John Minto’s decision to reject an awardnomination from the South African government is hardly surprising. He is adoctrinaire socialist and is fundamentally at odds with the market-friendlypolicies pursued by the ruling African National Congress. Minto has sought toportray South Africa as an example of the failure of market-based policies toaddress poverty. To support his stance he has made some extraordinary claimsabout economic and social conditions in South Africa, some of which are quitesimply wrong.
Minto claims to have been nominated for theCompanions of O R Tambo Award in recognition of his role in Halt all RacistTours (HART). Predictably, the South African government now denies an approachwas made. If he had accepted the award Minto would have stood alongside greatindividuals such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Such an accolade would have been fitting. HART’scontribution to the struggle against Apartheid cannot be underestimated. Withthe Springboks deprived of facing their greatest rivals, the All Blacks, thesports boycott hit white South Africa where it hurt most. Unlike tradesanctions that negatively affected black workers, the sports boycott hurt thosemost likely to support the Apartheid regime.
Minto has clashed with the South Africangovernment on economic policy since the early days of democracy in the Republic. He harangued Nelson Mandela in Auckland in 1995 for not kicking privateenterprise and transnational companies out of South Africa when Apartheidended. Mandela and his successor, Thabo Mbeki, have a straightforward economicapproach: get the fundamentals right, grow the economy and direct expandinggovernment resources to the poor. They have reigned in inflation, turned ahuge budget deficit into a surplus and bashed debt on the head. The economy iscurrently expanding at about 5% per annum and the country has enjoyed thelongest period of uninterrupted economic growth since records began. Although employmentgrowth was slow to get going, more than a million jobs were created in the fiveyears to March 2007.
While Minto acknowledges the growth of theSouth African economy he believes that only a few have benefited from it. He claimsthat "extreme free market policies, wherever they are employed, shift wealthfrom the poor to the rich". This cannot be applied to South Africa where there has been a massive shift of fiscal resources to the poor. Accordingto the doyen of South African poverty research, Professor Servaas van der Bergof Stellenbosch University, this shift is "unprecedented in any country in theworld that has not undergone a political revolution". The roll out of hardservices to the poor is remarkable. 1.6 million houses and 700 clinics havebeen built; piped water has been brought to 17 million people, sanitation to 7million. Teachers and educational resources have been shifted to poorerschools on a massive scale.
These statistics flatly contradict Minto’sassertion that "economically and socially, black people are worse off todaythan they were under white rule". He quotes a statistic that the number ofSouth Africans living on less than a dollar a day has doubled in the past tenyears. That statistic was derived from a crude model which incorporated someincorrect assumptions and should never have been published. Not even the authorwould defend it today. But it managed to make it into a news report and is nowquoted around the world. Considerably more robust research shows that incomepoverty rates have declined substantially since 1994 (see chart).
The government’s biggest assault on poverty wasa 70% increase in social grants to the poor earlier this decade â€“ mostly in theform of child support grants. The increase amounted to about NZ$4 billion perannum. This amount is not far short of what economists term the poverty gap â€“the total annual transfer required to lift the income of all poor households upto the poverty line. Today almost 12 million South Africans receive socialgrants.
Minto is a courageous man and has shown a rareability among activists to consistently stand by his principles. He challengesinjustice, irrespective of the perpetrator’s colour. But his recent attacks onthe South African government are off the mark. If Minto had turned down hisnomination on the basis of moral decay within the ANC, their apparent indifferenceto corruption, their ineffectual policies for dealing with AIDS or Mbeki’stacit support for Robert Mugabe it may have been understandable. Butchallenging them on their record of improving the lives of the poor does notstack up.