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20 years of the vote and socio-economic conditions in South Africa

Professor Raymond Suttner
Professor Raymond Suttner

20th November 2014

By: Raymond Suttner


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Below the surface of the Nkandla scandal currently paralysing parliament is the fact that the monies misused were intended to meet basic needs of impoverished citizens. It is, however, important to understand freedom as indivisible: social and economic rights do not inhabit a different world from the rights to dignity and equality or other rights.

One cannot live with dignity without clean water to drink or wash. It’s lack also impairs one’s health. Living in a dehumanised environment, for example with sewage in the street, assails one’s dignity, one’s self-image and one’s sense of self-worth. 


Many South Africans cherished the hope that political freedom would lead to social and economic freedom. Implementing social and economic change requires economic and human resources – and policies determining how and where those resources are deployed to implement those rights.

South Africa’s economic journey unfolded within economic conditions that were generally more favourable for the realisation of social and economic rights than most other states on this continent. Unlike many other states there was a significant tax base that could be drawn on.


But successful implementation of rights intended to provide material benefits should not be seen as depending on so-called ‘service delivery’ to a passive population. 

“Service delivery” is the language of commodities. We are talking about meeting basic needs that are necessary to live in a manner that is fit for human beings. Where this is the case, the people who need their conditions remedied must be part of the planning and where possible also involved in maintenance of the facilities provided.

A significant feature of South Africa’s transition and the impact of that transition on social and economic development is that the constitution adopted in 1996 charges the state with a duty to meet basic needs and an obligation to perform and ensure changes in the social and economic conditions of the poorest of the poor.

In accordance with attempts to realise these goals in the earliest years of the South African democratic order, many people’s lives changed substantially with access for the first time to clean water, healthcare, electricity and other basic needs. From early on, however, there were problems of planning, consultation and maintenance. This was partly because there were many cases where numbers were being chased and there was inadequate consultation and involvement of the local people.

But for many who had known electricity only from seeing the wires running above their villages from one white town to the next, there were fundamental changes in the conditions of their existence. Many who had sometimes travelled 50 km or more to make a telephone call in the nearest white town could now access Telkom lines or, later, cell phones.

The ramifications of realising some of these rights often went far beyond the specific right concerned. Piped water altered gender relations by freeing women from collecting water from the rivers. It meant that women’s participation in public life could be enabled and enhanced and many women have come to participate in public life.

We know of course that while the transformation in people’s lives has been significant, it has also been uneven, generally not taking account of their ability to pay in urban areas (and paying for services now seems planned for rural areas) and suffering various setbacks in maintenance. Again, in many cases, we can conclude that one of the reasons why things have not gone smoothly is related to the failure to involve the people concerned. People can make informed contributions to decisions that concern their own lives.

There are also cases – and this is becoming the norm – where, instead of consulting communities about development, it has become the practice to consult Traditional Leaders. This has major consequences for the rights of people as equal citizens and for their access to land and other resources. Now that some of the former Bantustans have been found to be rich in minerals, the plan appears to be to encourage Traditional Leaders to make land claims, supposedly on behalf of communities. What is happening is one element of a practice in which actions of the ruling party and some mining companies frustrate the realisation of a range of rights by the people to whom they belong and divert them to unelected Traditional Leaders, who plan to allocate resources to themselves.

We ought to be well aware that much more could be done if the law and the constitution were followed. Only one in ten municipalities have clean audits. We know that funding for resources that ought to benefit poor communities has been diverted into the pockets of politicians and close associates.

Illegality extends to multiple areas of people’s lives. One of the most important is where RDP houses are not allocated following official lists. Many lists have been manipulated by the ANC in areas it controls and it is alleged that the same thing is being done by the DA in the Western Cape. 

Where desperate people seek shelter in temporary shacks there are many cases of illegal demolition taking place in defiance of court orders and the constitution, both by the ANC in KZN, and by the DA in the Western Cape.

The realisation or defence of social and economic rights is sometimes part of the broader question of observing legality and constitutionalism. That, in my view, is now the frontline of defence of our democracy.

[This article is an edited presentation made to the Independent Electoral Commission’s conference on Twenty Years of Democracy, held on 20-21 November 2014]

Professor Raymond Suttner, attached to Rhodes University and UNISA, is an analyst on current political questions and leadership issues. He writes a regular column and is interviewed weekly on Creamer Media’s Suttner is a former political prisoner and was in the leadership of the ANC-led alliance in the 1990s. His book 'Recovering Democracy' will be published by Jacana Media early in 2015. He blogs at His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.


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