The economy-wide impact of the lockdown in response to Covid-19 showed how sustaining a market economy relies heavily on unpaid social reproduction, particularly in times of crisis. As the economy was shut down and connections to communities were severed, so the unpaid work and care work largely done by women intensified.
This over-representation of women in unpaid care work is mirrored in the paid labour market, where they dominate in sectors characterised by poor working conditions, low pay and higher risks of contracting Covid-19: healthcare, retail and personal services, domestic work and education.
As we pursue a post-Covid-19 economic recovery and reconstruction plan, Nthabiseng Moleko’s article highlights the persistent and prevailing gendered dimensions of inequality in South Africa. Moleko advocates for challenging existing economic policy instruments that aim to facilitate economic transformation and calls for an “alternative economic strategy”.
We want to add a feminist economics perspective to this alternative strategy, one that addresses the imbalance of economic power in South Africa, where patterns of exclusion and inclusion in the economy are shaped by gender, race, age and class.
The roots of the problem
Poor economic outcomes for women were instituted during South Africa’s colonial industrialisation path and institutionalised during apartheid. The development of the country’s labour market and industrial base was based on extraction, exclusion, exploitation and dehumanisation. Women were excluded from engaging in gainful employment or entrepreneurial activities, while Black women’s unpaid work and care work subsidised the costs of social provisioning.
Discriminatory legislation denied women, and specifically Black women, access to credit, markets, quality education, land, decent housing and healthcare services, and full access to citizenship. The consequence is that today, the intersection of race, social class and gender defines the nature of economic inclusion and exclusion.
Since the advent of democracy, women in South Africa have enjoyed some gains in relation to their access to basic rights, education and labour force participation. The burdens of poverty, unemployment and inequality, however, remain disproportionately borne by young Black women living in the former homelands. This reflects the limitations of legislation and policies in addressing gendered exclusion.
Addressing the structural failures that keep women in low-paying jobs or entirely outside the paid labour market requires more than targeting gross domestic product growth. Similarly, unless the root causes of inequitable access to job opportunities are considered, pursuing job creation as a way of reducing gender inequality will only reinforce existing patterns of inequality.
But what existing economic policy instruments can we leverage to transform the inequitable distribution of economic power?
Universal basic services are a precondition
The post-Covid-19 economic recovery plan presents an opportunity to address South Africa’s structural inequality. And our success will depend inextricably on lessening the burden of social reproduction on women, if only through the provision of universal basic services.
Women’s economic exclusion is not simply the result of insufficient jobs. It has as much to do with the scale of their unpaid social reproduction and the dearth of basic infrastructure – childcare, reliable public transport, energy and broadband – to support it.
Spatial inequality in South Africa necessitates reliable and affordable public transport, and yet the country lacks a coherent public transport strategy. The taxi industry, which ferries a large segment of the population, receives no subsidies outside of the recapitalisation programme.
Outside of existing underfunded early childhood development programmes, impoverished households have no access to affordable and quality childcare, which hinders women’s ability to gain paid employment.
The examples of policy choices that place the burden of social reproduction on women are many. Addressing these gaps through quality and equitable access to social infrastructure is an essential part of any economic alternative that seeks to address the inequalities faced by women and increase their participation in the paid economy.
The benefits of fully and reliably providing basic services are twofold: job creation and freeing up time for women to engage in activities away from unpaid care work.
Universal basic services are the floor for equitable access, regardless of income. Over the long term, such provision can be complemented by the introduction of a basic income grant, which the Department of Social Development is reportedly exploring.
While introducing a basic income grant would improve people’s lives, it would not have the long-term effect of reducing the inequalities experienced by women unless the quality and accessibility of basic services around it were improved.
The state must take the reins
By incentivising business – through tax and other incentives – to hire young people, the state enters into partnership with the private sector to address unemployment. Similar initiatives are necessary to address women’s paid economic exclusion.
The state can leverage existing spending programmes to provide, through public-private partnerships, basic services and economic opportunities for women. The National Treasury budgeted about R93.1 billion for economic regulation and infrastructure spending for 2021. If this does not fall to austerity, such spending can go a long way to build the necessary infrastructure for basic services such as transport, broadband and childcare facilities. Economic opportunities must also be created for women with this spending.
Additionally, as part of a strategy to provide paid economic opportunities for women, businesses subsidised by the state can be required to meet certain criteria in addition to their broad-based Black economic empowerment compliance. This, for instance, can include the provision of or subsidisation of childcare for employees – not a new idea by any stretch.
Through collaboration with business and non-governmental organisations, the state can provide affordable internet access to impoverished communities, especially in underdeveloped areas where women are likely to be located.
But while opportunities for partnerships exist, they cannot succeed unless spatial inequality is addressed. And this is the job of the state.
One way to address spatial inequality is moving beyond the idea of Gauteng as the biggest potential for economic development. Economic opportunities and labour exist across the country, but the geographic concentration of the economy in a few places limits the possibility for growth and further serves to compound women’s economic exclusion.
Access to childcare and reliable public transport will not serve the intended purpose in a concentrated economy. This will only entrench the idea of limited jobs, and therefore the idea of unemployment as a necessary part of the market.
Economic production is dependent on paid and unpaid labour. And unpaid social reproduction, which is central to the production of our workforce, is racialised, gendered and undervalued in South Africa. An alternative economic strategy should, at the least, attempt to address factors that produce and reproduce imbalances in economic power by recognising the value and cost of social reproduction.