In his book The Price of Inequality, Joseph Stiglitz writes: “Countries around the world provide frightening examples of what happens to societies when they reach the level of inequality toward which we are moving. It is not a pretty picture: countries where the rich live in gated communities, waited upon by hordes of low-income workers; unstable political systems where populists promise the masses a better life, only to disappoint. Perhaps most importantly, there is an absence of hope. In these countries, the poor know that their prospects of emerging from poverty, let alone making it to the top, are minuscule. This is not something we should be striving for.”
It is not difficult to relate the South African present to this picture of a vastly unequal society. Frequent descriptions of contemporary life are rooted in a “tale of two cities” narrative that reveals the stark differences that underscore life within our borders.
This is a bleak depiction. But rather than being weighed down by the morass it represents, I am emboldened by the aims of today’s gathering [the Confronting Inequality conference], which is born out of hope that the future that we imagined at the founding of our democracy can be attained.
This hope, however, is not one underscored by naivety or attempts to disregard the material reality and political circumstances that contribute to its current state. It is born of a shared belief that a better future is possible.
The background paper for this conference, written by Professor Ben Turok, commences with an unambiguous exploration of the consequences of inequality. It is founded on the belief that when societies, for a vast array of reasons, begin to take the shape of the contours defined by Stiglitz, the threat of violence invades everyday realities and threatens to engulf the better part of the affected world in its long shadow.
Turok emphasises this fact, drawing on the work of French economist Thomas Piketty, who states: “We also know from historical experience that extreme inequality of the kind of levels we observe in South Africa is not good for development and growth, and it can also lead to violent reactions and violent events. And we all have in mind the very violent episodes at Marikana… and we know from historical experience that if inequality is not addressed through peaceful means and peaceful democratic institutions it’s always potentially a source of violence. And, of course, this can happen again.”
The echoes of these statements are found in a recent Oxfam report that noted: “Left unchecked, growing inequality threatens to pull our societies apart. It increases crime and insecurity, and undermines the fight to end poverty. It leaves more people living in fear and fewer in hope.”
Frequently violence is evident in what have been termed “service delivery protests’, but takes wider form. It is evident in continuing commuter bus and taxi unrest. It rears its head in the responses to student protests at our universities. There are numerous ways in which it invades every day, and reveals societal rifts that blur the distinctions between the past and the present, perhaps because the past is so present.
Considering these three quotes in chorus, it becomes evident that the restoration of hope in our democracy should be a fundamental aim. Driven not by speech acts, it should be re-established through the systematic economic, political and social inclusion in the body politic of those presently and historically excluded.
We find increasing critique of Simon Smith Kuznets’s assumption that inequality will naturally even out as countries develop, without any interference. The reality does not reflect such a smooth, linear development.
The South African example, for instance, has proven that much intervention is required to create the equal, just and free society that is central to our Constitution. Many other global examples have thrown into question the ability of the neoliberal market and capitalist system’s ability to achieve democracy’s aims, when by its very design its competitive nature can contribute significantly to inequality.
A dual economy, in which a formal and an informal economy exist side by side and create vastly distinct experiences of citizenship, marks our reality. As a result, we find that the task of fully realising freedom is still one that we have to ardently pursue. Economic marginalisation remains a pressing challenge.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can now say that, in the initial democratic days, the following question should have been phrased: How do we define the new national cause beyond 1994 and which array of social forces should be mobilised to pursue it?
There is a simple saying that says: “When you know better, you do better.” We can rephrase this: When you know better, you have the capacity to do better. As Piketty stresses: “We still know too little about inequality” … Our aim should be to contribute to a more informed democratic discussion about inequality.
Similarly, Anna Orthofer writes: “Despite the concerns about the persisting economic disparities since the end of apartheid, existing research has focused almost exclusively on income inequality.”
It is clear that a larger picture needs to be attained that gives a greater in-depth view on the factors affecting present inequality. Dealing with the failure of formal rights and the mechanisms that ensure them, institutions that sustain, enforce and legislate them are required to fully realise democracy.
As we strive to address this, it would be remiss not to consider the roles and responsibilities of the institutions of democracy. The current state of our institutions is shaped by historical forces. It is evident that we are faced with a crisis of institutions that affects multiple sites — government, public universities and the private sector.
The term “state capture” continues to dominate public discourse on governance, showing how the interference of nepotistic relations and tainted business transactions can affect the workings of the state and the inability of government to meet its social responsibilities.
We are required to both question and critique the government’s role in alleviating poverty, inequality and unemployment, as well as consider our collective responsibility and agency in contributing towards their redress and rebuilding our society on new terms.
We know, from the work of multiple economists and social theorists, that multiple factors influence the present state of local and global inequality. These include the state of the global economy, the present design of the economic system, historical and structural features, and unearned benefits that accompany various forms of privilege. What then, could be the possible way out of the bleak picture painted by the economists I have mentioned?
As Turok writes: “Current mechanisms of welfare grants and public spending are not doing enough to confront inequality in our economy. Other more ambitious solutions may be needed to resolve the structural constraints that continue to frustrate inclusive development.” Our current policy framework clearly fails to fully comprehend and address the challenges of inequality.
In keeping with a solutions-oriented mind-set, I offer one site that must be considered: education. The introduction of the Bantu Education Act of 1953 stratified South African education in a racial hierarchy. The present effect of this is evident in the statistician general’s report on the social profile of vulnerable groups between 2002 and 2012. It revealed a startling decline in educational attendance beyond 15 and 16 years of age. This reality significantly affects the country’s black and coloured communities.
It is important to remember, here, that we are speaking at the base level of basic education, which is further complicated by access to higher education and training institutions. In thinking about inequality, basic education demands our direct address. Failure to access and sustain adequate education skews access to opportunities long after initial enrolment. It could be said to touch every aspect of life, with effects beyond generations.
A further report on educational enrolment and achievement for 2016 by StatsSA states: “Differences in intergenerational mobility have remained significant across population groups. The same families tend to constitute the most educated group from one generation to the next. Economists refer to this as the under-education trap, as some families remain unskilled from one generation to the next.”
We cannot map out solutions emboldened only by a set of untested assumptions. Our conversations must be underscored by the realisation that there are real human lives beneath data and academic terminology. The people most affected by the scourge of inequality must be kept in mind as we seek to “normalise freedom” and create a country that can truly claim freedom, justice and equality as its reality.