Symbolic gestures

2010-10-14 00:00

SOUTH Africa is by no means the only developing country in which there is a huge disparity between the rich and the poor, but here the gap is particularly large. On some reckonings we are the most unequal society in the world.

What can the government do about this? As we know it has been trying for many years to devise an economic policy which would place a new emphasis on job creation and on the plight of the poor without frightening away the foreign investors who contribute in a significant way to what prosperity we have. But at the moment quite as striking as the government’s efforts in this matter is its almost total failure. We must hope that the government’s economic team come up with some positive results before long.

In the meantime, is there any way in which the government can show its commitment to the cause of the poor? Can it do anything which would assure poor people that it cares, that they still feature very prominently on its agenda?

It has been suggested that high-ranking politicians and government officials might take a wage freeze or even a wage cut. Not surprisingly, there have been objections to this suggestion. “Freezing or slightly cutting the wages of such people would not solve the problem of our millions of very poor people,” some have said. Others have added: “Not only would it not solve the problem. It would hardly make a noticeable dent in the problem.”

But such comments are unimaginative and (when they are made by prominent government representatives) perhaps self-serving. Nobody supposes that wage freezes or cuts would in themselves solve the problem of poverty.

But what they would do is offer a sign of solidarity — an indication that government people in well-paid jobs recognise the suffering of poor people and are prepared to take a little of that pain upon themselves. Wage freezes and cuts represent a symbolic gesture; they are important not economically but psychologically.

Psychology is not unimportant in the broad economic field. Where morale is good, people will be more prepared to have open minds and to be patient and to work hard. Nelson Mandela, who was a master of the significant gesture, used to say: “We’ll surprise them by what we do.” He surprised the widow of Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, one of the chief architects of apartheid, by visiting her and having tea with her. That event meant little in tangible terms, but it was one of the great moments in South Africa’s transition, and has gone down as a glowing footnote in world history.

So wage freezes or cuts would be of immense human value to the poor and to our country as a whole. They would help to keep us unified as a nation — in the same kind of way as we all felt ourselves to be during the World Cup. They would, by their small bite and awkwardness, serve to remind people in positions of authority of the pressing and oppressive facts of poverty and unemployment.

How good has the government been so far in producing symbolic gestures? Has the ruling party, in particular, shown skill and imagination in following in the footsteps of Madiba? There is a simple answer to these questions: no. Many members of the ANC have in some respects been quite startlingly insensitive in their public actions. We read of huge acts of corruption and of super-expensive cars and of super-expensive alcohol. Such things are obscene in a country where millions of people are struggling to stay alive.

I must qualify some of the points I have made. It is of course an African tradition that leaders are expected to look good, live well and eat well. That is one of the traditions that need some modification in South African circumstances. And it is certainly true that not all ANC representatives live grandly. I hope my friend Yunus Carrim, who is now a deputy minister, won’t mind my mentioning that when he first, as a member of Parliament, drove to meet his constituents in his oldish Toyota they had to be convinced that he wasn’t a mere bodyguard.

The ANC’s recent National General Council turned out better than most people expected. It would make a lot of sense to follow up that success with a symbolic gesture that might surprise many people.

At the same time, it must be remembered that gestures are never enough in themselves. What the poor and the unemployed want, in the end, is not just psychological support: they need a material change in the way they live.

• Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is at an African editors’ conference in Mali.

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