What does it mean to be disadvantaged - especially in the South African context? How, as a society, do we begin to address its manifold and intertwined causes and symptoms? Philosopher Professor Jonathan Wolff, former MP Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge and Dr Mamphela Ramphele tackle the definitions of disadvantage, its impact, and potential redress.
What used to be the connection between cold nights in London and heroin abuse?
On particularly chilly nights on the Thames, shelters for the homeless would open their doors. But patrons' dogs were not allowed in, so many decided to remain with their pets in the cold, and turned to higher doses of narcotics to help them make it through the night.
With this detail, gleaned during research for the award-winning biography Stuart: A life backwards - a story about how a young man ends up homeless - Jonathan Wolff began illustrating his argument that disadvantage is by nature plural and impossible to pin down to two or three 'key' markers, and that disadvantages tend to cluster. The symptoms often intermingle; a poor person living in shabby accommodation might have little access to good education, limiting their chances in the job market, and might have an antagonistic relationship with the criminal justice system.
"Something else that's often ignored is [what it is] to be lonely, to be on your own," he added.
Wolff, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and professor of philosophy at University College London, was speaking at a seminar and panel discussion on 18 August, hosted jointly by UCT's Poverty and Inequality Initiative and the Department of Philosophy.
He opened the debate by exploring what it means to be disadvantaged, and how it should be understood in the South African context. Wolff stressed that analysing opportunity only at the level of the individual was folly - one needs to keep the bigger structure in mind.
"Whatever your talents, a hostile social structure can limit your opportunities. If we make structural changes we can benefit very many people, and they may not even realise they've been helped."
The converse applies, too: a structural change can harm many people already worse off than others, he cautioned.
The Holy Grail of social policy
Wolff identified social structure as one of three core determinants of opportunity, alongside personal abilities (which can change) and external assets such as wealth and family support.
Being born on the shallow side of these pools often condemns people to a perpetual uphill battle that many lose, said Wolff.
"Disadvantage tends to cluster together. Those people who are badly off in one respect will very often be badly off in several other respects.
"For example, it's well known that disability [can lead to] a life of lower income. What's less well known - and these are figures from the UK - is that, if you start off with a lower income, you're more likely to become disabled. So the causation actually goes in both directions."
This kind of "corrosive disadvantage" can also be seen in downward spirals from drug abuse or imprisonment, which lead to people losing jobs, becoming unemployable, and finally being left at society's margins.
Then there were "fertile advantages", which Wolff called the "Holy Grail of social policy".
Think of education, good social and support networks, and soft skills as advantages that, if harnessed correctly, could propel the individual even higher up the social ladder.
What can be done?
But Wolff alluded to a prejudice about what constitutes 'real' work these days.
"'Real' work has to produce a material object," said Wolff, explaining a dominant perception. This, despite South Africa moving towards service-based industry.
Not that South Africa's service industry is where employment should necessarily be emphasised, says Wolff. The bulk of service providers are minibus taxi-drivers, private security guards ("there are more private security guards in South Africa than policemen"), and domestic workers.
"The wrong sort," said Wolff.
The (almost) invisible cost
Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, a panellist who responded to Wolff after the seminar, noted Wolff's comment about domestic work being an example of the "wrong sort" of service.
The former MP acknowledged that South African women face limited employment opportunities, and that domestic service is often the only way to put bread on the table. But that is not necessarily 'case closed'.
"Should we not be changing the whole structure of society so that women have better choices?" she asked.
Prostitution was another case in point, Madlala-Routledge said, citing how people often argue that some women choose to enter the sex trade, and how some renowned global organisations are calling for prostitution to be decriminalised, ostensibly to slow the spread of HIV.
"But [these] organisations ignore the power imbalance between 'buyer' and 'seller'," she argued.
Madlala-Routledge works for Embrace Dignity, a non-profit organisation advocating legal reform to end prostitution and sex trafficking, and support for women seeking exit.
She pointed to an almost invisible patriarchy that ignores women's needs when macro-economic decisions are made.
"When, say, environmental impact studies are undertaken when planning a new mine, what note is taken of its impact on women?" The impact of the ongoing migrant labour system and the location of truck stops were also not taken into account, Madlala-Routledge said.
Build an inclusive playing field
Dr Mamphela Ramphele, former UCT vice-chancellor, also responded to Wolff, calling for a critique of our understanding of disadvantage. "Disadvantage is often the result of unfair advantage," she argued. It was created by society, in particular by the "extractive" nature of the economy, which took a lot from the country's resources, both natural and human, but gave little back.
The 2012 Marikana massacre showed that the exploitative migrant labour system was still operating, 20 years into democracy, she said. "The interests of those we are extracting from are not taken into account," said Ramphele. She called instead for an "inclusive" system that allowed all to participate in the economy, and all to benefit from its flourishing.
It barely matters whether the broader system is "capitalist or socialist", she argued. The institutions within that system, however, are what would really improve - or continue to disrupt - people's lives. Transforming the private sector's behaviour would be one place to start, as would stamping out state corruption.
Do what's possible now
An audience member questioned whether institutions themselves are the problem, or if the people running these institutions are simply exploiting them.
Wolff conceded that it is possible that the people are the problem, but pointed out that institutions could also corrupt people. Individual agency matters; but agency always operates within a structure that allows it to affect society for better or worse.
Wolff also acknowledged another point from the floor: that South Africa is the victim of an inherently unequal global economic structure. But he cautioned that we cannot wait for it to "reform itself".
"We have to make progress in the face of the global economic structure as it is."
Story by Yusuf Omar. Photo by Rowan Pybus.
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