How do we undo poverty?

If South Africa as a country does not change course, writes Ruben Richards in this passionately argued book, the masses, angry with being perpetually stuck in poverty – while the the white elite as the beneficiaries of apartheid and the new black elite as the beneficiaries of the democratic period are becoming richer – will soon ­replace the ballot for the bullet.

We need new ideas, new ways of thinking and new ways of doing – and new kinds of leaders.
 
Richards started his working life in the late 1970s as an artisan, a fitter and turner on the Cape Town docks.

He worked himself up to ­become the executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the deputy director-general and head of investigations and training of the now ­defunct Scorpions. He is now an academic at the University of the Witwatersrand.

How does one undo poverty, which in South Africa is institutionalised along racial lines? Since 1994, government has introduced a slew of legislative and policy interventions to try to will economic transformation, with little result on the ground.

In fact, most of these policies appear to have further entrenched economic inequality between the “haves” and “have-nots”.

The difference now is that more blacks have joined the “haves”, and South African society is rapidly developing into two identifiable groups – “those with ‘money’ and jobs, and those ‘without’”.

Richards argues that black ­economic empowerment as it currently stands, risks “entrenching an attitude of racial entitlement as opposed to an attitude of industriousness and innovation”.

More black directors on the boards of JSE-listed companies is not a quick fix for these companies to create more jobs.

The focus should rather be on getting companies to create more jobs in general – rather than appointing individual blacks to high-powered positions.

Richards says poor implementation of policies by government is only a small part of the problem.

South Africans – individually and collectively – urgently need a mindset change, he argues.

Blacks justifiably expect the post-apartheid government to deliver for them in the same way the apartheid government delivered for whites.

However, it is a vain hope to believe that the “government will look after us” just because it is black. In the same way one cannot expect black tycoons to be more benevolent towards black employees and more socially responsible because they are black.

Poor blacks are waiting for the black government to deliver public services while the rich – both white and black – appear to have given up on the public service, preferring private healthcare, security and schooling.

Practically, says Richards, we need two things: “An army of risk-taking and energetic entrepreneurs who create the industries, and an army of artisans who actually do the work”.

South African society, particularly black society, does not have an industrial consciousness – “that inquisitiveness, curiosity and thirst for wanting to know how things are made and repaired”.

He continues by saying that there appears to be a prejudice against becoming artisans in black communities.

“It’s not cool to be a blue-collar worker – we have been programmed to aspire to becoming professionals – doctors, lawyers, accountants or engineers – not artisans.”

We are projecting the wrong role models, says Richards.

“We are telling them the way to make money is not through hard work and dedicated service but rather through BEE deals where the primary criteria are the colour of your skin and your political connections, rather than honour and dignity, competence and skill.”

Similarly, government’s cronyism sends the wrong message and South Africans have to hold their political leaders to account.

Richards proposes a series of “what-ifs” to consider:
» What if we abandoned BEE and put the money into a fund to create “colourless entrepreneurs” who could build manufacturing companies and create jobs?

» What if all those who benefited from BEE – black and white – donated a once-off BEE amnesty wealth tax?
 
» What if every person in poverty got a once-off economic stimulus cash payment?

» What if every township with more than 200 000 people was turned into an industrial zone with companies encouraged to set up factories there?

» What if we banned the export of non-beneficiated raw materials?

» What if all higher education was free and based on merit?

» What if we created middle class heroes – for example, doubled the salary of a primary school teacher?

» What if we declared non-delivery a treasonable offence?

A shortcoming of the book is that he does not show how we can go about creating a new artisan class out of the army of unemployed and poorly skilled South Africans.

Furthermore, as a former leading official of both the TRC and the Scorpions, he could have provided insight into the internal workings of these two institutions and what made them successful – or not.

I would have liked an insider’s view of what happened within the Scorpions when it was controversially closed down. Perhaps these are subjects for future books?

» Gumede is co-editor of The Poverty of Ideas (Jacana)

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