Opinion pieces

Some thoughts on inequality

To whom it may concern

I learnt from this week’s Sunday Times (17/05/2015) that I live near to one of South Africa’s richest private estates – boasting more than twenty “über- millionaires in dollarterms”.  I drive past the estate often with its unobscured views of the Helderberg mountain ranges bordering spectacular wine estates.  The Sunday Times story evoked feelings of discomfort in me – whilst it raised the stark contrast with the poverty experienced by the majority in our country it also featured stories of “rags to riches” that in a sense celebrated this ostentatious display of luxury and wealth.

The Sunday Times story was the very antithesis to another article I had read in the Cape Times the previous week that had featured Tony Erenreich, the ANC leader in the City of Cape Town Council.  Tony has used his commitment to donate his Council salary andincome from public speaking to the poor as a challenge to the wealthy in our society, including political and business leaders, to do the same.  He argues that a pretentious display of wealth in our society – especially evident in racial terms – undermines nation building.  The feelings that this article had evoked in me were of admiration for Tony and a sense of personal challenge with regard to my life-style choices.  What I like about Tony’s response is that, as a trade unionist, he could simply blame inequality on structural factors within our economy and excuse himself of any personal responsibility; but he chooses not to, and instead takes immediate personal actions that will impact on those he can assist.

These two newspaper articles have made me reflect on the persistent inequality within South Africa and the kinds of conversations that we need to keep alive.  I am aware that there have been different studies and/or interpretations regarding the level of inequality in South African society.  Some argue that income inequality is reducing, while others contend that income inequality is an unsatisfactory measure since it excludes a large proportion of the population who receive no income whatsoever.  Whatever the statistical model and interpretation, the fact remains that inequality and the consequences thereof are clearly visible in our society.  One cannot disregard the shack-lands alongside our modern freeways and the homeless sleeping on our streets.  Within this context one has to question whether we should be celebrating or encouraging aspirations of unbridled wealth accumulation – the splurges on flashy cars, expensive alcohol and designer-labelled apparel.  One has to question whose interests our economy serves.

I am repeatedly amazed – in debates about global or local poverty – how the middle-class or wealthier classes so easily blame population growth.  There is simply no consideration of the fact that the huge structural inequalities within our world and societies may be at the heart of poverty and that if there were a more fair and equitable distribution of global resources, poverty may be eradicated.    There is an assumption driven from the West that there is no alternative to an individualistic and capitalistic world order.  Examples of fairer societies such as social democracies are pushed into the background.  This propaganda entrenches the status quo and feeds growing global conflicts over access to and control over resources.  One wonders if there is space in this global ideological hegemony for some nation states to opt for a different more equitable path.

One wonders what the impact of an entire cabinet of “Tony-minded” ministers would be, and whether their personal commitments could drive a larger movement aimed at structural change within our economy.  I am reminded of some of my study visits to the Nordic countries, such as Sweden, where the main class difference that I could pick up in the housing market was the colour of the paint.    This was a result of the adoption of a particular (and perhaps past) political and economic model that valued equality and citizenry.

I’d just like to thank Tony for his leadership and challenge to us all and for making us re-think the “normalising” of inequality within our society and our individual and collective responses to this!!



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