Defend Truth


In an age where obscene wealth is normalised, transparency is key


Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist and columnist at Daily Maverick and is part of the founding team of Maverick Citizen. Prior to Daily Maverick she worked as a communications and advocacy officer at Public Interest Law Centre SECTION27.

A recent Bloomberg headline said Elon Musk, head of Tesla and SpaceX, was challenging the United Nations to prove the statement it had made that $6-billion would be all it would take to lift 42 million people across the world out of hunger.

At first blush I was: “Of course he should accede to this challenge.” As the world’s richest person, who is now estimated to be worth $311-billion, an amount that most people, including myself, cannot fathom in terms of access, power and spending potential, it didn’t seem like a huge ask.

Musk asserted that, should the director of the UN’s World Food Programme, David Beasley, be able to prove through transparent and open-source accounting the possibility of hunger being eradicated with $6-billion, he would liquidate some of his Tesla stock and hand the money over to help the hungry people.

This was after Beasley had thrown down a challenge on Twitter for Musk and the world’s second-richest man, Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder who is worth more than $190-billion, to “step up now, on a one-time basis”.

After a brief discussion with a friend who raised two valid points, I decided to ruminate some more on the issue. First, it was doubtful that international aid organisations such as the World Food Programme have a real interest in eradicating hunger and poverty because that would effectively put them out of work. Second, it would make sense for Musk to ask for proof of where his money was going and how it would be spent so that he and the public could be satisfied that it would indeed be well spent, as an accountability measure.

Now, it seems to me that three things are at play here: First, that we live in a world where one man’s personal wealth can be many times the GDP of a lower-middle-income country and that seemingly is not alarming; second, that they would have to be petitioned and convinced to use their money to stop people from the indignity of hunger; and third, that not too many people are asking what the success measures for international aid organisations are.

We are living in an age in which we accept that obscene wealth is normalised and aspirational as opposed to questioned and repudiated in the face of the world’s poverty crisis – 9.2% of the world’s population lives in unimaginable poverty. What kind of broken system are we propping up that rewards the amassing of such money while other people literally have nothing?

We seem to have bought into the seduction of a capitalist system that coaxes us to participate in it on the off chance that we too might become billionaires. But the thing about capitalism is that it is at the expense of the poor: people hoard riches by snatching away the opportunities of others and keeping them to themselves.

About a year or two ago there was a reality show on Netflix called Bling Empire that flaunted the extravagance that billions of dollars afforded people – to the point of cutting ties with reality. Viewers loved it: each episode unveiled more and more just how the 1% of the world lived their caviar lifestyle.

Now, there is no doubt that the people who amass these riches probably work extremely hard; however, one wonders what goes through their minds as they float past the misery that is poverty. For example, looking at their employee records and salary statements and knowing that they could never get by on the lowest-earning employee’s salary, what becomes the justification in their minds of how that employee manages to live every month?  

I remember once seeing someone posting on social media: “Stop humanizing billionaires. Elon Musk isn’t just some average guy. Do you have any idea how much money $253 billion really is? That’s not normal.” That really stuck with me, particularly when noting how the reality TV show was thriving on “lifting the veil” of how the super-rich live and making them a normal part of our lives, so that people felt their own riches were around the corner.

On the one hand, while asking for the billionaires to donate their money, the question that still remains is what measures will be put in place to ensure that the 42 million people do not slip right back into hunger once the $6-billion towards aid is released and spent.

And what is the sustainability case as opposed to the dependency case for the donation?

In a world in which the divide between rich and poor only gets wider, how do you ensure that yesterday’s billions are not tomorrow’s trillions?

I guess the real point here is that accountability must be applied consistently and even those who purport to be “do-gooders” must still do so transparently. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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  • Miles Japhet says:

    “people hoard riches by snatching away the opportunities of others and keeping them to themselves.”
    What an extraordinary statement!!
    Whilst the extreme income gap is unsustainable, rich people get there through the CREATION of jobs and are rewarded by the system for hard work initiative and risk taking.
    The real issue, is that governments do not use the taxes arising our of a growing economy to educate all at a high level and to use other such resources to encourage the growth of opportunities.
    Victim mentality is at the heart of the issue here and complete lack of understanding how the real world works.

  • Bruce Sobey says:

    The author has no concept of how difficult it is to make and spend money wisely. The Bill Gates Foundation employs something like 1000 people to spend their money wisely.
    I would also recommend that the author reads Factfulness by Hans Rosling or watches some of his TED talks before writing anything further in this vein. In the last 20 years the extreme poverty in the world has decreased considerably – and continues to decrease.
    The increased AVERAGE wealth of the world has been due to technological progress. People like Elon Musk drive this progress. They are not getting wealthy by subjugating anyone, unlike many in the socialist countries.

    • Bruce Sobey says:

      If the author would also like to do some research it would be immediately obvious that the majority of extreme poverty in the world today is caused by war and political issues. Think: Ethiopia, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan,, etc. Venezuela was one of the per capita richest countries in the world until they tried redistribution – now their people are starving. Taking money from those that have earned it will not solve those problems. Also check – Elon Musk’s companies are not unionised, but they have $ millionaires working in them – their staff have got rich on share options. They all benefit from the success of the company. A journalist must do research!

  • Coen Gous says:

    With respect, I will not comment on your article, failing to say your opinion (basically on all matters that your write about, on numerous occasions), belongs at the pathetic empires of News 24 and the idiot owner of Independent News

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