I recently got into a debate with one of South Africa’s “top investment minds” and wealthiest people, the CEO of Investec - Steven Koseff. As the debate heated up, my seniors and colleagues tried to silence me by telling me there was a time and a place for saying such things. What they did not understand was that silence was not an option on an issue that mattered so much in our South African context.
“There is no freedom in silence…” – Steve Biko.
In a room where his influence was more powerful, his voice louder, I decided to stop debating, and as my tweet that went viral suggested, “I gave up”. I instead opted for solitude, staying in the moment – writing down as much as possible from what he was saying, to capture the moment.
Avoidance of the past
The first bone of contention I had towards Koseff was his sentiments on how we should view our colonial and Apartheid past. He made statements such as: “You can’t blame everything on Apartheid”; “You can’t look back in life; you need to look forward”; “The Jews looked forward” and “We can’t keep looking back, because we will remain victims”, which bothered me greatly. Although, as le Cordeur’s article reaffirmed, Koseff did state that we should not forget our past, he is quoted in the article as saying, “We must not forget the past, but we must move forward as a society and not let that past hold us back”. Similarly, in our session with him, his comment on the importance of the past seemed like a “by the way, guys”.
The past was violently brutal to black people in multiple ways, seen and unseen. In Love in the Time of AIDS: Inequality, Gender, and Rights in South Africa, Mark Hunter reminds us that avoiding Apartheid is not something South Africa can afford to do. He notes that although the political struggle “had created great optimism for the future”, very few of these have been lived up to as the “dream of prosperity eluded most South Africans but was realised dramatically by a few”. He says:
Today townships still host inadequate schools and are still inhabited primarily by those designated African under Apartheid. Informal settlements have continued to grow, despite the building of over two million RDP houses by 2007. Only a small proportion of black South Africans managed to move up the social scale, and doing so often necessitated families or at least school children moving into former white or Indian suburbs.
To justify his views, Koseff said, “I read Madiba’s book” (referring to Long Walk to Freedom).
I then asked him, “But did you read Steve Biko’s book?” He said no. This was not surprising, because if he had read Biko’s work, his views would be challenged. Reading Biko’s work would not be as comfortable for him as reading Nelson Mandela’s book. As Andile Mngxitama states, “Mandela is loved precisely because he is so effective in shielding whiteness from the view.” If he read Biko, he would have read quotes such as:
“…blacks should wish to rid themselves of a system that locks up the wealth if the country in the hands of the few”
“…it is an integration in which the black man [or woman] will have to prove himself [or herself] in terms of these [white] values before meriting acceptance and ultimate assimilation, and in which the poor will grow poorer and the rich richer in a country where the poor have always been black.”
Redistribution vs. growth
As Koseff stated, “The biggest issue in society is inequality”, with which I agree. This has been affirmed in Oxfam’s recent report: “Even It Up: Time to End Extreme Inequality”. However, we did not agree on the ways to solve it. As pointed out by the article, our second point of contention was that I was “at odds with Koseff over his ideological stance that South Africa could only be a better place for all through tried-and-tested policies of economic growth and not through the redistribution of wealth”. My argument was and still is: simply speaking of growth as the tool to decrease inequality and achieve a prosperous society in South Africa is being both ahistorical and apolitical.
The development and growth of the South African formal economy was not neutral, it was “historically constructed on the basis of black exploitation and oppression and continues to sustain itself today on this very same oppression”, as Mngxitama reminds us. Therefore people who subscribe to Koseff’s thinking can’t speak of “growth” as if it’s a neutral concept. Academic, activist (and my former lecturer) Dr Vishwas Satgar recently said “[t]he racism of neo-liberalism still needs to be unpacked.”
This is further supported by Mngxitama, who states that “We care little about the racism which explains white wealth and black poverty, or the different life-expectancies between blacks and whites.”
Le Cordeur quotes Koseff, who says: “For South Africa to grow it needs a growth agenda, not a redistribution model.” This is supported by what he said in that meeting to us – that “you can’t redistribute people out of poverty, you have to grow them.” Koseff’s argument has recently been disproved, in the growing literature and reports on alternative economic policy, which moves away from “the neo-liberal dogma” which Minister Malusi Gigaba said at a Daily Maverick event was this government’s biggest mistake.
South African policy has bought into the sentiments of “trickle-down”, “growth-first” economics. But what has that logic achieved for the poor majority? It has made us one of the most unequal societies in the world. The Oxfam report which quotes Ha-Joon Chang, an economist which I asked Koseff to read, proves that redistribution is the only way to decrease inequality:
Governments can start to reduce inequality by rejecting market fundamentalism, opposing the special interests of powerful elites, changing the rules and systems that have led to today’s inequality explosion, and taking action to level the playing field by implementing policies that redistribute money and power.
Koseff further said, “You can’t take away the concept [that] people must go [and] fish for themselves.” This is particularly ironic because Apartheid policies, which white people still benefit from, strengthened their capability to make “fishing” easier. And when we want to create an environment where “fishing” is easier through providing free access to basic services such as healthcare, education, water and electricity for the poor, we are accused of wanting to create a “lazy society”.
Perpetuating the legacy of Apartheid
Koseff went on about labour flexibility, and how the country needs to promote it. However, labour flexibility doesn’t guarantee permanent employment; it limits the rights and benefits of employees through outsourcing and labour brokers. It is labour flexibility that makes the poor black working class poorer, further perpetuating the legacy of Apartheid.
Koseff also put forward that “we need business-friendly policies” and that “our biggest asset that we have in South Africa is that we have a capable private sector”. However, what does that translate to for the poor majority? In a country with heightened private sector collusion and tax evasion (which steals money from the state and the poor which could be used to invest in education and quality healthcare), why should we continue promote the interest of the private sector, which has shown time and again resistance to transformation and opening up opportunities for the marginalised? I affirm a point made by plenty: the private sector in South Africa is not scrutinised enough and it is irrelevant to the poor majority.
Koseff is one of South Africa’s celebrated CEOs because he prides himself on “giving back”, which he affirmed when he said to us that “as [a] business we understand that we have to do a hell a lot more in South Africa, rather than Australia, for instance”. And this would seem to be true, for his centre for Maths, Science and Technology “assists 3,500 learners in grade 10, 11 and 12”. Furthermore, as pointed out in Le Cordeur’s article: “Koseff said he believes strongly in corporate social responsibility, social grants, Black Economic Empowerment and the focus on providing better education to the poor”. However, as my former lecturer and activist Dale McKinely often says, “[one] cannot [simply just] pick and choose what to be progressive about”. You cannot wish to act progressively by the number of people you employ in the country and your CSI contribution, but fail to recognise a system that that will make black people constantly in need of your “CSI”. We want to eliminate that dependency.
As the Freedom Charter affirms, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white”. This I truly believe. However, we can no longer justify maintaining a system where “[t]oo many children born today have their future held hostage by the low income of their parents, their gender and their race,” as Graca Machel states. We need to move beyond the parameters created to shape our economy, to shape our thinking and to shape how we engage with power and wealth. We need to achieve a more equitable society through redistribution. Redistribution of what, as well as when and how, forms the real debate that we should be having collectively.
A point that I tried to affirm is this: South Africans need to engage with the hard questions. We need to have constructive, honest and direct conversations on socio-economic justice. These conversations failed to happen with our 1994 “miracle” in our “rainbow nation” because we did not want to hurt each other’s feelings. As film-activist Ben Cashdan states, our collective future “will lie, in part, through dialogue” if we are to avoid our upcoming “Tunisia moment”. What was different about Mr Koseff was his willingness to engage with me, although we differ. Will I go to lunch with him? Yes, if the offer still stands. DM
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