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Unemployment and AIDS: The Social-Democratic Challenge for South Africa

  • Year: 2003
  • Author(s): Nicoli Nattrass

There are two major economic and social security challenges facing South Africa: addressing large-scale unemployment and the AIDS pandemic. As of 2003, an estimated 14% of all South Africans were HIV-positive, with over a thousand people dying each day of AIDS. According to the government household and labour-force surveys conducted from the mid-1990s onwards, about a third of the labour force is without work (Nattrass, 2000a). This amounts to about 4.7 million people and it is, without question, a socio-economic crisis of major proportions. The life-chances and living-standards of entire households are compromised when working-age adults cannot find employment (Seekings, 2003b). Households burdened by AIDS are in an especially difficult position (Desmond et al 2000, Steinberg et al 2002a, 2002b; Booysen, 2002; Booysen et al, 2002).

Addressing AIDS and unemployment poses major challenges for social solidarity in South Africa. Over the past decade, the labour-market and industrial-policy environment has benefited relatively high-productivity firms and sectors (Nattrass, 2001). Business thus had strong incentives to reduce dependence on unskilled labour, and once the price of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) started to fall from 2001 onwards, to supply it, either directly or indirectly through medical aids, to their increasingly skilled workforce (Nattrass, 2003). Those without jobs had neither access to earned income nor life-prolonging medication.

In August 2003, the government signalled its in-principle support for the provision of HAART in the public sector. Many unemployed people with AIDS will thus be able to access treatment, although this will depend on the scale and pace of the roll-out. A full-scale treatment intervention which reaches all who need it is feasible, but will require a substantial commitment of resources (Geffen et al, 2003). If resources are not to be directed from other priorities, the cost burden will fall on income-earners in the form of higher taxation. Given South Africa's high levels of unemployment, this means that the burden of providing treatment for all will fall on a relatively small pool of income-earners.

Under these conditions, employers and workers may calculate that they stand to benefit more from a more limited (and less expensive in terms of increased taxation) public sector treatment intervention, than a programme providing universal access. Two out of the three leading South African macroeconomic models predict that the pandemic will increase per capita income because the impact will be greater on the population than on growth (Nattrass, 2003). If the AIDS pandemic is perceived as being likely to result in an increase in per capita income, then the elite may regard it as in their best interests to do very little significant to halt the epidemic or alleviate its consequences. Those with the economic means to better protect themselves and their families against HIV infection (by providing access to education, condoms, healthy diets and safer life-style choices), and who have access to medical schemes to treat themselves and their loved ones if they become infected, may think their interests are better served by a 'do-very-little' scenario. They may privately calculate that they stand to benefit more as individuals from a set of policies which prioritises economic growth and minimises taxation, than they would from a social response that includes universal access to HAART and entails higher taxation and spending cuts in other areas. They would, of course, be wrong to think that they can entirely insulate themselves in this way from the AIDS pandemic. But if they believe they can, this course of action may seem preferable.

This has implications for social solidarity regarding AIDS treatment. For example, organised labour may well baulk at the tax implications of a full-scale tax-financed AIDS intervention. Many workers are already able to access HAART through their employers or medical aids and most live in urban areas (which are at the front of the queue in the treatment roll-out because the greatest capacity to deliver treatment is in the large urban hospitals). Employed workers may thus have an incentive to support a limited roll-out (with correspondingly less onerous tax implications for their pay packets) rather than a large-scale intervention aimed at reaching all those who need it.

The structural problem at the root of all this is South Africa's high unemployment rate - especially among the less skilled. Section 1 places South Africa in a comparative perspective and summarises the historical roots of the unemployment crisis. Section 2 discusses various ways of addressing the unemployment problem in the light of the AIDS pandemic, and Section 3 considers the question of how to combat AIDS and unemployment/poverty through a social accord process.