Opinion: The high stakes of a universal basic income

By: Hein Marais

For a very large proportion of South Africans, paid work is neither a viable nor sufficient basis for dignified life. Official unemployment, according to the more realistic expanded definition, is more than 44%, and close to one-third of people with paid work are not earning enough to afford basic living expenses. Current economic and social policy models are failing to protect many millions against hunger, destitution and desperation.

This is in a country battling three deadly pandemics — Aids, tuberculosis and Covid-19 — and steadily battered by climate change-triggered floods and droughts.

Hence, the growing demand for a universal basic income. A growing alliance of grassroots and nongovernment organisations, trade unions and researchers are demanding that the state transform the emergency relief grants introduced earlier in the Covid-19 pandemic into a full-fledged universal basic income (UBI). They have produced costings and outlined financing options to back that push. The ANC, too, might be considering a limited basic income guarantee.

More income for poor households will reduce poverty and widen people’s life choices. It will also increase demand for basic goods and services, which would boost growth and, especially, local production and jobs.

If linked to other forward-looking strategies, a universal basic income can be part of a safety net for communities hard-hit by climate change disasters. And it can become part of the support that workers and communities will need as we transition to a low-carbon economic model.

Urgent need for new forms of income support

There’s growing recognition across the board that new forms of income support are needed. At the same time, the idea of a truly universal basic income attracts strong resistance from the business sector and sections of the state, notably National Treasury.

Achieving and defending it will require social and political forces that are strong enough to prevail against that opposition. And that will require reshaping the “common sense” we use when we define and weigh the claims we have on one another, the state and the common wealth of our society.

In a society such as South Africa, the universal basic income demand evidently speaks to near-desperate need. But how do we frame the demand? Is it an appeal for “charity”, for the state to “grant” assistance in extreme circumstances? Is it a demand rooted in the state’s duty to “guarantee all members of society the means of existence”, in French revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre’s words? Is it a claim arising from rights inscribed in a constitution? Or is it a claim for what we are due, for a share of common wealth?


A universal basic income is laden with challenging propositions about the responsibilities and entitlements that connect us in society. The demand upsets deeply held beliefs about the role and status of waged work in society, and about the hierarchies of worth and value we attach to different kinds of work (paid or not).

The demand therefore pushes against prevailing economic and social orders. It challenges the idea that our dignity and fates are irrevocably tied to the sale of our labour on whatever terms and prices are offered. It implies fresh ways of thinking about the roles and duties of the state, and about the claims that citizens can rightfully make on the state and on the commons.

It is therefore tempting to frame a universal basic income as a dividend of the collectively produced wealth in society. A universal basic income would then implicitly reflect the fact that wealth is socially produced (by people’s labour, paid or not, and social institutions) and it is reliant on the commons (most obviously, non-human nature) and publicly funded infrastructure.

For the economist Yanis Varoufakis, such a framing steers the debate beyond arguments about who “deserves” assistance. Instead, society stakes a claim on the wealth drawn from it and “that claim becomes a dividend, an income stream that goes to everyone”.

Framing a demand

Framing a universal basic income as a dividend highlights the dimension of justice and links to the socioeconomic rights enshrined in the Constitution, which assigns to the state a constitutional obligation to progressively realise the right to social security and social assistance for all.

It is also in tune with powerful political traditions in South Africa.

It is in harmony, for example, with the 1955 Freedom Charter and its neglected precursor, the African National Congress’s 1943 African Claims document.

Framing a universal basic income as a “social dividend”, or a “rightful share”, seems especially appealing in a country where the economy has been built on systemic expropriation and exploitation spanning the colonial and apartheid eras, and continuing subsequently.

These understandings emphasise the collective character of a universal basic income, rather than seeing it merely as a multitude of separate payments to individuals. They acknowledge that factors beyond individual control decide the distribution of resources and capabilities — and that those means have to be distributed fairly.

High stakes

This profoundly changes the implications of the universal basic income demand. It becomes a sustained act of claim-staking, rather than concession-seeking.

It also implies a different relationship between the citizenry and the state. A universal basic income, then, involves a demand to democratise the wealth a society produces, which poses a political challenge to the small minority that routinely commandeers that wealth.

The framing of the universal basic income demand will be at least as important as the achievement itself. It’s crucial that progressives approach a universal basic income not as a stand-alone policy fix, but as part of a broader, long-term project of change and emancipation — because there are risks attached.

Once in place, a universal basic income might become politically too costly to abandon, yet fiscally too expensive to sustain. In the absence of powerful progressive support, this could provide a pretext for cutting other social entitlements.

Separated from a strong political and social movement of change, a universal basic income could then run the risk of backfiring, of being captured and repurposed in ways that sustain exploitation and inequality.

Even once achieved, a universal basic income will remain a contested and politically unstable intervention. Ultimately, its impact and fate will depend on how it links with other processes of economic, social and political change, which forces drive them, and whether those forces are capable of defending the desired changes. DM/MC

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