Wiese slams 'perverse obsession with the rich'

SA billionaire Christo Wiese. (Bloomberg Video, file)
SA billionaire Christo Wiese. (Bloomberg Video, file)

Cape Town - Retail tycoon Christo Wiese is fed up with the rich getting the blame for South Africa's problems.

"There is a perverse obsession about the rich with little or no regard for what would happen to the poor if the rich are pulled down," said Wiese at the FW de Klerk Foundation's conference on the Constitution and governance.

"The question government must ask is: ‘What better person is there to be managing and investing money than a person with a proven track record to earn it justly?’" said the man named in an Oxfam report as one of three people in South Africa whose wealth is equivalent to that of the bottom 50% of the country's population.

The other two were Glencore CEO Ivan Glasenberg and Aspen Pharmacare chief executive Stephen Saad.

Wiese said that even if Oxfam was correct in its wealth distribution report released during the World Economic Forum Davos summit in January, this still does not justify radical policy changes based on assumptions.

"To reach their sensationalist conclusion they have to make many dubious assumptions," the chairperson of Steinhoff International Holdings and controlling shareholder in Shoprite Holdings said. Steinhoff's South African brands include Pep, Incredible Connection and Shoe City.

"The mere fact that a few who supposedly own too much keep changing, should get them to ponder the fluid and fickle nature of wealth. Proving that there is no such group as the rich."

READ: These 3 billionaires at top of SA's inequality shocker

'Silence on black middle class'

Wiese said a closer look at ownership patterns would reveal that the Public Investment Corporation is primarily owned by black civil servants and is the largest shareholder on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

Half of new title deed holders, most new business owners, vehicle buyers, insurance policy customers are black, he continued, asking why there was a "serial silence" about that.

He said around six million black people in South Africa earn middle class incomes - more than the entire white population - and they did this by themselves.

Policies to alleviate poverty should be evidence based and economically sound, not based on wild statistical claims that blame "White Monopoly Capital" for South Africa's social ills.

"The harsh truth is that the problem is poverty, whereas the narrative implies that the problem is wealth."

He said the Oxfam report was part of an ongoing vilification of commercially successful people and that sports stars, entertainers and bestselling novelists seem to be immune to this backlash.

Free market

"Criticism is only directed at people who make money by employing thousands of people and supplying society, also the poor, with goods and services competitively.

"Nowhere have I seen an allegation that what any of the so-called billionaires did to become wealthy was unfair or unjust to anyone.

"It can validly be argued that all they did was to make offers that people were free to accept or reject."

His worry over the "inequality narrative" is that factually incorrect and extreme claims could lead to reckless policies in the name of promoting a more equitable and just distribution of wealth.

Claims around land ownership and wealth in SA were not properly substantiated, and implied that wealth and land should be seized and redistributed.

"Most of these numbers that are bandied about are malicious and racially charged disinformation," he said.

These could be used by the government to justify policy changes such as "draconian" land ownership laws that will discourage long-term investment.

'You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich'

He expressed concern over the rise of "quasi courts", naming ombudspeople, commissions of inquiry and even some courts as a move away from the rule of law towards a trend of "the rule of lawyers".

Wiese said when big business prospers, everybody prospers - like boats that rise with the tide.

"You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich."

The prevailing rhetoric in South Africa appears to have more to do with problems within the ANC alliance, said Wiese.

Claims that transformation has been slow or non-existent, that white people are still own everything and inequality is increasing are "dangerous".

"Our government must ensure that its policies are formulated on the basis of facts, not emotive hype," said Wiese.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
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