A Universal Basic Income campaign is part of a…


For a very large proportion of South Africans, paid work is neither a viable nor sufficient basis for a dignified life. Official unemployment, according to the so-called extended rate, is over 46%, and almost a third of people with paid work does not pay enough to pay basic living expenses. It’s in a country struggling with three deadly pandemics – AIDS, TB and Covid-19 – and already hit by floods and droughts brought on by climate change.

Current models of economic and social policy fail to protect millions of people against hunger, misery and despair. Hence the growing demand for a universal basic income.

A growing alliance of grassroots and non-governmental organisations, trade unions and research bodies are demanding that the state transform emergency relief grants introduced earlier in the Covid-19 pandemic into a full-fledged Universal Basic Income (UBI). They produced careful cost estimates and describes funding opportunities to support this push.

The ANC could also consider a limited basic income guarantee.

Poverty reduction and security

There is strong evidence to support the expectation that a RUB, even if set at a low amount, will reduce poverty and provide some financial security for people with low or no income.

I discuss this in my new book, In the balance: the case for a universal basic income in South Africa and beyond.

There are Nope proof that it would lead to increased spending on “temptation” goods (alcohol, cigarettes, narcotics) or that it would only subsidize idleness.

Rising incomes of poor households should increase demand for basic goods and services, which can boost local production and jobs. If linked with other forward-looking strategies, a UBI can be part of a safety net for communities hard hit by climate change-related disasters. And that can be part of the support that workers and communities will need as they transition to a low-carbon economic model.

A UBI also contains other transformative promises. It can allow us to Choose paid work more freely, rather than being forced into dangerous and poorly paid jobs (under the threat of hunger and homelessness). It has been likened to a kind of “permanent strike fund”, a reserve that can help us not to take a job out of sheer desperation. This could benefit workplace organizing and other efforts to improve wages and working practices, especially for those on low incomes in the labor market.

Need changes the battle lines

As desperation and instability increase, it is becoming clear across the board that new forms of social support are needed. Even an old The head of Goldman Sachs expressed his support of a basic income in South Africa. Instead of dogmatic opposition, the battle lines are shifting towards defining the purpose, design and scale of a basic income.

So we need to be clear about what we mean when we require a UBI. Equally important is how we frame and promote it.

A truly universal the basic income will attract strong resistance from the business sector and sections of the state, including the national treasury. Reaching and defending it will require social and political forces strong enough to prevail against this opposition. And this will require reshaping the “common sense” we use when defining and weighing the claims we have on each other, the state, and the common good of our society.

Scoping of the UBI request

In a society like South Africa, the demand for UBI obviously meets an almost desperate need. But how to manage demand? Is this a call for “charity”, for the state to “give” aid in extreme circumstances? Is it a requirement rooted in the duty of the state to “guarantee the means of existence to all members of society”, in the words of the French revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre? Is it a claim arising from rights enshrined in a Constitution? Or is it a claim for what is owed to us, for a share of the common wealth?

A UBI is loaded with thought-provoking proposals about the responsibilities and rights that connect us in society. The demand upends deeply held beliefs about the role and status of wage labor in society, and about the hierarchies of value we attach to different types of work (paid or unpaid).

The demand therefore goes against prevailing economic and social orders. He questions the idea that our dignity and our destiny are linked to the sale of our work under any conditions and at any price. It involves new ways of thinking about the roles and duties of the state, and the claims that citizens can legitimately make to their state and to the commons.

A radical perspective would present a UBI as a dividend of the wealth collectively produced in society. This implies that society as a whole is entitled to a legitimate share of the total social product. A RUB then becomes income paid to people as members of a society that collectively produces wealth.

For the Greek economist Yanis Varoufakisthe framing directs the debate beyond arguments about who ‘deserves’ aid: society claims the wealth derived from it and ‘that claim becomes a dividend, a stream of income that goes to everyone’.

Seen in these terms, a UBI implicitly recognizes that wealth is socially produced (by the labor of people, paid or unpaid, and social institutions) and that it depends on the commons (most obviously, non-human nature) and state-funded infrastructure. Wealth is then private.

This understanding emphasizes the collective nature of a RUB, rather than seeing it simply as a multitude of separate payments to individuals. It is also in tune with the powerful political traditions of South Africa.

“Just Due”

Presenting a RUB as a “social dividend” seems particularly appealing in a country where the economy was built on systemic expropriation and exploitation during the colonial and apartheid periods, and continuing afterwards. Similarly, it can be seen in part as a form of “fair dues” or compensation for unpaid work regularly performed by women.

This profoundly changes the implications of UBI’s demand and implies a different relationship between citizens and the state. It becomes a demand for the democratization of the surplus – and it poses a political challenge to the small minority who commandeer the wealth produced in a society. It involves a sustained act of asking, rather than seeking concessions. This type of UBI can become a wedge that helps disrupt the hierarchy of claims between capital, citizens and the state.

The framing of the UBI request will be at least as important as the realization itself.

Risk of flashback or capture

It is crucial that progressives approach a UBI not as a stand-alone political solution, but as part of a larger, long-term project of change and empowerment – ​​because there are risks attached to it. Once in place, a UBI could become politically too expensive to abandon, but fiscally too expensive to maintain. In the absence of strong progressive support, this could provide a pretext to suppress other social rights.

Separated from a strong political and social movement for change, a UBI runs the risk of backfiring, being captured and reused in ways that fuel exploitation, desperation and inequality.

Even once achieved, a UBI will remain a contested and politically unstable intervention. Ultimately, the impact and fate of a RUB will depend on how it fits with other processes of economic, social and political change, the forces driving them, and the ability of those forces to champion the desired changes. SM/MC

Hein Marais is the author of In the balance: the case for a universal basic income in South Africa and beyond, published by Witwatersrand University Press. The book is available in bookstores, online and in open access To download.


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