Making better lives for themselves?

Making better lives for themselves?

Publishing Date: 3/29/2018 12:00 AM

The stories of people on the ground

This is an excerpt from the keynote address delivered by Prof Crane Soudien, HSRC CEO, at the Development, Social Policy and Community Action book launch that was hosted by the CSDA on Wednesday, 28 March.

A good book, at least a good academic book, has to be, of course, well written. Its use of language, irrespective of what its subject is, has to be elegant, fluid, and, of course, clear. But it must do a whole lot more. It mustn't simply make you feel good. Good books will do that. We need books which life our spirits, which help us recognize ourselves in the wonder and complexity of this extraordinary world. But they must fundamentally bring you to a point where they stop you. They stop you from simply allowing the text to carry you along. They stop you and require that you as the reader begin the work of thinking, thinking of course about the issues that are being raised, about how they can be understood differently and more understood more clearly. They leave with you concepts, frameworks and what we might call working knowledge, knowledge with which you can do things, see things not simply at their surface and symptomatic levels, but for what they conceal, what lies inside of them.

This book has a number of ideas. It is to these that I would really like to be talking this afternoon. They are ideas which are helpful to us in the country right now as we ponder over the big problems and issues around poverty inequality which confront us, as we ask the simple but seemingly unfathomable question of why the majority of our people remain trapped in such desperate circumstances and seem to struggle so much to make meaningful lives for themselves.

The first big idea comes quite early in the book. It is the idea of social development. As Leila and Marianne make clear, this idea, is by no means a new one. It was adopted at the UN World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995 and subsequently incorporated into the SDGs in 2015.  It essentially refers to the ways in which individuals and communities are able to deploy the social investments the state makes through its provisioning of goods and services and their own capabilities - together - to build meaningful lives for themselves.

The new angle that Leila and Marianne introduce here is what the meaning of this social investment is on the part of the state. They resist the idea that it must be seen either from a market-based neo-liberal perspective, which operates with the assumption that it is through people taking individual responsibility for their own lives that one sees change taking place in society, or from a social welfare basis where the state assumes the whole burden for maintaining the well-being of people. At the core of the approach they take is the idea that the fulfilment of social rights - the right to adequate standards of living, education, health and housing - is a precondition for social development.

One of the key strengths of this work is to show why this right matters. The empirical work, chapter 6 is a good example, illustrates why this is so. This chapter by no means takes the position that this social right always results in positive outcomes, but there is enough evidence to show that social grants make a difference in people's material circumstances and, simultaneously, increase opportunities for social solidarity. While there is data which shows that people are decreasing remittances and sharing what they have, there is also evidence that the grant, even in its small value, produces in its recipients sufficient catalytic momentum. They stimulate the development of capability. The grant matters. It is the thing that just tips people over from total desperation to being able to make something of their lives. It moves them in small ways. These small ways change for them the quality of the everyday.

In taking this approach they place emphasis on citizen participation, people are not passive recipients of welfare provision. It influences the choices people make, their sense of dignity and self-worth. You see it in the decisions people are making. These two women help to bring to life/immediacy the structure/agency debate and provide Marianne and her colleagues with a way to demonstrate the big idea the book is seeking to make. The first is a woman called Pumla and the second is Victoria. I will start with Victoria. Pumla and Victoria are talking in this testimony about how they are perceived by people in the community:

So even me also you know (the community think) … that I'm in that group that doesn't care anymore, who's abusing the grant (because) I'm not working, unemployed and it's many years now. It's seven or eight years, you see. And that thing is hurting me, okay? So somebody who is looking at me in a distance okay, cannot see what I'm thinking about or I'm not sleeping at night trying to change my situation. You see, you cannot see that, he or she would say she's relaxing; she's not looking for any job now, you see. Because she's getting the grant. Maybe that grant is enough for her. And yet it's not.

The other woman, Pumla, says

(There are those) who think that the grant is maybe destroying people in a way that they do not think of doing things for themselves and others to look for jobs. Whereas, for instance, I have been looking for work for a long time. I know that I tried to look for jobs. I am not successful, you see… I also do not want to sit.

So how people, in the face of incredible odds – the social stigmatisation that comes with being labelled imali yeqolo, literally 'lying down money' and the persistent challenge of making ends meet with very little -  are holding on to a sense of their dignity and trying to turn around the conditions in which they find themselves. It will make the point that engaged scholarship such as this allows us to understand more fully and in much more rounded ways how South Africans are actually crafting a new road for themselves in an attempt to shift the conditions in which they find themselves.

There's an opportunity here to be pushing the theoretical discussion that has been taking place in the social sciences in important ways. That opportunity is engaging with the structure-agency debate – and ask the really interesting question of how this tension of whether structure – the economy in the main – or agency, the individual, is more important in understanding what is going on in people's heads and what makes them behave and do things. When people make individual decisions about the things trhat matter, is it because of their circumstances or because they are thinking and making decisions based on their thinking. The theoretical framing chosen by Leila and Marianne provide us with a good opportunity to approach this tension in more complex ways and to see what is happening in South Africa right now as a space which we require thoughtful concepts and analyses for. Not just snappy slogans. Not just single catch-phrases. You need framing analyses.

And we have the making of an opportunity here to explain in explicitly theoretical terms how in this dynamic between the availability of the social grant – the structural - and the deep personal resources each individual brings to decision-making, his or her upbringing, character, education, influences – how South Africans are coming to agency, decision-making. What the snappy sloganeering analysis does is take short-cuts in processes such as this. It uses a term like 'a woman', or 'a 'black man' and takes that to provide the explanation for the choices and decision people are making. Now, of course, race and gender are critical in how people make choices, but they don't by themselves explain what a Pumla or a Victoria will precisely do. So, when a Victoria says, "… somebody who is looking at me in a distance okay, cannot see what I'm thinking about or I'm not sleeping at night to change my situation. You see, you cannot see that". It is in this moment that the deep theoretical task is placed before all of us. To move beyond describing people and their circumstances simply in broad-brush labels. What we have to do is gather and build this data. Hear more Victorias, more Pumlas.

For information on how to purchase the book, please follow this link.