“The poor will always be with us …”

By Heinrich Gerwel (drawing on earlier work by GJ and HJ Gerwel, 2009)

Heinrich Gerwel

The University of Pretoria’s Future Africa campus this week, 14-18 October 2019, hosted its inaugural Programme for the Study of Culture and Social Transformation (CAST) under the leadership of Prof Siona O’Connel so as to draw together creative practitioners, scholars, public intellectuals, policy makers and post-graduate students from a wide range of disciplines. I was invited by the Faculty of Humanities’ Artist in Residence, Mike Van Graan, in my capacity as a development scholar, to discuss poverty and policy in South Africa. This granted me the opportunity to draw on a 2009 seminar paper jointly authored with my late father, Jakes. The UP seminar was well attended for the post-lunch session of a four day Seminar Series, on a Friday; the debate was informative, informed and lively. The following serves as a reflective synopsis and culmination of a ten year writing project; a cathartic closure of sorts.

We as people are seeking concrete solutions to our social problems. The rhetoric emanating from our ivory tower of neoliberal certainty, ‘Capitalist Realism’ and an atomistic approach to social relations no longer cuts the proverbial mustard. Pluralism in approach of how to practise economics and allowing for interdisciplinary influences could prove helpful. This speaks directly to the international call for more pluralism in methods and methodologies for practitioners of academic economics. Allow me the indulgence to cite the preface of the 2009 paper verbatim (it is in the voice of the older, more moderate portion of the collaboration).

We recognise that this paper may fall somewhat outside of the pattern of presentations in this seminar series as it is not primarily an analysis of the socio-economic phenomenon of poverty or of policies pertaining to poverty alleviation and eradication.

I am not an economist or development specialist, but one once trained in literary theory, criticism and discourse analysis. The issue of poverty, and more fundamentally inequality, has however been a central and driving theme of one’s thinking and preoccupation even in those non-economic disciplines.

Like many of my generation and background, socialist theory, and particularly its Marxist version, was a formative influence in one’s analysis and understanding of “poverty” and one’s views and approach on how to address it. And I use the word “address” deliberately to capture both of its meanings: address the issue not only as in tackling it, but also and equally important as how to speak of it. Marxism and socialism generally concerned itself with the radical eradication of social inequality of which poverty was (but) a manifestation; my kind may therefore have been educated in an intellectual and discourse mould that falsely assumed (or hoped) that poverty is a temporary phase in human history, to be finally overcome by the radical eradication of social inequality.

Now we must ask as a post-Marxist question: will “the poor” in fact be with us always, and is the quest for the eradication of poverty a quixotic dream? And what does that then mean for “the poor”, who ever and how ever they are?

In this paper we shall be asking, amongst other things, the question – as much to ourselves as the other participants and interlocutors in the seminar – about how “the poor” (as listening and spoken about human subjects) and “poverty” (as a disembodied social occurrence) are being addressed. How are they talked about, how are they assumed to be listening and responding to, how are they regarded as a voice in this on-going discussion?

Those are obviously the somewhat irrelevant questions of a literary scholar. I was privileged to be assisted in background research as well as writing by a younger and more contemporary person who is a post-graduate in development studies and one with informed views other than my own antiquated (Marxist) ones on the theory of human development. His voice in this presentation will be audible to the discerning, but I take final responsibility for the opinions, valid, contestable and fallacious, presented here.

There are those fleeting moments in every person’s life that endure in memory; reading these words from an old struggle stalwart brought a tear to my eye. One of the many in my father’s case, which he mused over often, was of a Cabinet meeting after a change of guard in the ruling party following its national conference. Almost every minister speaking in that first Cabinet meeting after the change of party leadership (though of course not of state president) seemed to feel themselves obliged to rhetorical genuflexion to “the poor”, whether they were dealing with nuclear science, ground water, international trade or local issues.

“The poor poor,” he murmured to himself apparently.

“There was, I must confess, something autobiographical to that sigh of semi-cynicism and resignation. I descend from what is in current parlance the poorest of the poor – a farm labouring family in rural Eastern Cape. What, I wondered then and subsequently often, would my mother and father have thought about these efforts to make them the objects of political programmes? And all of the people of my rural childhood, that community of Xhosa-  and Afrikaans-speaking people who laboured and communed, who suffered and survived, who sacrificed and sustained?”

Who are the poor and how are they identified and addressed in current discourse? Is inequality addressed or is it a question of the poor being identified as a social presence that will inevitably always be there and in need of some special political welfare? How much is the “the poor” being rhetorically exploited rather than addressed as human subjects? I would venture a reluctant but resounding not at bloody all! We are no closer to these simple ideals than ten years ago and in fact, in many ways, South Africa has seen retrogressive social transformation.

The voices of the alternative stakeholders in poverty discourse have been made more audible through high levels of public engagement around poverty, and have been championed by amongst others, former President Nelson Mandela and Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu and their respective philanthropic trusts. However, what is actually required is for our communities to take charge of our own development – defined by us, for us. South Africa has also seen a very large increase in the rate of corporate social investment in the early 2000s, and there was also a high level of individual giving to charities, especially to religious organisations addressing various states of vulnerability. Anecdotally, this too seems to have declined.

There is however disagreement about both the pace, and the choice of paths to end poverty, including the allocation of state resources for this end. Within civil society widespread and ongoing campaigns exist (such as the People’s Budget Campaign and the Basic Income Grant Campaign) that seek to engage with the state around its allocation of resources and design of its macro-economic policies on the basis that they do not create enough space to adequately address the needs of the poor and the working poor. Within the tripartite alliance of the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the latter two bodies have adopted a number of resolutions calling for greater redistribution of existing wealth, including through a more redistributive progressive income tax system, as part of an ultimate realisation of socialism in South Africa. This commitment too seems to have evaporated within the proliferation of populism, tribalism and nativism.

But there is a growing movement of non-governmental organisations which is representing and organising poor people, including the Anti-Eviction Campaign, the Landless People’s Forum and the Rural Development and Services Network. While there is general consensus among South Africans that government is committed to addressing poverty, there is dismay that nothing seems to be really working to turn poverty and inequality and the resultant social and economic exclusion around. The voice of “the poor” is audible, but whether this overwhelmingly large voice is actually receiving the attention it deserves is the pertinent question. How can we assist to amplify this clarion call for a hearing? For a voice that resonates with the sound of a promise delivered, a dream no longer deferred?

Unfettered capitalism appears to have run its course and has proven that a profit maximising agenda at all costs is not only economically and socially unsustainable, but morally reprehensible. This is especially so if one has the interest of promoting universal equality at heart. The imperative lies with us, not to reduce “the poor” to some statistical anomaly that needs to be rectified. Are we not all one human family that should care for, and about, each other?

The Human Development Paradigm or “New York Consensus” (championed by Sen) aimed at supplanting the now hopefully defunct “Washington Consensus”. Sen is often criticised for being overly philosophical. However, we desperately need a human and humane element to dealing with poverty and inequality not with paternalistic judgements, but in a fully inclusive and truly democratic manner. This is meant to ensure that people are provided with what they want, so they are free to live the lives that they choose to lead. Just to reiterate our ideological stance on poverty and inequality, ideology being understood through its Gramscian explication, it should be stated here that the most significant and oppressive thing about poverty is the stratification of society into relatively static and separate groups. Perhaps the often misunderstood statement of a First Century anti-imperialist, religious fundamentalist revolutionary from the contentious Israel/Palestine region needs a post-Marxist solution. “The poor will always be with us”, but surely we should strive to put an end to this abhorrent state of social and economic deprivation and in this manner, justify our claims at being an advanced and humane species.

We, the nascent intellectual class as an alternative mobiliser of social consciousness to the neo (and more so, classical) liberal cabal in South African society, are necessitated to actively and constructively engage the so-called poor. It is an imperative if we are to have any relevance in the emancipation of this society from the shackles imposed over centuries of institutionalised and denigrating subjugation and de-humanisation. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of our forebears by looking for divisions where similarities would be the more appropriate subject of investigation. What is required, above all, is for us to realise that kindness is the key to social cohesion. Let us make this our mantra: when faced with a choice on how to react, choose to be kind. Even when faced with somebody one considers “poor”, let kindness remain your go to response; we are all just people trying to make the best of our circumstances under trying conditions, no matter what those conditions may be.