Langston Hughes, then writing in 1951 at the cusp of the Civil Rights movement in the United States of America, might as well have been writing about South Africa, 23 years into its democracy. Statistics South Africa’s “Poverty trends in South Africa: An examination of absolute poverty between 2006 and 2015” (Poverty Trends Report) released yesterday makes for a sobering read.
The report makes apparent that South Africa is far from the ideal society envisaged by the Constitution. More than half of all South Africans live in poverty – and this figure has steadily increased since 2011. One in three South Africans live on less than R797 per month. More women than men are affected by poverty. Children and the elderly are the most vulnerable, while racial inequalities continue to define poverty as largely a black African problem.
On the other hand, the Constitution in its Preamble seeks to “improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person”. Further provisions in recognition of this call for an improved quality of life for all South Africans include guarantees of socio-economic rights, as well as the right to access healthcare, food, water and social security. These alongside the right to access adequate housing. With these provisions, the Constitution tries to ensure that the dignity of all South Africans is always intact through ensuring a safety net to catch those who would otherwise fall through the cracks.
Yet clearly, as the Poverty Trends Report shows, the safety nets guaranteed by the Constitution are simply not working as they should, or have largely failed. For millions of South Africans, these constitutional guarantees are but as useful as the paper on which they are written. This creates the real risk of the Constitution’s credibility being weakened, at a time when it is important that the nation’s citizen’s buy into the country’s founding document.
It is true that some of reasons for the results of the Poverty Trends Report, including sluggish global economic growth, cannot be wholly blamed on the government. However, kleptocracy, state capture and political instability have led to the contagion effect of deepening poverty. Other reasons, including poor educational outcomes, political instability and grand-scale corruption, can be laid squarely at the foot of the South African government. The injuries appear to be largely self-inflicted.
The Constitution sells dreams. It promises a better life under democracy. It promises to restore dignity, alongside a life where one’s potential can be fully realised. However, for the constitutional promise to work, the government must come to the table, and fulfil its constitutional obligation of respecting, protecting and promoting the Bill of Rights. A large part of fulfilling the Constitution rests with the government, and its stark failures, for many South Africans, mean yet another dream deferred.
Constitutional obligations requiring the State to take measures to achieve certain rights for its citizens remain unmet. The nation can only defer its Constitutional dreams for so long, before they begin to fester. If poverty is not alleviated and if dreams of social upward mobility continue to be stunted – then South Africa will have all of the makings of a perfect constitutional crisis.
By Ms Phephelaphi Dube: Director, Centre for Constitutional Rights
*First published by Huffington Post