Politicians, know this: Empower women and the entire nation will grow

By Nthabiseng Moleko

The budget as it stands means the average woman on the ground will stay the same: excluded, marginalised and poor. Picture: iStock/Gallo Images

Walking in the streets, being in the workplace, even sitting at home or being a student as a woman in this nation may open one to a plethora of violations.

South Africa is currently facing a national crisis of rape, violence and femicide against women and children. Globally surpassing all our counterparts, we have the highest level of femicide at 12.1 women murdered per 100 000, and the highest level of incidence of rape at 138 per 100 000. These shockingly and unusually high levels of violence require a multipronged approach, but more importantly the judicial and policing response must be buttressed by finance. The minister of finance in his recent address informed the nation of a R1,8 trillion budget estimate that will be spent in the upcoming financial year. We heard of the R15 billion downward tax burden revision and the R248 billion shortfall National Treasury is confronted with.

This highlights the indebted fiscal position as we currently spend more than what we are able to collect as tax. The result is a persistent budget shortfall leading to between 4.3% to 4.6% deficit over the short to medium term. Driving unsustainably high debt to GDP ratios, we have meandered from 55.9% and we creep towards the threshold of 60%. If we surpass these levels we not only have credit rating agencies to worry about, but we are likely to reverse government expenditure gains as we knock on the 59% ratio in the short term due to the high debt servicing cost burden.We need a different type of growth. A growth that drives poverty indices downwards, a growth that minimises inequality and a growth that attacks unemployment that is largely female in nature.

The numbers show growing our economy has to be the priority of the state and all its partners. This growth has to exceed the stagnant 0.7% growth of 2018, in fact we have to be dreamers and target a 6% pro-poor, labour intensive and inclusive growth. Some would argue that is what we did more than a decade ago but we derailed. I agree that we derailed.

But I disagree that our economic policies were pro-poor and labour intensive targeting in particular rural and marginalised women in both urban and peri-urban regions. They were not. We experienced a largely jobless growth in the mid 2000s; we need a different type of growth. A growth that drives poverty indices downwards, a growth that minimises inequality and a growth that attacks unemployment that is largely female in nature. Poverty looks black, inequality is intensified upon women and unemployment exacerbated with the youth.

The 2017 Stats South Africa Poverty Report observed that poverty levels in the population have dropped from 66% to 55% between 2006 and 2015. Yet we still have more than 30 million people living in poverty.Poverty looks black, inequality is intensified upon women and unemployment exacerbated with the youth.

What was observed however is the national level of inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient is 0.65, with black Africans showing the highest levels of poverty. Females have both higher levels of poverty and unemployment, they bore the biggest brunt of the jobless growth phenomena due to our economic structure and the inability of existing incentives to absorb the marginalised in critical mass into the heartbeat of economic activity.

South Africa is now growing at a snail’s pace, and this has to be changed. The pattern we see is that there is a clear feminisation of unemployment as women are facing 29.4% unemployment versus male unemployment of 25.9%. This worsens in the 15 to 24-year-old bracket – more than doubling.

Stirred up we were after the presidential state of the nation address. Promises were made leaving us full of hope.

The budget speech yanked us back to reality as it did not give the nation a clear growth agenda, the nation is in dire need of a succinct, prioritised sectoral interventions and funded growth plan.

How will we achieve acceleration of growth with the multiplicity of economic cluster interventions that have not yielded an increase in the value added contribution of primary and secondary sectors in the last two decades? The targeted incentives are already in operation through our economic cluster ministries and agencies have not led to a jump in growth. Instead we see a crippled mining and agriculture sector coupled with deindustrialisation. This was long before anyone even mentioned the words land expropriation without compensation.

Instead, while emerging market economies are averaging a 4.5% growth – higher than first world economies at a meagre 2% to 3% average due to growth of value adding sectors and aggressive exporting strategies – South Africa remains on its knees at an estimated 1.5% growth for the year ahead.

One wonders how this will come to pass with no clear growth plan, minimal targeted interventions for rural and marginalised communities to access markets and growth of small, medium and micro-sized enterprises, and continued trade deficits on the back of lacklustre export levels by largely white owned companies.

A positive sign is the evidence of fiscal consolidation shown by the state in reducing expenditure and the efforts towards the improvement of tax collection capabilities. The conditionality of attaining guarantees for state-owned enterprises is a sign of a change in the free-for-all mentality that reigned where we now have almost R800 billion of state guaranteed debt. Thrown upon us, might I add, by a predominantly male-led government, with male chief executives, other executives and chairpersons in state-owned enterprises. Women remain on the brunt and receiving end of decisions they were never welcomed into the boardroom to partake in.

A concerted effort in the growth of the economy must be made to ensure the 51% women become economically active agents of the economy. Factors such as the scale of state expenditure that is allocated towards women, women owned companies, rural based cooperatives that comprise largely of women and equivalent has to be emphasised.

State procurement is not sufficiently used to empower women, in a targeted and concerted effort. To improve the social and economic status of women, Treasury must capture and monitor gender-related indicators in procurement that must drive legislative prescripts advancing women across all departments and agencies.

International Womens Day 2019

How much of the proposed R1.8 trillion budget was allocated towards gender specific initiatives that have the power to transform the economic plight of women significantly to shift unemployment and inequality? How much of our economic cluster focused on equipping small, medium and micro-sized enterprises through agencies such as the National Empowerment Fund and the Small Enterprise Finance Agency, who are geared towards supporting the likely game changers of our economy? With a thrust on emerging entrepreneurs, they are likely to positively impact the indicators driving the high Gini coefficient. Significant capitalisation of these institutions must be considered and included in the allocation by ministries towards development finance institutions that empower specifically women and small, medium and micro-sized enterprises that are black owned.

Disappointingly, after the gender-based violence summit and promises made to resource the fight against gender-based violence, there are few concrete financing proposals mentioned at budget level. We don’t know how the state intends to finance interventions that are required to prioritise the institutional response to the gender-based violence crisis. There is need for a multiplicity of interventions, the criminal justice system must be supported to ensure that it is able to adequately address the complexity of prevention, law and policy support interventions that strengthen our responses. This requires sufficient budget allocation and resources to hold offenders accountable, to adequately equip the justice and policing cluster with the might to respond.

I am not at all suggesting we build more prisons. We will watch closely the budget votes and whether institutions that support the plight of women will be adequately financed. If not, the budget as it stands means the average woman on the ground will stay the same: excluded, marginalised and poor. The continued struggle of women will remain evident in statistics that show the lack of prioritisation, exclusion and violation. This must change.

I am hopeful, forever the optimist, women and the girl child will be empowered in this our lifetime. Growth must benefit the poor for it to be sustainable, and most of the poor are women and rural. There can be no real growth without women being empowered. Empower women and the entire nation will grow.

Nthabiseng Moleko is a Commissioner at the Commission for Gender Equality who also teaches Economics and Statistics at the University of Stellenbosch Business School @drnthabimoleko