INEQUALITY: SOUTH AFRICA’S TICKING TIME BOMB

2012-10-26 15:40

I begin this article with the words of a respected academic, businesswoman and medical doctor. She was an anti-apartheid activist and was one of the founders of the Black Consciousness Movement, along with Steve Biko, Dr Mamphela Ramphele, who in an article for the Mail and Guardian dated 7 September 2012 stated:

“Since 1994, successive post-apartheid governments and private sector players have failed to grasp the nettle of growing inequality – an inequality that is, in the words of the French philosopher Raymond Aron, making human community impossible. The events at Lonmin's Marikana shack settlement and other violent hot spots are a cruel expression of the urgent need to transform our social relations towards what Sampie Terreblanche, in his new book Lost in Transformation, calls "the desperately needed change of power that would change the nature of power itself.”

The above statement, it must be understood, is a dire warning to the South African population at large about the risks of maintaining an unsustainable model of national organization. I write these words not as a prophet of doom but out of the deep concern I have for the future of our fragile democracy and as an extension our nation. And this is only part of the dilemma we face in South Africa, because while poverty levels decline, inequality has increased and the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to grow. Today, almost half of South Africans are living below the poverty line, surviving on just over R500 a month.

Speaking in South Africa’s parliament in 1998 in the debate on the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, (then-Deputy) President Thabo Mbeki argued that:

             “material conditions …have divided our country into two nations, the one black, the  other white.…[the latter] is relatively prosperous and has ready access to a developed economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure…The second, and larger, nation of South Africa is black and poor, [and] lives under conditions of a grossly underdeveloped infrastructure…

             Neither are we becoming one nation.….Unlike the German people [after unification in 1990] we have not made the extra effort to generate the material resources we have to invest to change the condition of the black poor more rapidly than is possible if we depend solely on severely limited public funds, whose volume is governed by the need to maintain certain macroeconomic balances and the impact of a growing economy.”

 The accommodation between the ANC and business shaped the growth model which is still in place in South Africa and which has been the context in which inequality and poverty have been addressed since 1994. The trade-off of macroeconomic stability and openness for black economic empowerment (BEE) was intended to create an environment to realise mutual gains through rising fixed investment and a sustainable growth improvement. But the ‘deal’ had two major flaws. First, there was no ‘feedback’ from distribution (taking the form of BEE) to growth to support the investment process within the growth model. The second flaw was the risk of co-ordination failure in translating macro stability and external openness into fixed investment, since private investment decisions are not a collective process but the actions of unconnected corporations and subject to individual uncertainty.

The risk of coordination failure increased when external financial and trade liberalisation introduced volatility and instability into the macroeconomy. This outcome was unanticipated since the destabilising consequences of globalisation became apparent only after the Mexican peso crisis started in late 1994, at which point the South African reforms were already well underway.

I do not profess to have the grand solution to solve what is in my view the greatest threat to our national cohesion (or what is left of it). But I present one argument, the only way in which the nation at large can become civic-conscious and more, able to articulate their concerns, and develop a realistic and purposeful will, is through quality state education. The Afrikaners in the 20s and 30s knew this and did it. That was the main plank in the platform of their self-help, help-mekaar, their own 'nation-building' and renewal. Until our present regime makes education more than a huge slice of the budget, makes it a national vision, commitment, first priority with discipline and determination, we'll never overcome the inequality. It is about self-esteem, knowledge, literacy, numeracy, grasp of the meaning of a nation within global modernity.

A study to reveal solutions to inequality is a mammoth task and equivalent to solving mankind's inherent flaws. The scary part is that logic and knowledge can be turned and wielded for the purposes of political gain, if Verwoerd could do it, what would stop any misguided, blind, out-of-touch political leadership creating a similar monster... oh wait…. it’s already happening....

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