SELF-interest is a double-edged sword. It is the embryonic nucleus of the capitalist system and although it inherently encourages self-determination, enterprise and perhaps most importantly self-sufficiency, this usually comes at a price.
The reality of the matter is that in recent times we as humans have allowed the very fuel which invigorated the demise of the feudal system and led to the emergence of a more acceptable capitalist system to corrupt us. However, the socialists may argue that the scale has tipped in favour of those who can afford the innumerable indulgences life has to offer at the expense of the poor.
Self-interest has created a divergence in the eradication of social hierarchical structures, while fuelling the reinforcement of inequality among the proletariat and the upper-middle class.
Some may be wondering who is to blame for this calamity. Perhaps it is the government. After all, the bureaucrats appointed by our politicians continue to reinforce the notion that ‘bureaucratic failure’ does in fact lead to ‘market failure’. When I say ‘market failure’, I refer to inefficiencies in the allocation of goods and services- public goods and services in this instance.
Indeed, markets fail due to a variety of factors and are inherently inefficient. This nonetheless does not excuse the budding acts of impunity of our state officials, particularly when it comes to the misuse of public funds, i e your and my taxes.
The irony of what I would now term ‘the dark side of self-interest’ is that it is a perilous scourge. It continues to corrupt the foolish, even corrupting the good among us. The reason for this doesn’t require a quantum mechanics approach to thinking.
Greed breeds greed
Instead, it's as clear as daylight: greed breeds greed. This situation is not unique to South Africa and although it is generally more prevalent in developing nations, it affects all governments throughout the globe.
Some may argue that on a balance of scales, South Africa has come off with relative ease. Look at the fall of the former Soviet Union for instance. The growing dissatisfaction of the working class reinforced the belief that communism would free people from poverty. This economic arrangement corrupted its leaders, while blinding its followers who lobbied for equal distribution of income for all, leading to the unintentional or intentional surrendering of the entire nation’s resources and income to the central government.
They (the leaders) failed to mention they would plunder the state, ensuring their wealth protection plans became the central focus of remaining in power until they too were ousted. One consolation was that many of them left behind enough wealth to fund the indulgences of their grandchildren and future generations.
This is precisely how the oligarchs of Russia emerged. The period leading up to the reformation of communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to state assets (particularly in the oil, gas and mining industries) being sold at ridiculous discount to close relatives and associates of the government.
Are the very leaders who liberated us becoming our oppressors?
This process literally created a number of overnight billionaires, including Roman Abramovich and several others. Today these individuals live in unrivalled opulence and the irony of it all is that many of them no longer live in their native Russia.
It appears as though the South African government is wilfully trying to emulate this example. Our government should tread carefully, very carefully. History teaches us that throughout civilization the anger of the working class majority is usually taken out on government and may in some instances lead to revolutionary uprisings.
While revolutions arise out of necessity, the unfortunate part is that they permeate into violence with the imminent loss of innocent lives. I’m certain we can all agree that South Africa can ill afford a ‘revolution’.
The kind of self-interest that mutates into corruption breeds arrogance and the belief that those who govern us are beyond reproach. South Africa is at the apex of a defining period in its history: are the very leaders who liberated us, gradually turning into our oppressors? One thing is certain: we have a long way to go.
* Dumile Sibindana is a columnist for Forbes Africa magazine and editor of Banker SA. Opinions expressed are his own.