Can economic growth translate into access to rights?

The Community Law Centre hosted a seminar that looked at challenges faced by institutions in South Africa in ensuring that growth leads to better living standards.

On 1 November 2013, the Socio-Economic Rights Project at the Community Law Centre (CLC) of the University of the Western Cape hosted a roundtable with the theme “Can Economic Growth Translate into Access to Rights? Challenges faced by Institutions in South Africa in Ensuring that Growth Leads to Better Living Standards.”

The seminar was attended by academics, researchers and students across the different faculties in the University. According to Ebenezer Durojaye, ‘CLC decided to host this seminar as a way of stimulating debate on social justice and ensuring accountability in the realisation of socioeconomic rights of vulnerable and marginalised groups in society’. Notable among the participants included Prof. Renfrew Christie Dean of Research, University of the Western Cape and a board member of CLC and Prof. Kitty Malherbe of the Department of Mercantile and Labour Law, Faculty of Law, University of the Western Cape.

Around 20 participants from government, and academia took part to interrogate whether the legal framework and institutions established under the Constitution can facilitate equal access to economic opportunities that would translate to economic growth and realisation of rights. The seminar was based on a research by Serges Kamga and Siyambonga Heleba both of the University of Johannesburg.

The presentation of the research was made by Heleba. He began with a brief background of the paper and highlighted on the link between economic growth and development. It was acknowledged that sustainable development should ideally lead to economic growth which in turn should translate into better living standards and therefore realisation of socio-economic rights. The research interrogated whether economic growth translates into access to social and economic rights by exploring the relationship between rights and economic growth.

In addition, the presentation, using South Africa as a case study, examines whether constitutional democracy provides an enabling environment for translating growth into better living standards for the poor. Thus, the researchers examine the role of Chapter 9 institutions in supporting South Africa’s constitutional democracy with a view to ensuring that economic growth, which South Africa has enjoyed over the years, has positively impacted the living conditions of its poor citizens.The presentation noted that acts of corruption, weak oversight and lack of accountability are the major threats to economic growth and the realisation of socioeconomic rights in South Africa. Thus, the researchers made some suggestions which include among others; the need for the government to strengthen its fights against corruption and encourage a more participatory approach to decision-making, the need for a robust and proactive judiciary, civil society and other institutions that can hold the government accountable.

Responding to the presentation, Prof Sandy Liebenberg of the Faculty of Law, University of Stellenbosch commended the researchers for the quality of work and presentation. She noted that what is unique about the research is that it adopts a multi-disciplinary approach to addressing the issue of socio-economic rights in South Africa. Moreover, she noted that discussion on the realisation of socioeconomic rights in South Africa has often focussed on the role of the courts, however, this study would seem to show that other institutions such as the Office of the Public Defender and the South African Human Rights Commission equally have important roles to play in ensuring the realisation of socioeconomic rights in the country.

She pointed out that it would have been interesting if the researchers had enquired into the reasons why some countries in Asia such as China, Malaysia and Singapore despite weak democratic culture have achieved relative better living conditions for their citizens. In addition, she differed with the researchers regarding the fact that the non-adoption of the minimum core approach by the Constitutional Court has had negative effects in realising socioeconomic rights of vulnerable and marginalised groups in the country. Rather she argued that the reasonableness approach has a great potential in promoting social justice and improving the living conditions of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in the country.