Though an average African or coloured in South Africa may not be the worst in Africa, the disparity between the country’s wealth and the condition of most of the Africans and coloureds is unparalleled, says the writer. File picture: Michael Walker
In post-apartheid South Africa, freedom and justice are for those who can afford them, writes Muxe Nkondo.

Africans and coloureds in South Africa are a special group. They do not have the same resources as whites and Indians to protect or care for themselves, even 23 years after independence. That is partly why there is now the movement for Radical Social and Economic Transformation.

Sadly, the government has not lived up to its obligations. South Africa, with its cherished image as a “rainbow nation” after a “miraculous” political settlement, should be an inspiring example of fair and just treatment of all its citizens. Instead, it is a beacon of failure - one that contributes to sluggishness on socio-economic rights in the region.

Though an average African or coloured in South Africa may not be the worst in Africa, the disparity between the country’s wealth and the condition of most of the Africans and coloureds is unparalleled.

Granted, the poor and marginalised have always been there, in most societies. Nonetheless, societies have responded differently to the enduring questions poverty and inequality raise: why most Africans and coloureds, for example, are poor while most whites and Indians are not, and what (if anything) should be done about their condition?

In keeping with the Movement for Radical and Economic Transformation’s mission of addressing fundamental public policy questions, we should explore how our social and economic policies wrestle with basic questions about poverty and inequality.

How do the Bill of Rights and the National Development Plan deal with questions clustered around overarching themes? What is poverty? What is inequality? Are poverty and deprivation only matters of material conditions? Are most Africans and coloureds poor and deprived because of their own choices?

Are poverty and deprivation deserved (if unintended) consequences of individuals’ behaviour? Are most Africans and coloureds more vulnerable and thus more likely to become impoverished and marginalised? Whose responsibility is it to reduce - or, if possible, eliminate - poverty and inequality in South Africa?

Which measures are likely to be most effective and ethically appropriate? To what extent is the alleviation - or elimination - of poverty and inequality a feasible option? Who should undertake these measures - government, corporations, donor agencies - or some combination? Are there limits to social obligations? Or should we eschew direct intervention, as some liberal economists argue, on the grounds that such action might not alleviate poverty but worsen it or exacerbate other social problems?

It is worth noting that major political systems respond to these questions in highly diverse ways. Not only do they offer different answers to the core questions poverty and inequality raise; they arrive at those answers in different ways. A reading of Joseph Stiglitz and Armatya Sen - both Nobel laureates in economics - soon confirms this. Both of them offer examples of how China and India have significantly reduced income-based poverty.

By contrast, income-based poverty in South Africa and most of sub-Saharan Africa has proved less tractable. A post-apartheid country that believes in freedom and justice, asserting that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, but in which, increasingly, there is only freedom and justice for those who can afford them. These are the contradictions that South Africa is gradually and stumblingly struggling to come to terms with as we begin to comprehend the enormity of the poverty and inequalities that mark our society - inequities that are greater than in most comparable economies.

Those who strive not to think about this issue - monopoly capitalists in their manifold colours - suggest that this is just about “reverse racism”. Those who push for radical transformation are accused of fomenting race and class warfare. But as we have come to grasp the causes and consequences of endemic poverty and enduring injustice we have come to understand that it is not about race and class warfare.

The extremes to which poverty and inequality have grown in South Africa, and the manner in which these inequities arise, undermine our economy. And so it is that too much of the wealth at the top of the ladder comes from exploitation, whether from the exercise of monopoly capitalist power, from taking advantage of deficiencies in corporate governance laws, to diverting large amounts of revenues to further enrich shareholders, and from a finance sector devoted to market manipulation. Too much of the poverty and inequality are due to economic discrimination and the failure to provide adequate education and jobs to the majority of the people in South Africa, most of them Africans and coloureds. None of this is because South Africans don’t care about Africans and coloureds.

It is because South Africa has embraced a neo-liberal, capitalist policy agenda, since independence, that has caused its economy to become wildly unequal, leaving the most vulnerable segments of society further and further behind - and the elitism of advanced scientific and technological education has meant less money to spend on investments for the public good, such as free education for the poor and the expansion of job opportunities.

Income and asset inequality is correlated with inequalities in access to higher education, food security, decent accommodation, and exposure to environmental hazards, all of which burden Africans and coloureds more than whites and Indians. Learning disabilities occur more frequently among Africans and coloureds. Without compensatory measures - including free education for the poor and a living wage - unequal opportunities translate to unequal lifelong outcomes. That should be a spur to radical policy action. Indeed, while poverty and inequality’s harmful effects are wide-ranging, and impose huge costs on our economy and society, they are largely avoidable.

The extremes of poverty and inequality in South Africa are not the inexorable result of natural economic forces and laws. The right policies - land repossession, free education for the poor, the right to work, democratisation of the value chain and better regulation, to name a few - can reverse this devastating trend. To generate the political will for fundamental change, and to mobilise broad-based consensus on the new direction, we must confront the legislators’ inertia and inaction with the grim facts of poverty and enduring inequality, and their devastating effects on Africans and coloureds. State capture is a hydra. Our central argument is that state capture must be understood not as a fait accompli, but rather as an ongoing process of struggle and compromise through which the meaning of neoliberal capitalism is both re-examined and reaffirmed.

We need to take seriously the social practices and discourses of monopoly capital, and the ways in which these have become deeply entrenched in civil society, if we are to understand the consolidation of state capture. We need to deepen our understanding of state capture.

The Judicial Commission on State Capture, proposed by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, could shed light on a wide range of actors, networks, organisations, social forces, discourses and processes which are crucial to understand monopoly capital’s practices in South Africa and supranational policies, in institutions, organisations and associations as well as in policy arenas and discourse fields.

* Nkondo is a policy analyst, a member of Freedom Park Council and of the Council of the University of South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent