Righting our global imbalance

2008-07-23 00:00

A South African who visits a First World country is bound to make comparisons. As I write these words I am in England. What are the similarities? What are the differences?

Many of them are well known. There is quite a gap be-tween the rich and the poor here, but most people are fairly affluent, few are hopelessly poor and nobody is in the same category as the poorest of the poor in South Africa. There are a few instances of corruption, incompetence and political confusion, but the society is altogether more efficient and successful than South African society is at the present.

How should one react to these realities? South Africa has only recently got going as an integrated democratic society, and it has had many kinds of built-in disadvantage. Considerable pro-gress has been made, but there is a long way to go. We all need to work together, and while preserving our valid forms of distinctiveness, to emulate the achievements of the cultivated and broadly harmonious societies of the world. We need to aim earnestly towards high levels of competence and expertise, a good work ethic, a pervasive moral awareness, energy, enthusiasm and ubuntu.

There is, however, another perspective on all this — not a contradictory perspective but one that allows a richer and more complex vision of the situation as a country. As one spends time in a place like Britain one can’t help being aware that, over and above the collective competence and common sense that have helped to make it what it is, the country is also privileged, or lucky. Seen in the context of the world’s population as a whole, the Brits are indeed fortunate: as well as everything else they have huge resources, both intellectual and material.

The imbalances between First World countries and developing countries are not difficult to explain in historical terms. The achievements of First World countries are subtly entwined with their privilege. Their energy and creativity have gone hand-in-hand with — have in fact been a part of — their tendency to exploit, to come off best, as the whole history of imperialism and neo-colonialism shows. But I am not proposing an agenda of hating or of blaming. The past is what it is and cannot be changed. What we need to try to do is to assess the current world situation and seek a broad way forward.

Let me repeat: the immediate agenda for South Africa must be a serious move towards greater competence, hard work, morality and ubuntu. But simultaneously, and without watering down our determination to improve our performance, South Africans, and indeed all others, need to recognise that current global imbalances have somehow to be righted.

The problem was summed up by Thabo Mbeki in one of the first speeches that he made at the United Nations in 1999. Surely, he said, human beings have the ingenuity to devise a world economic and political order which does not leave a few people embarrassingly over-rich while a considerable portion of the human race is unable to live a decent life. He did not say — and I do not say — how exactly this new order is to be established. He was not proposing a new Bolshevik revolution.

It seems clear that what is re-quired is a more serious democratisation of international institutions and some kind of regulation of the current global capitalist system.

The current crisis in the price of oil perfectly exemplifies the problem. The escalation in fuel prices and in food prices partly as a result of this, is in some danger of producing large geographical areas of economic and political destabilisation. Yet as this vast destructive process begins to take place, those with shares in the major oil companies are starting to receive undreamed-of profits.

One can hear someone saying: “I’m sorry that people are beginning to starve, but at least I have been able to buy myself a helicopter.”

The situation is not just unjust: it is absurd. It is surely the task of moral and rational human beings to try to overcome injustice and absurdity.

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