Far too often, we allow things to go unchallenged. We allow the rhetoric that trickle-down economics and investor-friendly policies is needed to confront South Africa’s problems to take root. Anyone in the policy space who has been listening (beyond their own dogma) will know that the idea of trickle-down economics has been refuted, over the past few years, as the solution to the global problem of inequality.
By obsessing only over growth rates, employment numbers, and investor-friendly policies, we are missing an opportunity for South Africans, political leaders, citizens and capital, to meaningful work on building the social compact needed to meaningfully confront, and resolve inequality, and to move beyond outdated thinking.
Many column inches have been dedicated to the topic of inequality, and in particular Professor Thomas Piketty’s views on the matter and his recent visit to South Africa. At the time of the Nelson Mandela Annual lecture, I wondered how many leaders and policy hawks would be listening to what Piketty was saying. However, the events of the past few weeks, a speech in Mexico, and the recent debate on the Protection of Investment Bill, has reminded me that, far too often, no one was listening. No one has taken heed of Piketty’s warning.
This past week, Helen Zille, former leader of the Democratic Alliance, travelled to Mexico to participate in the Liberal International 60th Congress. Zille’s speech, which was prefaced as a keynote address to analyse populism, dealt predominately with liberalism, the need for independent institutions, and steps to confront poverty, among other themes.
Zille treaded into the space of race and apartheid (and of scapegoating), but I will, for my own sanity, not delve into how problematic those remarks were. Liberalism, as sketched in her speech, and as reported, is something I cannot subscribe to. I disagree with the notion that “liberal” policies and leadership will serve South Africa, nor that the tired old rhetoric of growth and trickle-down economics will solve inequality.
Unemployment in South Africa is often perceived as the root problem, however, if a considered and more nuanced approach is taken, then we will come to accept that unemployment is but a symptom of a broken system. Sadly, we are still burdened by this system, and we are yet to meaningfully confront the structural issues that allow this broken system to exist. That system was built by capital, and supported and enabled by an apartheid regime, with the focus of using cheap labour and extractive policies, in order to drive a skewered socio-economic, and brutal political agenda.
What has been reflected back to us, over the past few weeks, is that there is a fundamental disconnect between leaders and citizens. In charting the way forward, it would be helpful to remember Zille’s words, when she dealt with the complexity of confronting poverty in developing economies, where she remarked that “often, people do have legitimate grievances rooted in historical injustice and dispossession. In a country like South Africa where an oppressive state dispossessed people on the basis of race, while denying them agency to change their circumstances, it is understandable that people now look to the state for restitution and opportunity”.
It may be true that the negligible growth rate does not serve the interests of addressing the socio-economic issues, but growth on its own will not solve our problems. The truth, as Piketty remarked, is that “we simply cannot rely on market forces and “trickle-down” mechanisms in order to deliver the right level” of intervention to deal with inequality or poverty. South Africans, as Zille remarked, would look to leaders, and the State, for “restitution and opportunity”.
South Africa only needs to look at the string of daily service delivery protests, the choice by many not to participate in elections, and the recent #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements, to realise that the sands are shifting very quickly. Now is not the time for the same old political rhetoric, but rather it is an opportunity to confront issues of inequality, privilege, poverty and education.
There is a need for new thinking, for us to push beyond the tired and mundane thinking that makes up the majority of those sitting in Parliament, and in the halls of power and privilege. The young students have, through their efforts, shown us that 30,000 young South Africans can articulate a different vision for South Africa. This should be a clear warning to our political leaders that South Africans can elect to bypass traditional leadership structures.
It will be critical for our next chapter to determine very carefully what values and principles will guide the rebuilding efforts of the future. We will need to guard against expediency, the cult of personality, and the desire to make irrational choices. There is great deal of uncertainty ahead, but ours is a burden of a country in transition. These are not insurmountable challenges, but in order for us to move forward, we will need to embrace an inclusive, principled and historically aware approach to those challenges. DM