Noam Chomsky, an eminent scholar and activist, in his celebrated Profit over People reflects that: “The first great experiment was a bad idea for the subjects, but not for the designers and local elites associated with them. This pattern continues until present: placing profit over people. The consistency of the record is no less impressive than the rhetoric hailing the latest showcase for democracy and capitalism as an economic miracle — and what the rhetoric regularly conceals.” The “first major experiment” referred to is the “Permanent Settlement” instituted by the British rulers in India about 200 years ago.
The “bad idea” that Chomsky talks about — drawing from Paul Krugman — is in essence capitalism. This is the system that we are all condemned to, the world over. It is clearly an unfortunate system but continues to prevail against all odds. South Africa, like the rest of the world, has to contend with it. Although this system takes a knock from time-to-time it just keeps going — contrary to the prophesies of Karl Marx and others. It appears that most of the pressing challenges that remain unresolved here and abroad seem to relate to the capitalist system. This system seems to exacerbate greed and other social ills that engulf our young democracy.
To start with, one of the pressing challenges that remain unresolved in South Africa is the challenge of inequality, simply defined as a gap between the rich and poor. Some argue it has only been 15 years since democracy and we should, therefore, not worry too much about such a challenge. Economists, or rather most us, normally look at the crude measure of inequality termed “gini-coefficient”: if the coefficient is zero, it means society is perfectly equal and when it’s 1, society is perfectly unequal. In South Africa, the gini-coefficient — depending on the data used to compute it — is about 0.70 implying an almost perfectly unequal society. In a nutshell, the trend of our gini-coefficient suggests that economic inequality is either increasing or remaining disturbingly high. The trouble with our gini-coefficient is that it is associated with race. Indications are that whites remain far better-off than blacks, 15 years later.
The other trouble, perhaps of equal significance, is that our gini-coefficient is associated with economic and social exclusion. With the rate of unemployment South Africa has, as well as its racial composition, indications are that unemployment is largely a problem of black people in South Africa — these are the people that are excluded from the mainstream of the economy.
Besides the economic inequality that most of us focus on, Francis Fukuyama in his most daring and incisive book, The End of History and the Last Man, reminds us of various social inequalities. He argues that “social inequality falls into two categories, the sort that is traceable to human convention and that attributable to nature or natural necessity … There are also forms of inequality directly traceable to the workings of the capitalist market … ” In short, Fukuyama — in the pursuit of his thesis on liberal democracy — alerts us of various forms of inequalities we sometimes don’t pay enough attention to. For instance he gives the example that “obstacles confronting a young black … only begin with substandard education”.
The twin challenge of inequality, in its various forms, is poverty. I will not dwell on this issue as it is rather straightforward and I have written about it many-a-times. Although data suggests that poverty may have been declining, it remains disturbingly high. Indications are that, due to the global economic recession, more South Africans are going to join many other South Africans classified as poor as more people lose their jobs.
The third associated challenge that remains unresolved in South Africa is the one of racism and/or the challenge of “white supremacism”. I have attempted to address this challenge before. It is of course a tricky issue because it often relies on anecdotes rather than scientific evidence. It would, however, seem that racial intolerance is on the rise.
Maybe it is just prejudice as I have speculated before. Linked to the challenge of racism is the associated, but different, problem of white supremacy. White supremacy can broadly be defined as the conduct of a white person that suggests a white person is superior to a black person. This challenge permeates our lives in South Africa: at work, at lectures and in classrooms, on the road and so on. Raising this issue does not mean being anti-white, which could perhaps be tantamount to “black supremacy”. The point is raised as an observation requiring attention. Perhaps we need to learn more about each other.
Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, one of the greatest sons of our soil — may his soul rest in peace — raised the issue of white supremacy sharply in his first speech at Fort Hare in 1949 as president of the Students’ Representative Council. Among the key points he raised was that “our whole life in South Africa is politics…”. In his self-defence, he stated that “we are anti-nobody”. As was then, it still is: our whole life in South Africa remains politics and the challenge of white supremacy remains widespread. Talking about this does not mean that one is anti-anybody.
There are of course other unresolved pressing issues our society is confronted with. This polemic focused on those that are not receiving much-needed urgent attention, with the exception of poverty (but it is hard to talk about challenges facing South Africa and not mention poverty). In addition, the aim of this article was to highlight related challenges: inequality (and poverty) seems to be associated with race.
In conclusion, Hannah Arendt, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, explained that the concept of societas generis humani, “society of mankind” means that “no human life is possible without a world which directly or indirectly testifies to the presence of other human beings”. In essence, the unresolved pressing challenges named above and others require an effort from each and every one of us. A number of challenges facing South Africa require targeted public policy interventions. Some, and perhaps the most complex ones, such as racism and white supremacism need each and every one of us to do something. We are all in this together. We have repeatedly proven that we can overcome challenges that may seem insurmountable. We need to reach out for/to each other; we need to try at least to meet one another halfway. We have already pledged a “new social compact”: we just need to make it stick.
As for poverty, inequality and other such material matters society as a whole, including the private sector, needs to find ways not to put “profit over people”. Similarly we all need to address social inequalities that Fukuyama talks about. The inequalities (economic, social and otherwise) associated with race and compounded by poverty are probably the most critical unresolved challenges facing us a nation. Such challenges are likely to be severe in the immediate future as our economy sheds more jobs and the global economic recession bites us.