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Equality. It is a simple concept: that every man, woman and child is equal and deserving of the same opportunity. It is not an ideal or a principle, it is a way of life that can be implemented and one that Nelson Mandela lived and fought for.
Stories abound of how he used to walk into a room and take the time to greet every individual – regardless of their colour, creed or wealth – and genuinely express interest in who they were and how they were. It is what was truly inspiring about the great man.
So why is it that we are so fixated on being unequal? Dividing, grouping, separating. We are obsessed with seeing others as different and because we do not have enough time to judge each person individually, we rank according to common and often grossly unfair characteristics.
Inequality is the most dangerous social and economic ill in any country because it leads to marginalisation and breaks down the bridges that create understanding and empathy. When humans can no longer empathise with one another, violence, crime, and division soon follow.
The major advances in human rights over the past two centuries – the abolition of slavery, the right to vote for blacks and women, same-sex marriage – all came about because of an increase in empathy across different sectors of society. When we consider others to be equal to ourselves, we begin to treat them differently.
But when the gap between the rich and the poor grows too large, the understanding between the two dissolves. Extremists of the rich consider the poor to be lazy or uninspired, and justify their earnings by believing they contribute more to society.
Extremists of the poor see the rich as undeserving, presuming that they must have acquired their wealth through corruption, abuse and inheritance and not through saving, investment and hard work. Misunderstanding and disdain leads to a sense of entitlement and changes the view of theft from a crime into a right of redistribution.
Mostly, humans are moral and rarely go against their values and principles. In a society where crime is accepted as bad, there is little crime. For crime to become severe, it requires a shift in the social mentality to believe in a moral code other than the law – a moral code that they see as more just and fair. It takes a society to believe that they so deserve something that they are entitled to take it. This sentiment is created and fuelled by inequality.
Income inequality is an economic indicator but it is caused by personal belief in the differences of human worth – a belief that Mandela fought so hard against. If business leaders and politicians saw their bottom line workers and citizens as equals, they would not allow their own incomes to exceed those of their workers and citizens by the degree that we commonly see today.
Some margin is deserved. Those who study harder, work harder, invest more and take greater risks should be rewarded. But to enrich oneself excessively at the expense of others is to view oneself as a more worthy human than another.
Mandela’s view of everyone as equal underpins the path to stable economic growth and social peace. Economic reform does not come from changing policies in government ministries – it comes from changing the attitudes within each one of us.
Tomorrow’s leaders are born from the society that we raise them in. The values that we want them to have when they lead us are the ones that we need to live today.
* Pierre Heistein is the convener of UCT’s Applied Economics for Smart Decision Making course. Follow him on Twitter @PierreHeistein