File picture: Philimon Bulawayo
JOHANNESBURG -  We know election fever has landed when political parties send us messages reminding us to “register to vote”. 

The opposite is indeed striking, that no political party sends us messages calling us to public meetings to debate government policy or defend communities when the very State meant to protect attacks them for protesting for public services. The season of empty promises is upon us. The manifestos will range from paper thin in content and vision to bible of everything under the sun. Indeed, South Africa’s challenges are many, with inequality being among the worst injustices we have failed to address in fundamental ways in the last 26 years.

South Africa is not alone in this trend of extreme inequality. From the 22-24th January, we shall hear the preaching by global elites as they embark on the annual pilgrimage to Davos Switzerland for the World Economic Forum. It is at Davos where the elites gather to speak about us, for us yet without us about their version of a Human Economy. In recent years even the superrich have expressed concern over rampant inequality. Our very own homegrown billionaire, Johan Rupert chairperson of the luxury conglomerate Richemont was heard at the Financial Times Business of Luxury Summit in Monaco in 2015 chipping in his 2 cents worth: “We can’t have the 0.1 percent of the 0.1 percent taking all the spoils. And folks, those are our clients. But it’s unfair and it’s not sustainable." A rise in inequality he warned, “Our clients will be targets. They’ll be hated, despised… People with money will not wish to show it.” But there is no evidence of how he, and many of the global elites who claim inequality “keeps me awake at night”, has chosen to become part of the solution. 

AfrAsia Bank’s 2018 South Africa Wealth Report lists that which makes the millionaires lifestyle in South Africa attractive. However, it is clear that their version of a “Human Economy” is nothing short of an inhumane economy. Amongst the attractions are the very things that entrench economic and social exclusion: “…good private healthcare system, top class private schools for their children, efficient private security companies…which keep affluent neighbourhoods safe, English speaking country.” In fact, we in the middle class, in debt ourselves in order to afford for ourselves and our children a shot at life. However, where does that leave the majority of black, particularly black women, who are rejected by this system of privilege?

Our latest Oxfam inequality report “Public Good or Private Wealth?” shows that the number of billionaires has doubled globally over the last ten years since the Global Financial Crisis. More troubling is that the wealth of the world’s billionaires increased by $2.5 billion a day in the previous year. Closer to home, the number of billionaires also doubled between 2008 and 2017.  The richest person in South Africa, Nicky Oppenheimer, had a net worth of $7.7 billion as of 2018. Assuming he earns 10 % rate of return on this, he could support more than 3 million workers who are paid at the national minimum wage on his return alone!. In our 2018 report, we exposed the real problem which is how the wealth of the superrich is created. This is often on the backs of workers, most of them women in precarious jobs, who break their backs creating wealth for billionaire-shareholders whilst barely able to make ends meet. 

For things to start to jika (change) for those at the very bottom, there is a need for a redistributionary agenda. For a start, we need a redistributionary fiscal system in which fair taxation of the wealthy is leveraged to inclusive and quality public services. Tax dodging through illicit financial flows must come to an end. In 2011, R 66.4 billion was lost in revenues due to these flows. The current structure of the economy places a limit on the required funds. Therefore, we need to expand the tax base. Wage inequality between the rich and poor is one of the key drivers of economic inequality. A redistributionary agenda necessarily requires that we put decent work at the centre of transformation to put an end to poverty wages. While the minimum wage is but a start, as civil society we must be more ambitious in our call for a living wage and to demand that provisions in labour legislation that put a cap on executive pay are put in place. President Thumamina is on the mark in wanting to leverage infrastructure backlogs in the public service system for job creation. To stay on the mark we must pressure him to ensure that decent work is streamlined into the Expanded Works Programme and that he raises its budget. Apartheid subcontracting and outsourcing through EPWP and community work programme have no place in our Human Economy. 

Free, universal, public quality and accountable healthcare, education, social protection are amongst the very things that are foundational to a functioning society and a Human Economy.  Inequality report “Public good or Private Wealth?” demonstrates the power of public services in inequality reduction. They are the very things that give one a sense of belonging or a knowing that “I am here, I am counted, I am cared for, there is hope, I have a future, here is my contribution, my potential!” For, these were the things that were promised since the early days of what has become that cliched Old Dawn tag line: A better life for all! 

In health these inequalities have meant that South Africa’s disease burden is one of the highest in the world. A white person born in 2009 expects to live for 71 years, whereas a black person born in the same year expects to live for 48 years. The access to medical aid of whites (73.3%) relative to blacks (10.6%) is a significant contributor to the discrepancy in health outcomes. 

In education 15% of grade 3 learners pass both numeracy and literacy, 70 percent of South African schools do not have libraries, 60 % do not have laboratories and 60 percent of children are pushed out of schooling system before they reach grade 12. 

And lest we forget the burden of “women’s work” that further excludes women. While women account for an increasing proportion of enrolment and component in high education, they remain less likely to pursue higher levels of degrees at a tertiary levels . In addition to financial restriction, women are more likely to sacrifice education to fulfil family and household commitments (particularly due to pregnancy) than their male counterparts.

This election is possibly the worst as the population living in poverty, which stood at 27,3 million in 2011, has increased by 11 percent to 30,4 million in 2015. It is time to Jikizinto (Turn things around/ make the change). Zizojikizinto is a popular hymn that like many songs of revolution has been adopted as a song of mobilisation sung at political gatherings and protests. The song both thuthuzela’s (comforts) and also uplifts the spirits of those weakened and deflated in the face of gross injustice and oppression. It proclaims: “things will change!” to then ask, “so what are you crying for” as the chorus reinforce the ‘thuthuzeling ’ by asking “hush my child, what are you crying for?”. If you were paying attention, you would have heard it sung by students at the #FeesMustfall protests that engulfed the land as they faced tear gas, rubber bullets and nyalas. You would have heard it sung in support of the families that lost their loved ones in the Esidimeni tragedy due to a crippled healthcare system; or the distressed gogos who queued the pension sites for their family’s lifeline which was put at risk. Everyday is another shocking headline “300 children between the ages of 10 to 14 fell pregnant”. Everyday is another frantic morning call to Iman, Eusebius, Bongani, Bob to relieve the pressure and for a collective sigh as we cry “Rape!”. Every day is a petition compiled in the belief that one day a change is going to come. Everyday is another protest for the obvious!

On the issue of inequality, the future is judging the present. We have the tools and solutions, what we lack is credible, visionary leadership that is prepared to make the bold decisions and take society forward. 

Never has the call to Jikizinto been more prescient. 

Siphokazi Mthathi is ther Executive Director of Oxfam South Africa.