I have been a supporter of a universal grant since the Basic Income Grant (BIG) was first introduced as a pilot project at Otjivero in Omitara. Not because I romanticised with the idea, but because I was witness to what a social grant could do to the betterment of lives of the impoverished. The first time I came into contact with the people of Otjivero was when I was sent there on a fact -finding mission to experience for myself how that paltry tiger (N$100) per person per month could transform lives. The memory of that sleepy village still plays itself out in my mind.
I saw for instance how a mother of four used the N$500 per month to bake bread, which she sold to other residents to supplement her income. I witnessed how a farm worker who was abruptly fired from his job returned home to seven little hungry stomachs and a wifey whom he could not maintain, but with the help of the BIG, the N$900 they received per month made quite a difference in their lives. Of course, there were a fistful of those who abused the opportunity and kazakked the money to buy chwala and tabak, but it seemed that the majority used it for well-intended purposes. School attendance was up as the little ones went to school on full stomachs and even the registry at the clinic went down. While some of us can lose that pocket change in an instant for a packet of gwaes and some 061s, for others it meant the world.
Since then I have dismissed with contempt, allegations that a universal grant could make people lazy and dependent on government. Such a statement is heartless, careless and at best insensitive to the majority of our poor people who continue to stare hunger in the face every day. That argument has no basis, because how do you know people will become lazy if they have never had the opportunity to work? Remember how cleaning jobs at the hospitals caused a stampede with hundreds of applicants? Wasn’t that an indicator that people really want to work but there is no work? Who really wants to zula every day to survive if there are alternatives? Who wants to be called names like low-life, hongor, ngupa or a bum because you forever ‘outere? Yes, I agree that there are people who rise above expectations or norm and make a success from rags to riches, but life doesn’t deal us the same cards.
At times, I think that we have lost our moral compass. We only reason from the premise of our economic status without taking into account that our reality may not be similar to others’ situations. Maybe if we exchanged places for a week would we understand how hard it is and how urgent it is to give our poorest of the poor the basic grant while we find an alternative so that we can eventually move people out of dependency on the State.
Now the moment of truth just hit home with the lockdown that a basic income grant is necessary when government rolled out the Emergency Income Grant (EIG) for the unemployed and those who lost income due to Covid-19. It is sad that the plight of the poor who have lived all their lives on ‘lockdown’ has fallen on deaf ears and we needed this unfortunate situation to recognise how desperate the situation is. I hope those of us who have lost jobs due to the economic meltdown or due to the lockdown now understand what it is to have sleepless nights not knowing how you will feed your kids the next day or how you will need to humble yourself to ask family for help – even from people you probably looked down on because you were so caught in your bubble of achievements and never thought the wheel would turn. I hope that we come out of this with vigour and ammunition to mobilise for a basic grant that will not be open to abuse; one that will take our people out of extreme poverty but not make us completely dependent on State.