be exact, whether I am done or not, the book will delete itself from my tablet. I am determined to finish. I peek at my book during breakfast, and  as we all eat lunch in a circle in the ASRI garden during our lunch break I sit with my tablet and read out passages to my husband. After work I rush indoors and sit in bed with pen, paper and my tablet unable to eat or chat except to read passages aloud until I am done reading. Afterwards I am exhilarated and emotionally spent from the read (Shonda is amazing, the book is fantastic and there are lots of life lessons that I need to ponder over further) and fall asleep very early in order to let my soul process what has just happened. Because of that I didn’t manage to blog properly about Day 2, but Shonda’s whole book was about saying yes to things that are scary and things that make your soul sing, and writing falls into both those categories. So before Day 3 starts, here are some quick reflections on our second day of the ASRI Future Leaders Programme.  On the whole, Day 2 was a wonderful, educational day with four different guest lectures who all further developed our knowledge of the Constitution and the impact of the law, and below are some of my (not comprehensive) take-aways from the day.

1) Our first speaker of the day was Mluleki Maronga from Section 27, “a public interest law centre that seeks to influence, develop and use the law to protect, promote and advance human rights.” Their name comes from Section 27 of the “South African Constitution which enshrines everyone’s right to health care, food, water and social security.” (Source: Section 27 Website) He was an engaging and interesting speaker, and one of the things he talked about was whether there is a difference between equality and substantive equality. There is, and we discussed how substantive equality is about bringing equality in tangible ways recognising that different groups have different levels of privilege and disadvantage. He quoted Mandela who said “We do not want bread without freedom, nor freedom without bread.” He also spoke about how it is important to know where we come from because only by understanding the location of pain can we focus our efforts on healing. Toward that end, he reminded us that South Africa comes from a history of “brutality and oppression” and that this oppression was manifest in at least three ways:

a) The Education System

  • South African had an act in 1953 called the Bantu Education Act that segregated schooling for black children, deemed the teaching of certain subjects unnecessary (for instance the teaching of math as a core subject) because the education system was designed for black students to simply take up what was seen as “their place in society”, and not designed to prepare them positions in the economy beyond what they were intended to take up.

b) Anti-black Urbanization

  • At the time of South Africa’s urbanization between 1904-1960, 80% of white people lived in cities versus only 32% of black people. It was a system of apartheid geography, and Mluleki read us a quote from the apartheid government saying “Cities are the white man’s creation. Black men may enter as long as he ministers to the white man’s needs, so long as he departs once he ceases to minster to those needs.” Aside from how that quote view black men, women are not mentioned at all and so you can see an erasure of women in the apartheid regime.

c) Land Dispossession

  • 87% of the population was on 13% of land during apartheid.

Other ways that this oppression manifested that came up in our discussion is through the economy (black people were unable to own means of production) and the health care system.

Hearing about these issues and our robust discussion of apartheid was a re-reminder that the impacts of apartheid can still be felt today and that in our own way, with the skills that we entered ASRI with and the skills we develop over the course of ASRI, it is so important that we contribute and do good work in society.

2) Our second speaker was Stuart Wilson, the Executive Director of SERI, or the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa. SERI is an non profit organization providing professional and dedicated socioeconomic rights and  assistance to individuals, communities and social movements in South Africa. If it is possible to have a crush on an organization I have one on SERI, and before the lecture when I looked up the organization I was amazed to see the range of work that they do. They do work on themes like housing and eviction, access to basic service, and political space and have a range of wonderful guides on their site on topics that range from resisting eviction to community organizing, to informal trading, rental housing and more. Stuart Wilson spoke about the contemporary moment in South Africa being characterized by fracture, and spoke about five or six of these fractures that exist in our societies today. The fracture I found the most interesting was the economic fracture, and he spoke about how since apartheid, poverty in the country has reduced only very slightly. Grants have expanded, but actual poverty has reduced very very little. We were vying for Brazil for the most unequal society in the nineties, but since then Brazil has invested a great deal in social programs and inequality in Brazil has been steadily reducing.

To learn more about fracture he gave us a book reference to look up: South Africa’s Insurgent Citizens: On Dissent and the Possibility of Politics by Julian Brown.

What was most interesting to talk about was that our economic framework is not designed to create jobs. South Africa has adopted the economic orthodoxy of Reagan and Thatcher, and despite public officials talking about high unemployment (in South Africa total unemployment is about 40%) the actual economic policies are meant to keep inflation down so that money retains its value. This is important for the very rich who have a great deal of money invested, but it does not create jobs. In fact, Margaret Thatcher was known to say that structural unmployment is a price worth paying to keep currency values up. Economists say that if inflation is below 20% (in South Africa it is well, well below that) the impact of inflation on the poor is very little, but it has a significant impact on the very rich because the value of their money decreases. When inflation is low interest is high, which makes it harder to borrow money. It makes it harder to spend money, it makes it harder to entrepreneurs to take risks, and the overall result is that high interest makes it difficult to generate economic growth. It hurts entrepeneurship and it has an effect on employment. (We also talked about low tariffs make it difficult to develop new industries, and South Africa has very very low tariffs, but that’s a conversation for another day)

This is all perhaps familiar if you took macroeconomics in school. What struck me afresh yesterday (perhaps it was the way he was explaining it because he really was a fantastic lecturer) though is that I’ve spent lots of time this year looking at immigration policies and South African visas, and the basis of  work restrictions of non South Africans (and especially spouses of South Africans) is based on the premise that there is high unemployment in the country, and so before any employer can hire a non South African, there is elaborate paperwork and steps required to prove that no other South African can do that job. And once that happens visas need to be applied for from one’s home country. To realize that the entire economic policies of the country are stifling employment is surprising, and makes these work restrictions and visa rules make even less sense than they did before. It also made me really want to strengthen my policy making skills as the public policy courses I took in my Masters and undergrad were a while ago, and knowing how to make evidence based policies seems like a good skill.

Our last two speakers were Michael Power from the African Legal Centre who spoke about working with communities and starting an NGO, and Jacob van Garderer from Lawyers from Human Rights who spoke about the work of LHR and the work of lawyers during the apartheid regime and how the law was used creatively as a tool of resistance.





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