Johann Rupert. File Image.
JOHANNESBURG - It is bewildering that Johann Rupert, the chairperson of Richemont, describes rapid economic transformation (RET) as nothing more than theft.

For South Africa’s globally respected business leader to make such a statement is a massive kick in the teeth for blacks in the country, his country.

They expected better; not when the levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality define themselves in racial terms, with them the lowest on the rung. When Statistician-General Pali Lehohla recently released the latest report on poverty trends, he pointed out that people living in poverty (less than R1 000 a person a month) increased to 30.4 million in 2015.

Those living in extreme poverty, below R441 a month, increased from 11 million in 2011 to 13.8 million in 2015, an increase of 25%.

Thus, the government has to confront these terrifying figures and this is the rationale for RET.

Our unemployment numbers, now at a staggering 27.7%, represent more than six million employable South Africans, 60% of them youths.

In fact, the one item that ensures some income for most households, more so those at poverty levels, are social grants.

But, can people really depend on such handouts; what about their self-respect? Thus, RET is about ensuring increased economic participation by black people in the commanding heights of the economy, as it must have a mass character.

Another clear objective is that RET must reduce racial, gender and class inequalities through ensuring more equity with regards to incomes, ownership of assets and access to economic opportunities. Surely this cannot be theft, as nowhere does the government, despite temptation and pressure, advocate an illegal takeover of other people’s property?

Our Constitution guarantees equality, which includes the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms.

However, section 9 subsection 2 of our Constitution promotes the achievement of equality through legislative and other measures, designed to protect or advance persons, or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination, may be taken.

This is the ticket that government is using for RET.

It is difficult to understand why Rupert made the statement as he has never opposed black economic empowerment (BEE), and his organisation is involved in one or two BEE deals, unless it is more about ticking the box than commitment. Or, is he responding to the debates in the ecosystem and the reference to white monopoly capital which his family is historically associated with and accused of? But, these are not solely government debates.

For the record, while the Rupert empire could be part of white monopoly capital, let us also acknowledge that the Rupert family opposed apartheid in numerous instances as the now deceased Stellenbosch journalist and writer, Ebbe Domisse, poignantly points out in Anton Rupert: A Biography.

But, and in the main, the Rupert family benefited substantially from apartheid, despite the objections it had. Getting back to the main point, three arguments are worthy of mention.

First, the fray on the ground in which terms like white monopoly capital, the enrichment of the few, crony capitalism, patronage, land grab etc is common cause. Whatever perspective different individuals and groups purport, we cannot throw the baby out with the bath water.

The reality is that more than 10 million people go to bed hungry every night and more than 30 million do not get three decent meals a day. That, in my language, is a crisis of massive proportions in a country in which less than 10 enjoy 40% of income.

This situation is hardly sustainable. Second, the social grants system is also not sustainable, as we are not increasing the tax base so that we can continue to pay these grants, although I would personally want to see the approach revised and an entrepreneurial dimension introduced into the programme. Hence, the need to do more on the black industrialist programme, a programme which is gaining momentum, thank you very much.

Third, for as long as more than 10million people go to bed hungry daily, social instability threatens. People will ultimately say thus far and no further. People are already saying it indirectly as the more recent narrative in the black community is that Codesa introduced democracy, but entrenched white privilege and wealth.

According to talk in black circles, there are more white millionaires than there were under apartheid, thanks to a Codesa in which black political parties were left with feathers in their hands. Hence an article in 2003 by respected local academic Ashwin Desai is spot on that the transition to democracy was trumped by a transition to neo-liberalism; and this left blacks high and dry.

The emergence of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has resulted. Black South Africa will not vote for the neo-liberalism and free market policies of the DA, but is tempted by the populist rhetoric of the EFF, which, in my book, is very very problematic.

Nationalisation has failed everywhere it has been tried. Thus, and my reasoning, Rupert is burning the very bridge he is trying to protect with his reckless statement.

Let us realise that we face a crisis of immense proportion as the majority is straining at the leash with unhappiness because of socio economic deprivation. Let us make RET happen as it is for our sake. It is not theft.

Dr Thami Mazwai is special adviser to the Minister of Small Business Development, but writes in his personal capacity.

-BUSINESS REPORT ONLINE