In a conversation about South Africa’s socio-economic malaise with a thoughtful sociologist from abroad, he asked the burning question that is shaping South African politics: “where is the wealth?”
We talk often in South Africa about wealth redistribution, black economic empowerment and socio-economic rights. Our constitution at the outset sketches a socially just society as the goal of our supreme law. We even laud “equality” as the cornerstone of our democratic forebears’ vision for a united, democratic, non-racist and non-sexist society.
But the real tussle in Parliament, in the boardrooms and, soon, in the streets is less idealistic and theoretical than that – it is about “the wealth”.
To the untrained ear, the naïve outsider, ours might seem like a national dialogue about distributive economic policy. It might seem like a discussion about minimum wages, equal pay and a progressive tax regime. But that is a total misreading of the nuance of our political discourse.
The debate in South Africa is not about the wealth that the economy will produce in the form of the coming year’s GDP and beyond, or about the new assets that will form when investment has been productively harnessed for future prosperity. No; to the sensitive ear, the emerging debate and the growing antagonism is about old wealth.
It’s about the wine farms of the picturesque Western Cape. It’s about the game and citrus farms of Mpumalanga and the cattle farms in the Free State. It’s about the office and apartment blocks in Cape Town and Johannesburg and about the jacaranda-strewn suburbia of Tshwane. It’s about the beachfront properties of the North Coast and the waterfront hotels of the Mother City. It’s about the mining assets and the mining rights of the coal belt and the platinum belt and the empty shafts of the old gold belt, upon which the British and the Boers built the Witwatersrand. It’s about the shares of the companies that are listed on the JSE. It’s about your pension.
It’s about old money, and how to get more of it.
This is the reason why the National Development Plan has flopped. It’s the reason that long-term fixed investment by the private sector has not been forthcoming. The NDP is faltering because it proposes a project other than the redistribution of old wealth. It proposes inclusive wealth creation within the framework of the negotiated settlement. The politicians want a National Democratic Revolution instead, not so much by slowly moving the wealth out of the hands of some into the hands of others, but rather by rapidly moving the bottoms of some into the seats of others. Malema’s Bolsheviks who were born in the African National Congress want transformation of the existing economy, not a bigger slice of the economy of tomorrow. Business, smelling this bloodhound of radical redistributive policy, has calculated their own interests and closed ranks.
This tug-of-war is all a bit elitist and selfish, leaving less powerful South Africans to languish, waiting on the world to change.
My view is that a project of wealth redistribution, which only looks to the past and the demographics of the day as a formula, is wrong-headed. Should the white and black elites, the middle class at that, live through a revolution so that the poor majority can have a slice of the pie and so that we can all be relatively poor together? Well, that’s what Fidel Castro did for Cuba, and notwithstanding his achievements in nationalised healthcare and literacy, the Cuban people have a per capita income of only a quarter of their capitalist United States neighbours to the north and a fifth of that of Singaporeans, who started with no mines, no farms and no Table Mountain around which to rally.
A better path for South Africa is the revolutionary idea of conscientious capitalism within the framework of a rights-based regime, with equality and human development at its centre. This approach, over time, will not only raise the prospects of all South Africans but will provide a model for Africa. So, where is the wealth?
The wealth is in the people of South Africa, in their future ingenuity and efforts. The wealth is in our friendships with one another and our collaborations for the common good. The land, the companies and the assets we possess are simply resources and levers that we ought to employ in this more grand project – of inclusive wealth creation.
The alternative – a promising populist alternative – is that the weak say I am strong and the poor say I am rich, at the personal and direct expense of others. This is a false promise whose riches will vanish in the face of consumerism and exploitation. Lasting wealth is a product of a process of consistent enrolment towards the creation of a productive future. So while South Africans continue to ask “where is the wealth?” and wonder how it may be distributed, it behooves all of us to look to the future and not the past for our answers. To the young black protester who has watched their privileged white neighbours seemingly float through life with ease, this is a bitter pill to swallow. Our greatest test as a nation, possibly greater than the task of dismantling political apartheid, will be how our society deals with the rage that this taste of historical injustice evokes. Our greatest test will be the dismantling of economic apartheid.
Marius Oosthuizen is a member of faculty at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. He teaches leadership, strategy and ethics. He oversees the Future of Business in SA project which uses strategic foresight and scenario planning to explore the future of South Arica.
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