What constitutes a decent standard of living for people in South Africa?
The aim of this ongoing project is to derive an understanding of what constitutes a broadly acceptable living level that should be used to reflect a basic living level. Central to this ambitious target is an awareness of the necessity of moving away from the minimalist ‘poverty lines’ that have been used in the design and evaluation of anti-poverty programmes. The use of such very basic levels to characterise the state of poverty is dangerous in an upper middle- income country such as South Africa that is already characterised by one of the highest levels of income inequality globally. Using such low levels might create more palatable poverty figures, but it dulls our ambitions of really ensuring that people live the life of dignity as guaranteed to them in the Constitution of South Africa, let alone a life of one of greater equality as the Constitution further provides for. This project is thus inherently rights- based, rather than being a technocratic exercise. It is about trying to understand through asking ordinary people what such a decent living level should be for all in a post- Apartheid democracy.
Context and Objectives
Despite the recognition of the destructive reality of poverty for many millions of people living in South Africa, there is still a lack of national consensus in South Africa on what is meant by the inverse of ‘poverty’, namely ‘sufficiency’. This has particular resonance in an upper middle- income country such as South Africa. A stark illustration of the huge distance between what the state views as constituting ‘poverty’ and what ordinary South Africans view as constituting a basic decent living level is evident from the tragic incident of the Marikana massacre in August 2012. Miners at the Lonmin mine in the North West province went on strike over wage negotiations, demanding an entry level wage for rock drill operators of R12, 500 per worker per month. The workers, 36 of whom were killed by police action during the strike, substantiated their demands by showing how it was not possible to exist with any semblance of decency on an amount less than that. Most of the workers have become indebted to local ‘loan sharks’ when they have had to borrow for consumption purposes in the past. At the same time, farm workers in the Western Cape embarked on an equally historic strike, demanding an amount of R150 per worker per day in 2012 prices, about R3, 000 per month, as constituting the minimum level that could be seen to guarantee any possibility of a decent life.
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