Is South Africa operating in a safe and just space?
Katherine Trebeck Senior Researcher
28th May 2015
Oxfam's doughnut model provides a framework for policy makers to envisage a safe and socially just space for humanity. What would this look like if applied to one of the world's most unequal countries? Katherine Trebeck introduces the South Africa doughnut report.
Our world faces twin challenges: delivering a decent standard of living for everyone, while living within environmental limits.
Oxfam's 'doughnut model' provides a visual representation of a space between an environmental ceiling (the outer edge of the doughnut) and a social foundation (the inner edge), where it is environmentally safe and socially just for humanity to exist.
Its simple portrayal of what we need our economies to do makes the doughnut a useful 'meta-metaphor' for the repurposing of the economy we so sorely need.
But to move on from visualisation and into action, we need to know where we are. So Oxfam has been making an attempt at translating the 'doughnut' concept into national reports that capture the circumstances of some of the countries where we work. Thus far, we have published 'doughnut analysis' for Scotland, Wales, and the United Kingdom as a whole.
Today, we are releasing a report for South Africa that provides a snapshot of how it's faring across 21 environmental and socio-economic domains. When selecting the dimensions and indicators key questions were asked: Is this relevant at the national scale?; Does the set of dimensions include the main social concerns in South Africa?; Is the indicator the best available direct measure of that dimension?; and Is there sufficient
reliable data that is measured on a regular basis? If the original global doughnut's dimensions or indicators did not meet the criteria, it was removed or replaced with a more appropriate national choice.
As a result, many of the domains are different to the original doughnut and the various UK reports. So while not directly comparable, they are salient for South Africa and the challenges it faces today.
4 % of households receive 32% of the total income, while over half of South Africans live below the national poverty line.Some of these challenges will be familiar across so-called 'middle income economies', but others are unique, stemming from South Africa's apartheid history. It is one of the most unequal countries in the world - the wealthiest 4% of households receive 32% of the total income, while over half of South Africans live below the national poverty line.
Downscaling Oxfam's 'doughnut model' to South Africa is about more than just income inequality - it reveals that a significant proportion of South Africans are living below the multidimensional social floor. In fact, South Africa does not meet any of the social floor domains: for example, almost a fifth of adults are illiterate and 17% of people lack a ventilated pit latrine or a toilet.
Some of the domains - safety and income - have seen a deterioration in recent years. In 2011, 64% of households felt unsafe walking alone at night in their area, an increase of nearly 20% from 1998.
Simultaneously, South Africa is in a state of environmental stress on multiple fronts, and this has become worse since 1994. Four dimensions - climate change, freshwater use, marine harvesting and biodiversity loss - have exceeded their safe environmental boundaries (and arable land use, phosphorous loading and air pollution are perilously close to breaking through theirs).
As is Oxfam's experience around the world, in South Africa the poorest citizens are often those least likely to contribute to such environmental stresses (for example, 24% of the population have no access to electricity). However, they are most likely to feel the negative impacts (for example, high food prices mean that 23% cannot afford an adequate diet).
Policy recommendations that emerge from the report span governance, regional development, jobs and education, citizen voice, and its leadership on the regional and international stage.
Perhaps most crucially, South Africa needs to invest in its people and in its natural capital, while respecting global limits. The South African government has an ambitious target of 5.4% growth GDP by 2030. But any increase in the GDP ledger will ring hollow if significant numbers of people are left below the social foundation or if it comes at the expense of the country's (and the world's) natural resources. For growth to be safe and just, it is fundamental that it simultaneously tackles environmental stress and social inequalities - and that means operating
within the 'doughnut'.
Header image: Luxury sports car showroom in Cape Town with homeless rough sleepers outside. Credit: Zed Nelson