White South Africans will have to develop very thick skins in the run-up to the May elections – well, not too thick, because they also need to get the message.
Probably more than during any election campaign since 1994, the trend among several political groupings has been to darkly warn white South Africa about the consequences of continued inequality, poverty and unemployment. Some of these politicians seem to believe that the best way to demonstrate their revolutionary fervour and commitment to a better life for all is to insult and threaten the white minority.
Some otherwise sober-minded commentators have joined the chorus in recent weeks, although with a softer approach.
When do the whites start making a contribution to alleviate the plight of the black poor? Why do the whites who confess their love for Nelson Mandela not also love other black people? Whites need to show their gratitude for a peaceful settlement and the subsequent prosperity by resolving the land issue. And so on.
HONEYMOON IS OVER?
There’s nothing subtle about statements from the Economic Freedom Fighters and the group forming around Numsa: whiteys, your honeymoon is over, we’re coming for your wealth. And they underline these threats by elevating Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe to the Great African Liberator.
There is no way one can minimise the historic burden white South Africans have after the centuries of colonialism and decades of apartheid. No white citizen can deny that whites as a group have benefited greatly at the expense of the black majority and still own a disproportionate slice of the economy and occupy more key positions than their numbers would suggest.
It is also true that far too many whites continue to live as if 1994 had never happened. Far too many do not in fact appreciate that they’re much better off after 1994 while so many black South Africans still sit in squalid townships, squatter camps or impoverished rural areas.
But the point of this column is to bring some perspective, to show that simply insulting and threatening whites as a group 20 years after we became a democracy is not very productive and can be disempowering. We have to find solutions to our problems, and quickly.
I think it is safe to assume that if it hadn’t been for the deep inequalities in our society, this trend to again make white South Africans the common enemy of all black South Africans would not have been possible. Inequality in society is, however, a worldwide phenomenon and most countries struggle to counter it without destroying economic growth.
Look at these figures: the richest 2 percent of the world own more wealth than the rest of the living souls on the planet; the bottom 80 percent of the world’s population own just 6 percent of the wealth while the richest 1 percent own 43 percent. Even more staggering: the richest 300 people in the world own as much wealth as the poorest 3 billion. I do not know if it has been calculated, but I suspect that the richest 500 people in South Africa own more than many millions of the poor; that the top 10 percent own more wealth than the bottom 50 percent. Sure, most of that top 10 percent are probably white and close to all the bottom 50 percent are black.
NOT ALL WHITES ARE RICH
But the way to change this would be the same if they were all the same colour. There seems to be a popular perception among black South Africans that all whites are rich. But if one takes the wealth of the white super-rich, the top 10 percent, out of the equation, the picture looks very different. And then consider the fact that several hundred thousand whites live in abject poverty in virtual squatter camps.
Blaming whites for being well off won’t solve the problem. Blaming white farmers for owning land won’t lead to fairer redistribution. The black Durban couple who bought each other R17 million worth of Rolls-Royces for Christmas aren’t less vulgar than a white industrialist’s R17m yacht.
We will have to devise radical ways of bringing about a fairer, more equal society without harming our economy to such an extent that all would be poorer afterwards. Our elected government should drive and implement this process. Simply blaming one sector of society for our ills emasculates us all. Fixing our education system and eradicating corruption, unproductivity and wastage of public money would be a good start, but won’t be enough in itself.
Big business and the wealthy top echelons, white and black, should join in this quest for a fair society rather than fight it. They have the most to lose if we descend into instability.