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James Ferguson opened the fourth seminar theme on ‘Kinship, Ethics, And The Everyday In South Africa’ with an excerpt of a chapter from his latest book called ‘Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution’. Titled ‘A Rightful Share: Beyond Gift and Market in the Politics of Distribution’, Ferguson argues that the constellation of discussions around resource nationalisation in South Africa, the national social grant distribution system along with a Basic Income Grant (BIG) could pave the way for a new form of wealth distribution based on the notion of a rightful share of wealth rather than deserving gifts for the helpless and incapacitated.

Ferguson’ s argument commences, firstly, by addressing one of the most outspoken characters in South African politics, Julius Malema, a champion for the universalisation of ownership and sharing of national wealth – specifically, land and minerals. However, rather than ownership by the people, Malema proposes ownership by the state and, as with any institution, brings into play questions of bureaucracy and cronyism without addressing the terms on which the state should distribute wealth. The second strand of his argument turns to social protection which, distributed in South Africa through direct social grants, has had positive effects but has not sufficiently addressed social inequality and has depoliticised poverty to some extent. The latter owing to the fact that grants are received by children, senior citizens and the sick but not the large numbers of unemployed, not withstanding public works programmes in South Africa. In this respect, social grants are seen as charity for the helpless and incapacitated rather than a truly transformative system of wealth redistribution.

It is from this basis that Ferguson argues that redistribution should be based on a just division of wealth amongst all citizens, rather than distribution through the market or gifts, akin to dividends received by corporate shareholders. In this respect, were grants to be posed as shares, there would be no expectations of returns nor connotations of shame. Drawing on the Basic Income Grant pilot project in Namibia, Ferguson proposes this as the ideal model for natural mineral wealth distribution, where, unfettered by connotations with work or assistance, it is rather a claim to the rightful share of the collective. In so doing, poverty and wealth redistribution could become a more pronounced political aspiration under the banner of “I deserve a share not because I work but because I own”.

In this manner, in linking new forms of welfare with new forms of distribution, new possibilities could come to the fore wherein the politics of nationalisation could find a new outlet through a Basic Income Grant and social grants could develop a new distributive politics. Further, framed within the notion of a rightful share it might also bring about a new form of citizenry identity as owners, whilst breaking down traditional associations between labour and income and dispelling notions of deserving gifts. What is more, having a national distributive system already in place, South African could be the cradle for this new welfare system to provide a collective social floor.

Ferguson’s seminar drew a large crowd and inspired much debate, many questions centring on the grounds for inclusion in such a system. To this Ferguson proposes that in the modern world, where services such as health and education are extended to immigrants, a rightful share might not be based on membership according to citizenship in the conventional sense but rather based on the presence of citizenry.

Anne Wiltshire, postgraduate student in MA Sociology, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Stellenbosch University.

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