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Tackle inequality vigorously to reduce racism and other social pathologies

A unique characteristic of South Africa as a society is the racialised structural inequality and unemployment inherited from the apartheid period. It was an intended and planned outcome of a warped strategy and a set of policy positions designed and rigorously implemented to achieve it. In a very weird way the outcome was hugely successful and achieved the objective of creating a reality that inferred a sense of racialised superiority and protected opportunity among white people. The impact naturally developed a mind-set or paradigm that finds its expression in embedded racial attitudes and beliefs. Paradigms are the foundation to our thinking and they can liberate or limit our outlook and imprison us.

The baby boomer generation constitutes the biggest adult demographic and most of their adult lives were spent under the enveloping and systemic policy and culture of the apartheid system. Their children were also brought under this culture. Many were mentally and spiritually liberated enough to understand that it was a bigoted and hateful policy that eventually turned South Africa into the scum of the world. But it must be accepted that there would always be those that have liberated themselves from this paradigm and yet retain its vestiges deep in their psyche and attitudes. It will take at least two more generations to exorcise this demon.

When the drafters of our constitution imagined the new society we needed to build, and then adopted it through our representatives, it was a deliberate expression of our intent to adopt a new set of human values and rights as contained in Chapter One of the Constitution. We followed this iconic moment with the publication of a series of laws that were intended to remove and reverse the discriminatory laws that conflicted with this new hope and vision.

The question that we need to reflect upon is whether we have paid the required attention and effort to address the structural manifestations of the apartheid legacy in a systematic and vigorous way beyond our usually public rhetoric about the evils of the system?

The legacy of apartheid inequality is manifested everywhere in our society from the spatial zoning patterns to income and wealth disparities and access to opportunities. And the unemployment challenge that feeds it has become worse in the past twenty two years. This reality inadvertently serves to re-inforce the racial paradigms and attitudes that were nurtured during the apartheid era and underpins the social pathologies that define our social fabric. It also undermines the nation building efforts that are at the centre of Madiba’s legacy. The incidents of racism that have been exposed recently are proof that the deep seated apartheid paradigms and attitudes will take long to be eradicated.

But we also need to understand and accept that apartheid caused a form of “social death”, to use Orlando Paterson’s descriptive, that has left an enduring sense of dehumanization and inferiority complex among the black people that will take generations to eradicate. The test and task for all South Africans is to develop a new sense of humanity that is enshrined in the African concept of Ubuntu and the Constitution.

What is clearly missing is an over-arching vision and set of strategies that can focus our attention and energy on key high impact areas that can mitigate the structural fault lines that have come to define our country. For a highly diversified society like ours that is also in transition, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on its own could not deliver the comprehensive cure that we all need and yearned.

There is a simmering instability that has been developing in the past few years and it can be felt everywhere in the country and the youth are at the centre of it. As the International Labour Organization has pointed out; “young men and women are among the world’s greatest assets. They bring energy, talent and creativity to economies and create the foundations for future development” however as Freedman has stated; “without a stake in the system, [young people] are more likely to become alienated and engage in anti-social behaviour (Freedman, 2005:4).

The post-apartheid reality is that political power relations have changed dramatically and yet, the economic power relations that rendered apartheid unfair and unjust have continued in the democratic SA. The undeserved poverty and inequality suffered by the black majority continues to exist and, in fact, they have increased on a number of measures.  For those that had accumulated assets and wealth, its value has been rapidly increased by the global opportunities brought about by the democratic SA.

I have previously suggested that a serious and honest debate about wealth inequality must be had to enable us to tackle the following uncomfortable questions:  Is it possible to say that comprehensive democracy has been achieved if the political economic power relationships that existed during the apartheid period remain intact? Furthermore, is it possible to address the question of wealth inequality without considering wealth transfer from the rich to the poor in one form or another?

I have also opined that what is lacking is a credible effort by big business to come up with a strategy and plan, entirely conceived and driven by the private sector, to build what I may call “A Bridge of Goodwill” multi-billion Rand fund with the sole purpose of funding social development projects that will directly benefit the poor.  As a magnanimous gesture by those that were selectively advantaged by apartheid system, it may serve as acknowledgement that first, the grotesque system was unjust and second, some form of reparation or redress is morally justifiable.

Many prominent people have proposed a similar strategy but I detect a fear to think out of the box on this issue!  Adam Habib has argued that if Germany could institute a development tax in 1991 to rebuild East Germany, how is it, that South Africa could not do so even though ‘black South Africa’ was in a far worse position than East Germany.

We are now the most unequal society in the world as a result of the policy decisions we made after the transition.

Achille Mbembe provides a sobering reflection on our situation: “But the defeat of legalised white supremacy has not meant that the struggle for racial equality is over. Pervasive material inequality between whites and blacks coexists with formal legal equality. Significant racial inequality remains, for example in average household income, wealth, home ownership, employment opportunities and access to quality healthcare. The institutional mechanisms for enforcing anti-discriminatory laws are still inadequately administered. Far too many poor blacks are still not in a position where they can create something meaningful with their lives. Too many still have nothing to lose”.

We need a new sense of urgency in confronting inequality and its drivers and uplifting the material conditions of our poor communities after the coming local government elections. What then must be done? The following few high impact interventions indicate what may be possible.

First; create an investment environment that will incentivise the creation of low cost mass employment opportunities for the majority unskilled workforce that we have.  Where necessary a targeted wage subsidy strategy must be implemented to improve wage levels.

Second; we need to develop a compelling and shared economic development strategy and vision that will focus all of our attention to a few selected sectors that can catalyse growth urgently and in a sustainable and inclusive fashion.

Third; establish independent authorities in the nine provinces for the recruitment and employment of qualified teachers and introduce a governance structure that is premised on accountability and performance.

Fourth; the structure of the SA economy is very concentrated and centralised. In addition it is capital intensive and has very high levels of vertical integration. It is also dominated by oligopolies and invariably therefor excludes SME participation. It is correctly perceived as uncompetitive. Joseph Stigler has advocated for a radical policy shift towards implementing “an anti-monopoly regime at the scale and pace similar to that of establishing the SARS”. What is clearly missing is the political will to act.

The alternative is a future of uncertainty and social instability because of being trapped in a low growth and unemployment trajectory.