South African Delegation appears before UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights at its 64th Session, Geneva, Switzerland (2 - 3 October 2018)
07 October 2018
1. The Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, Mr John Jeffery, lead a high-level government delegation to Geneva where the delegation appeared before the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on the Committee’s review of the initial report of South Africa on its efforts to implement the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (“ICESCR”). Deputy Minister Jeffery was accompanied by the Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Mr Luwellyn Landers. The Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Ms Fatima Chohan, who was in Geneva for other matters also attended part of the first day of the hearing.
2. Introducing the report Deputy Minister Jeffery said that the Covenant was a major source of influence for the inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights in the national Constitution.
3. The value of the Covenant was that it helped the Government to measure whether its domestic laws, policies and programmes complied with its international obligations.
4. South Africa was a country divided into two nations – one was relatively prosperous and white, and the other was black and poor, living under grossly underdeveloped conditions. Budgetary restraints were a reality, like in many developing countries. Despite that, the growth of non-interest expenditure continued to outpace inflation. The Government had slowed the growth of other areas of expenditure, while spending on social priorities, such as health, education, social protection, housing, and community amenities.
5. Nonetheless, millions who had previously been excluded nowadays had access to education, water, electricity, healthcare, housing and social security. Government had produced four million new housing opportunities through its subsidy programme for the poorest South Africans.
6. Some 88 per cent of households had access to piped water in 2017, whereas 84 per cent were connected to an electricity supply. More than 17 million social grants were paid each month, benefiting nearly a third of the population.
7. If South Africa was to break the cycle of poverty, it had to educate the children of the poor. The Government had insisted that education should start in early childhood. Nowadays, there were nearly a million children in early childhood development facilities. There was near universal access to schools for children between the age of 7 and 15, and the Government would now focus on improving the quality of education.
8. In December 2017, the Government had announced that it would be phasing in fully subsidized free higher education and training for poor and working-class South Africans over a five-year period. The judgments of national courts were continuously being factored into the policies of the Government to ensure the strengthening of a human rights culture in the country.
9. Since the submission of the country’s initial report, there had been a debate about section 25 of the Constitution which related to property rights and expropriation without compensation. Land inequality and its adverse impacts were a risk to future political stability and needed to be addressed.
10. The 2017 Land Audit had reported that 72 per cent of agricultural land was owned by white South Africans, 15 per cent by coloured persons, five per cent by Indians, four per cent by Africans, and three per cent by others. Women only owned 13 per cent of farmland. That was a reflection of the systematic dispossession of land.
11. Land ownership was still skewed along racial and patriarchal lines. In 1994 the Government had set itself a target to transfer 30 per cent of the total productive land by 2014, which it had not achieved. Instead, it had transferred only 10 per cent. The use of the “market value” principle over “just and equitable” was a major contributing factor to the slow pace of land reform.
12. As for fighting corruption, the Judicial Commission of Inquiry had been appointed to investigate allegations of State capture, corruption and fraud in the public sector, and it was chaired by the Deputy Chief of Justice.
13. The country was close to the ideal of achieving universal healthcare for all through the adoption of the National Health Insurance Bill in June 2018. The bill was a health financing system that pooled funds to provide access to quality health services for all South Africans based on their health needs, irrespective of their socio-economic status.
14. In the ensuing discussion, the Committee Experts thanked South Africa for thorough and detailed country report. The experts inquired about very high levels of inequalities and the effect of austerity measures, racial disparities in the poverty rate, corruption and misuse of public revenue, and illicit financial flows on the population.
15. They also asked about human rights defenders facing threats, harassment and repression of their protests in certain contexts, the right to work for asylum-seekers, access to land for women, the situation of indigenous peoples, and support for persons with albinism.
16. Other issues that were raised included the redistributive capacity of the fiscal system, the rate of unemployment, the calculation of the minimum wage, the gender pay gap, labour inspections, trade union rights and the right to strike, the employment quota for persons with disabilities, the social protection floor, the uptake of the child support grant, the criminalization of sex workers, the National Health Insurance Bill, conscientious objection to abortion, evictions from farms and land reform, access to adequate housing, the right to food and high rates of stunting, polygamy and virginity testing, challenges in the provision of free primary education, high school dropout rates, privatization of education, access to the Internet, and protection of indigenous languages.
17. In his concluding remarks, Olivier de Schutter, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for South Africa, thanked the delegation for the high-quality dialogue, and acknowledged the country’s struggle with the legacies of apartheid. He also noted that South Africa had a very progressive Constitution, an independent judiciary, and a vibrant civil society.
18. At the conclusion of robust discussions, the delegation thanked the Committee for the level of insight and interest it had shown in the work done by the Government of South Africa. The delegation appreciated the many observations and comments made during the dialogue.
19. Government had found that the Covenant was making a difference in the realization of socio-economic rights in the country, and it was of the view that the Covenant was not static but a living document.
20. In addressing issues around taxation, Government’s VAT rate had increased from 14 to 15 per cent to ensure the sustainability of public finance after large revenue shortfalls in previous years and substantial expenditure pressures. Government had not increased the corporate tax because it could result in a drastic loss of investments by domestic and foreign capital.
21. The national budget was strongly aligned with socio-economic imperatives, with about two thirds of the 2018 budget being allocated to functions dedicated to realizing constitutionally mandated social rights. The budget was highly redistributive in favour of the poor and low-income families.
22. Ms Maria Virginia Bras Gomes, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for the very interesting and constructive dialogue. She also thanked civil society representatives for their contribution.
23. With regards to the process moving forward, once South Africa receives the Concluding Observations from the Committee it will be widely disseminated to line Departments within government for further attention.
24. The delegation has also undertaken to meet with civil society representatives after receipt of the Concluding Observations so as to ensure that we further strengthen our commitment to the Covenant.
Issued by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development
Department of Justice and Constitutional Development
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