A na­tion of ex­tremes – haves and have-nots

Ex­treme in­equal­ity is un­sus­tain­able, writes

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

IT IS a tragedy that South Africa’s col­lec­tive and ur­gent re­spon­si­bil­ity to nar­row the gap be­tween haves and have-nots – which has long been re­ferred to as Rad­i­cal Eco­nomic Trans­for­ma­tion – has be­come en­snared in the suc­ces­sion de­bate of the rul­ing party.

It is a tragedy be­cause no­body in his or her right mind will ar­gue that the widen­ing of what was his­tor­i­cally a con­sid­er­able gap into a poverty chasm, still largely racially de­fined 23 years into the post-apartheid project, is nor­mal or de­sir­able – not by any mea­sure.

It would be dif­fi­cult to sus­tain the ar­gu­ment that nar­row­ing the gap doesn’t re­quire a more rad­i­cal eco­nomic ap­proach than that adopted to date. Of course, those who own the econ­omy feel en­ti­tled to their wealth, and need the guid­ance of pol­icy to en­cour­age them to share it.

It doesn’t mat­ter who you sup­port to take over as the ANC pres­i­dent from Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma in De­cem­ber.

What mat­ters is that ex­treme in­equal­ity is un­sus­tain­able. And main­tain­ing an eco­nomic sta­tus quo built on foun­da­tions of colo­nial ac­qui­si­tion, own­er­ship and con­trol, un­der­mines the ob­jec­tives of the trans­for­ma­tive, de­vel­op­men­tal state.

With ex­treme in­equal­ity, ex­treme un­em­ploy­ment, ex­treme skills deficit, ex­treme post-colo­nial ur­ban­i­sa­tion, we are a na­tion of ex­tremes. And ex­tremes cre­ate vul­ner­a­bil­ity, in­se­cu­rity, volatil­ity and un­sus­tain­abil­ity.

This is not the type of so­ci­ety en­vis­aged by our fore­bears when they adopted the Free­dom Char­ter at Klip­town in 1955.

It is not what the revered for­mer pres­i­dent of the ANC, OR Tambo, fore­saw when he said in 1981: “The ob­jec­tive of our strug­gle in South Africa, as set out in the Free­dom Char­ter, en­com­passes eco­nomic eman­ci­pa­tion. It is in­con­ceiv­able for lib­er­a­tion to have mean­ing with­out a re­turn of the wealth of the coun­try to the peo­ple as a whole.”

It is not the type of so­ci­ety our con­sti­tu­tion, with its em­pha­sis on the guar­an­tee of the rights to health, ed­u­ca­tion, eco­nomic equal­ity would have imag­ined.

In hind­sight, the West – which to a large ex­tent sup­ported the apartheid state – didn’t do enough to stim­u­late pri­vate sec­tor in­vest­ment in the post-apartheid democ­racy.

The in­equal­ity all around us to­day spits in the face of the no­tions of mag­na­nim­ity and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion that un­der­pinned Arch­bishop Des­mond Tutu’s con­cept of a Rain­bow Na­tion.

It am­pli­fies the lost op­por­tu­nity for eco­nomic re­dress when the gov­ern­ment de­cided against im­ple­ment­ing the rec­om­men­da­tion of the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion for a wealth tax for white South Africans.

De­spite vo­cal re­sis­tance from white peo­ple, nei­ther black em­pow­er­ment poli­cies nor af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion have proven suc­cess­ful agents for fun­da­men­tal change.

A few peo­ple have ben­e­fited, mas­sively, and the ranks of the mid­dle class have been boosted by black mem­bers of the civil ser­vice, but the ma­jor­ity of blacks re­main dirt poor.

The need for re­dress won’t go away. It is all around us, in the in­for­mal set­tle­ments that seem to grow larger de­spite the mil­lions of homes that the gov­ern­ment has built for in­di­gent peo­ple. In the own­er­ship of arable ru­ral land, de­sir­able ur­ban prop­erty. In the com­pa­nies listed on the JSE. In the de­mo­graph­ics of man­agers in the pri­vate sec­tor. In the ex­treme poverty we see in Cape Town – a city con­sis­tently voted among the top in the world.

Black chil­dren die of treat­able and pre­ventable dis­eases, many within a stone’s throw of state-of-the-art pri­vate hos­pi­tals. So­cio-eco­nomic con­di­tions make chil­dren in ur­ban shack­lands and ru­ral ar­eas vul­ner­a­ble to ill­nesses and dis­eases that can be pre­vented and/or treated.

I have heard the opin­ions of those who dis­miss Rad­i­cal Eco­nomic Trans­for­ma­tion as po­lit­i­cal spin de­signed to cam­ou­flage cor­rup­tion. They are en­ti­tled to their opin­ions, though I would en­cour­age them not to fix­ate on the lex­i­con so much as the so­cio-eco­nomic ne­ces­sity.

It goes be­yond slo­gans. To the coun­try, we want our gen­er­a­tion and the gen­er­a­tions af­ter us to in­herit a uniquely non-racial coun­try de­spite our past, in which all have enough to eat, all have ac­cess to qual­ity health care and ed­u­ca­tion, all have an equal right to dig­ni­fied liv­ing con­di­tions – and there’s a rad­i­cal re­duc­tion in the need for ser­vice de­liv­ery protests.

Th­ese are not just po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic con­sid­er­a­tions – or nice-to-haves – they speak to the ethics and prin­ci­ples of our na­tional soul.

Nor is the need to squash in­equal­ity par­tic­u­larly mod­ern. Plutarch, born just 45 years af­ter the death of Je­sus Christ, said: “An im­bal­ance be­tween rich and poor is the old­est and most fa­tal ail­ment of all re­publics”.

This is not the type of so­ci­ety en­vis­aged by our fore­bears

Khalid Sayed is chair of the West­ern Cape ANCYL

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