A nation of extremes – haves and have-nots
Extreme inequality is unsustainable, writes
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