No! The welfare state must grow.

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File picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency (ANA).

Interviewing a Chinese expert on China-Africa relations recently he mentioned some of the courses he was teaching. One particular course entailed examining a book by James Ferguson ‘Give a Man a Fish: reflections on the new politics of distribution.’

The expert explained that we all know the cliché: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. The problem, he said, was that we have been investing in education and training and yet people are still unemployed. Just look at South Africa, he pointed out. 

It cast my mind back to when I was engaging students during #FeesMustFall. Yes, I agreed, we must make tertiary education available to more Black youth. We can enthusiastically acknowledge that high fees simply deterred entrants into higher education. It was after all no one else but Nelson Mandela who stated that the only way to beat poverty was education. Yet, I drove in the point, many Black graduates are at home unemployed. How is it possible that we push more youngpeople through the tertiary education sausage mill, only for them to land up at home not working. 

Ferguson, in his book, questions what the aim of development is. Is it to educate people or to get them to have access to the things they need to have a decent life? If it is to get a decent life and teaching people to fish no longer gets them that life, then it must be appropriate after all to simply give them the fish. For Ferguson it is not the lack of production that is the problem but rather the nature of distribution. Put into our South African perspective, the South African economy will never absorb Black graduates or even entrepreneurs because it was simply not made to do so. 

Our economy was made for cheap Black labour and unless we change the very structure of the economy, Black people, educated or not, will continue to be on the receiving end of not having a decent life.  The nature of our economy, dismissed by many as a discussion that need not take place or manufactured by Bell Pottinger, therefore forces us to have a comprehensive welfare system.

With this in mind, one was therefore particularly struck by the article of the law student, Lehumo Sejaphala titled: “The welfare state has not worked! SA needs an entrepreneurial state.” Usually, I would let such an article, based on hardly any reading or research, go but because Sejaphala is at Wits, a student, a young person and himself attempting to be innovative I could not let it go.

Sejaphala may dismiss the welfare state, ‘extreme redistribution of wealth’, ‘wealth expropriated from the wealthy’ and suggest that the ‘left [is] armed with theory and conspiracy theories’ but how sad this is for a young person, privileged with university education, and who has access to the internet and a university library. 

These concepts, dismissed by our brother Sejaphala, are only the very ones promoted by internationally renowned economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty. Maybe a reading start would be Stiglitz’s book “The Price of Inequality” or Piketty’s Nelson Mandela memorial lecture. What writers such as Ferguson suggest is that through these redistribution or welfare policies, dismissed by Sejaphala, innovation by entrepreneurs is funded. The work of Nobel economic laureates such as Amartya Sen and Muhammad Yunus are also reinforced through these welfare policies. 

Sen’s capabilities theory has for its foundation meeting the most basic needs of people. Only when people’s most basic needs are fulfilled can they be creative and innovative. Mzingaye Xaba, in his article “A qualitative application of Amartya Sen’s ‘development as freedom’ theory to an understanding of social grants in South Africa”, though suggests that these grants are not large or adequate enough to ensure that people are unshackled by their ‘unfreedoms’. 

Sejaphala should know this as a student. One can only learn, explore and be innovative when your most basic needs are met: food, sanitation, clothing, shelter etc. That is the role of welfare policies. I see this everyday in the world’s largest growing economy. Yunus’ work has evolved into suggesting that instead of giving people micro-loans we should just be giving them the fish which in this case is micro-funding. Again, people like Sejaphala would reject this and say hand-outs make people lazy and not want to seek work. This myth was rejected through the work Surrender et al in their article “Social Assistance and Dependency in South Africa: An Analysis of Attitudes to Paid Work and Social Grants.”

Indeed, where one agrees with Sejaphala is that we must become a ‘job-creating’ nation rather than a ‘job-seeking’ one. However, we will need to take the work of Sen and Yunus particularly seriously in this regard and thus social welfare programmes, not just grants, but free health, security, education, food, among others become vital.

Even more so, to create Black entrepreneurs we must restructure our economy from a White, monopolistic, anti-competitive, conglomerate one. One appeals to no one else but the Stellenbosch Afrikaner economist, Sampie Terreblanche, to back up this argument by using his work in “The History of Inequality in South Africa.”

But you also cannot compare the welfare of Harvard students with that of a vast population of young people in dire poverty and unemployment. In fact, the USA also has a good welfare system, one that is currently under attack by Donald Trump but which will certainly have effects on the US economy and grow poverty levels in that country should Trump weaken it. 

In other words, welfare systems are the very basis of ‘entrepreneurial states’ such as the US, China, UK and India. Never mind the astronomical figures in poverty that we will have as a country, if we were to do away with these welfare policies, but we must move away from an ‘either-or’ paradigm. It must be an ‘and’ way of thinking. We must provide welfare AND encourage innovation. Yet we can only start to do that when people, like Sejaphala, stop being dismissive of the poor and their plight. 


Wesley Seale has a Masters degree in Development and Governance (Merit) from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University of Sussex, and lectured politics at Rhodes University during #FeesMustFall 2016. He is currently pursuing his PhD in Beijing.