South Africans are not yet free

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PICTURE: Brad Cibane – My grandmother’s house in KZN.

Like any South African remotely interested in politics, I have paid little attention to the debate about the meaning of freedom and whether the democratic constitutional revolution was the cause of freedom for all of South Africa.

Like many other lay South Africans, I have until now compartmentalized my understanding of freedom to political, social and economic freedoms. This is an easier way to avoid the intricacies of the social, economic and political cobweb. In this way, I can acknowledge the economic hardships facing many South Africans without denying or belittling the achievements of the post-1994 democratic constitutional revolution.

The fitting of freedoms into neat little compartments is the vacuum that blunders our thinking about the subject. It is the vacuum protecting us from the moral responsibility for the harsh, deplorable and utterly dehumanising conditions facing a majority of South Africans. It is also a vacuum that shields most of us from the pervading state of unfreedom currently eating away at our society. My vacuum has collapsed in the crudest way.

I recently went home to the place where my family lives, after long absence including the time I spent abroad. The place is Mthwalume, a semi-rural township on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal, about an hour from Durban. It is beautiful, with lively green landscapes, rondevel houses enclaved by neatly-trimmed bush fences and the beach is a stone throw away. There are cows, goats and chickens roaming the grovel streets and rolling ploughing fields. It also appears that there have been quite extensive real estate developments, with a number of modest suburb-style to extravagant triple-story houses apparently owned by businesspeople and ‘friends of government’.

During dinner, we sat on makeshift sofas enjoying a traditional favourite: beans with rice. There were my two aunts (both are no more than 30) and about a million children, some are left by young mothers who went to Durban in search of work. My only uncle, who is in his late 40s (but actually looks older than 65), was in his shack. He recently endured 7 months in hospital for TB.

Dinner conversation drifted, as it does, and we got on to the subject of jobs. My aunt explained that she works for a black middle-class family in Durban as a live-in domestic helper. She works 7 days a week, from 5.30am to 6pm. She earns R1000 a month or R35 a day. With this amount plus a social grant for 4 kids, she has to support about 14 people. This wasn’t the worst of it. A lady who visited the house earlier (approximately 28-29) works for a shop owned by ‘foreigners’. She walks about an hour to work. She works from 6am to 6pm (8pm on busy days) and earns R500 a month.

I was in awe. Light conversation turned pungent. I knew they were struggling but I didn’t understand what that meant. I kept asking why. Their response was “What else? It’s either that or letting these children starve…”

The situations I encountered that day are a microcosm of the general experience an overwhelming number of South Africans. Poverty in South Africa is rampant, and it is a serious cause of deep unfreedom.

Poverty can be defined as “generally being characterised by the inability of individuals, households, or entire communities, to command sufficient resources to satisfy a socially acceptable minimum standard of living. The perceptions of the poor themselves are a good way in which an appropriate conceptualization.”

The 2012 Poverty and Inequality Reports notes that “South Africa is an upper-middle-income country with a per capita income similar to that of Botswana, Brazil, Malaysia or Mauritius. Despite this relative wealth, the experience of the majority of South African households is either one of outright poverty, or of continued vulnerability to becoming poor. Furthermore, the distribution of income and wealth in South Africa may be the most unequal in the world. Finally, although significant progress has been made over the last five years, many South African households have unsatisfactory access to clean water, energy, health care and education facilities.”

The Poverty and Inequality Report notes that –

‘Poor’ has been defined as the poorest 40% of households and ‘ultra-poor’ as the poorest 20% of households (RDP, 1995). According to these definitions, households who expend less than R352,53 per adult equivalent are regarded as poor; households who expend less than R193,77 per adult equivalent are regarded as ultra-poor. Just under 50% of the population (about 19 million people) live in the poorest 40% of households and are thus classified as poor. Similarly, 27% of the population (or 10 million people) live in the poorest 20% of households and are thus classified as ultrapoor.

Inequality in South Africa is deepening. Currently, “The poorest 40% of households, equivalent to 50% of the population, account for only 11% of total income, while the richest 10% of households, equivalent to only 7% of the population, accrue over 40% of total income.”

Inequality is most visible in racial distribution of income: “The median white household income in 1995 was R60,000 per annum, compared with R12,400 for African households, R19,400 for coloured households and R40,500 for Indian households. Thus, while half of white households had after-tax income of R60,000 per annum, only 6% of African households enjoyed the same standard of living.”

The question most people will ask is, “what does poverty and inequality have to do with political and economic freedom?” The argument is that the Constitution protects us equally and we all enjoy the same political and social freedoms entrenched by the Bill of Rights. This is not true.


Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen, in his monumental book Development as Freedom, discusses four types of unfreedom:

  1. The inability to survive immortality;
  2. Poor living conditions (access to basic services);
  3. Lack of opportunity to create a better life (or a restriction on the capacity to flourish); and
  4. Exclusion from the market (not just in the sense of arbitrary government restrictions, but socially depriving people the opportunity to enter into transactions). [my words]

Poverty causes alienation from the community. Poor and ultra-poor people suffer from food insecurity. They do not have access to basic housing and live in crowded homes. They do not have access to basic forms of energy. Most importantly, they do not have adequately paid, secure jobs. Poverty results fragmentation of families. It is clear that the four types of unfreedom described by Sen are concentrated endured by the poorest in our society.

It is therefore naïve, if not utterly nonsensical, to speak about a free South Africa. If 50% of the population lives in unfreedom, South Africans are not yet free!

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