In the balance: The case for a Universal Basic Income in South Africa and beyond

Hein Marais. 2022.

“In a global state of precarity, we don’t have a choice other than looking for life in the ruin.”

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the end of the world: on possibility of life in capitalist ruins

Over the last few decades, especially since the economic crisis of 2008, capitalism has become highly unstable and prone to crises. Intensification of financial crises, the continuous and steady increase of “surplus populations” as a result of the a severe crisis of waged work, political and social disorder followed by the hollowing out of democratic institutions, ecological devastation and frequent public health disasters are just some its most obvious manifestations. The crisis of paid, secure work is no longer limited to the peripheries. “Unemployment and underemployment rates are high and growing, while new jobs are mostly irregular, poorly paid and lacking in benefits and security”. Precarity became “the condition of our time”, and the promise of stability and/or progress cannot be taken as given. It seems that the system can no longer function in the way it is structured and, therefore, corrective actions and (palliative) measures that have been implemented in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis haven’t been able to resolve its underlying problems and deficiencies. There are even claims (William Robinson) that the current crisis has an “apocalyptic potential” and that “we appear to be arriving at the historic exhaustion of the conditions for capitalist renewal.” 

Hein Marais’s book “In the Balance: the case for a universal basic income in South Africa and beyond” (published by Wits University Press) comes out at a  time when the very foundations of a “good society” are shaken and when the critical examination of what social and economic policies and programs are needed to provide an adequate support to people is more pressing than ever. Wage labour no longer serves neither as the main basis of social membership nor as the main safeguard from poverty. And yet, according to Marais, economic and social policy frameworks in South Africa, and elsewhere, continue to embody the idea that waged work is a viable and sufficiently available basis for avoiding (escaping poverty) and pursuing fulfilling lives.

By using the South African basic income story, Marais is making an argument for the introduction of the basic income grant in South Africa and beyond. Marais situates the South African predicament in a wider political and economic context. According to him, South Africa presents a grim example of global trends[1], with its large working age population surplus to the labour needs of the economy, high levels of poverty and severe and widening inequality mirrored in access to (and quality of) healthcare and education. “For a great majority of low and semi-skilled workers, working life comprises short periods of employment bracketed by unpredictable durations of unemployment,” he notes. What is certain is that mass structural unemployment is not going to disappear anytime soon. Even the most optimistic prognosis and scenarios acknowledge that a significant part of the working age population can and will not be integrated into a formal labour market. That means that there is a great urgency to identify and develop new forms of socio-economic membership, that will be easily accessible to all citizens without the obstacles of bureaucracy, corruption, and abuse of a patronage based systems of distribution. According to its proponents, as well as the author of the book, universal basic income grant fulfils these requirements.

His study aims to unpack the history of the idea of basic income grant, its evolution, but also tries to explain its newly found appeal in South Africa and elsewhere. Since the early twentieth century basic income and similar progressive policies gained support in different parts of the world and across the political spectrum. Over time, the concept itself evolved. But what is clear from this book is that some of the main issues and controversies surrounding it haven’t changed a lot. Early conceptions of basic income were slightly different (and less ambitious) than the contemporary ones, but they, for example, played an important role in legitimizing the idea of “publicly funded and publicly provided poor relief”. The idea of minimum guaranteed income started getting prominence in South Africa at the of the end of the1990s, and since then has been part of the public (policy) debates. 

Along with the issues of economic sustainability and political feasibility, Marais also tackles the main ethical dilemmas that are usually part of UBIG discussions. He draws on the rich body of theoretical but more importantly empirical evidence coming from pilot studies that have been implemented across the “real world” that provide encouraging data and insights regarding the positive effects of basic income in relation to “poverty and inequality reduction, improves diets and nutrition, schooling performance, mental health and psychological well-being, enhances independences and confidence and supports other income generating activities and community based work”. Compared to traditional forms of social assistance, the UBIG proponents are assuming poor’s people own ability to resolve their own problems, while the mechanisms of policing, paternalism and surveillance are considered to be unnecessary. All of which should have made a UBIG a mechanism that deserves to be seriously taken into consideration.

At the same time, while presenting all of potential that could be unleashed with the introduction of the grant, Marais is restrained and measured in his recommendations. “There are risks, unanswered questions and major challenges attached to a UBIG”, Marais argues. He makes it clear that UBIG is a slippery concept that requires serious analysis and discussions. One should not have unrealistic expectations that the grant can serve as a silver bullet or panacea that will solve (on its own) deep structural issues that South Africa or any other country in the world) is facing. What is clear from this book is that its success will ultimately depend on its design (the amount of the payment, how eligibility is determined and how those variable change over time, and which financing strategy is selected), as well as its relationship with the wider (public policy as well as political economy) context.  Since the end of apartheid, the South African welfare state has had some impressive achievements (mainly through social grants), but also showed some serious limitations, one of which being unable to properly address the issue of mass structural unemployment, especially regarding young, able-bodied men. As I have argued with ivor Chipkin, the current system effectively leaves young men exposed and vulnerable. The implementation of the basic income grant should be considered having in mind the existing but also the future welfare state.

In the balance: the case for a universal basic income in South Africa and beyond is a major contribution to understanding the current state of South Africa, its political economy, the need for innovative (radical?) thinking and for reinventing the  welfare state. It is beautifully written, thorough in its exposition and open about its own limitations. For anxious readers wanting a clear way forward, unfortunately Marais holds back in offering a way of unsettling welfare’s mist hardy prejudice. Despite the rich empirical body of research that unambiguously supports the idea of a basic income grant, decisionmakers in South Africa, and elsewhere are still not ready to let go of the old ways of thinking according to which one cannot “get something for nothing”. 


William Robinson. 2014. Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity. Cambridge University Press.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. 2021. the Mashroom at the end of the World: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton University Press.

Johan & Jean Comaroff. 2011. Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Towards Africa. Routledge.

Jelena Vidojević & Ivor Chipkin. 2021. The Gendered Character of Welfare: reconsidering vulnerability and violence in South Africa. Social Dynamics,