Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)
Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

Inequality is a political choice

By Mphumzi Mdekazi Time of article published Aug 7, 2019

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I am now more than convinced that inequality is a political choice. If R400 million can be spent on a political campaign, predominantly by established white companies in South Africa, then you can’t help but ask why are they (funders) of such a political campaign not adopting the same rigor in addressing South Africa’s most pressing basic challenges. Our country is a country rich in mineral resources and it is considered too valuable a prize to lose. Its democracy is more than periodic elections. In some instances, elections are used to legitimise essentially authoritarian practices and deprive large parts of the citizenry of basic rights. 

If you think am being fallacious, just look at the lifespan of a pothole in Queenstown, Langa, Khayelitsha, Alexandra and Kwamashu versus a lifespan of a pothole in Pinelands, Sandton, Mhlanga and Constantia. This article asserts my view that inequality is a political choice and carelessness, if not social insensitivity. How many areas in South Africa have no access to roads and water or people who wittingly “manage” corruption in their realm of responsibility, yet the vote is the same in the ballot box? Perhaps the most important aspect of inequality is inequality of political rights.

When our declaration of independence said “all men are created equal”, it didn’t mean that all were of equal ability; it meant especially that all men should be equal in their political rights, particularly basic rights. But even the meaning of “political rights” is not obvious. Voice is even more important; the ability to influence the political process, either by affecting the actions of the key decision makers ought to be crucial; however you are hitting against a brick wall if you think you are affecting an arrogant decision maker. Most of them (decision makers) want to be persuaded to do the right thing; it doesn’t come naturally to do things judiciously. This marks the paucity and dearth of leadership in our societies. To many, good governance is to speak good English or at times is to tell us what we want to hear.    

If the rich can use their money to control the press/journalists or to influence (a gentler, but perhaps less accurate word than “buy”) politicians, then their voice will be heard far more loudly. It is almost inevitable that the rich will be, in this sense, more influential than others; but the rules of the game affect the extent to which this is so, as we are currently witnessing in our political discourse. 

Other countries take the notion of political equality more seriously and have curbed these abuses; some have gone so far as to enhance equality of voice (e.g., through public support of the media and access to the media), as well as seriously/practically support gender balance in the true sense of the word. I counter the popular conservative argument that we can’t afford to do a better job in promoting equality and equality of opportunity. Quite the contrary: our economy pays a high price for our failures, a case in point is the severity of bailouts in our SoEs and the Government Departments that continue to fail audit. 

This has got nothing to do with apartheid, but poor governance and negative attitudes. Part of my counter is the proposition on tax pollution, we could have cleaner environment and more money to spend both to reduce the inequalities in our society and to promote our economy’s growth. Sovereign fund is another option to be considered, in order to ease the pressure of free education. Parallel, we are told of many investment drives, which by design do not trickle down to the poorest of the poor.

An inspiration to pen this article emanates from the Tunisian experience and the inherent lessons thereof, where on the 14th of January 2011, the then dictator of Tunisia (Ben Ali) was overthrown. The Central bank governor of the time Mustapha Nabli, later reveals what was behind the unrest. According to him, it was not only the high level of unemployment. It was the unfairness of the system of fooling people and taking them for granted (the inequities). Those with political connections, those who were willing to be corrupted by the system were the ones who did well, not those who worked hard, did well in school and played by the supposed rules. 

Growing awareness of the role that inequality had played in the Arab Spring and growing inequality around the world moved concerns about inequality front and center. In Egypt, although the country was growing, the benefits had not reached most Egyptians, in the very same way we are seeing in South Africa, particularly rural areas as well as the refusal to obey the constitution. Socialism under Gamal Abdel Nassar had failed them; neoliberalism under Hosni Mubarak had also failed them. The desperation to try something else was palpable. 

Notably, before any of the above crises, there has been what we are currently experiencing in South Africa (unbridled euphoria about 4IR) and repelling constitutional jamboree. That optimism sank with the economy. But with the faltering and unequal recovery, attention turned to some long standing problems. Of course, even a bubble can have some positive effects for a while-the people who feel wealthy may spend more than they otherwise would and this may give a boost to the economy. Still, every bubble comes to an end, and it is foolish for policymakers to try to base the recovery from a downturn on the creation of a new bubble, something which some in our country have made into a regular policy making. 

Two bubbles come to mind (downgrading of our embassy in Israel, and expropriation of land as policy resolutions). These are just managed and might not see the light of implementation. If you want to see who is really in charge of South Africa’s economy, try and enforce these two resolutions and you will be gone. 

There are a number of policies, practical policies/low hanging fruits that can be implemented or ought to have been implemented long ago, even without international cooperation that can lead to a lower level of equilibrium inequality. Many of these policies will actually result not only in lower inequality, but in higher growth, because they will result in more real investment. Land expropriation is not only the source of this, but ought to have been implemented yesterday. The question is, do we have leaders we can trust to implement these resolutions for us or do we just have managers? Only time will tell. 

How I wish that we would have leaders with strong revolutionary conviction to implement the policies of the ANC unapologetically. Simply put, does the ANC have leaders who can implement its resolutions without fear?

* Mphumzi Mdekazi is a PhD candidate.

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

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