WE ARE a country defined by structural, economic inequality at a time of great uncertainty about global economic possibilities. A long history of statutory and institutional dispossession and disempowerment has created deeply embedded patterns that deprive the vast majority of South Africans of equality of opportunity.
It was always going to be a difficult task to reverse this. We stumbled along for the first decade of South Africa’s democratic dispensation and then, somewhere into our second decade, we fell into the familiar and depressing trap of institutionalised, endemic corruption, plundering public wealth to perpetuate income patterns that had come to define us as a country. The excessive concentration — and unequal distribution — of wealth acquired through foul means seems to have become a structural pattern that we are unable or unwilling to overcome — but we are not simply victims of this structure.
Our inequality composite is a complex web of complicity that is entrenched by state, social and private actors.
If we are going to overcome this, then it means that those citizens who aspire to a different world — one that is defined by genuine prospects for developing individual capability — need structural evenhandedness and the capacity for social mobility.
This means we need strong, functioning institutions to improve equality of opportunity. Let us start with the state. To build more effective state institutions, we need to build real accountability.
Each year, state actors fail or refuse to account for the equivalent of 1.5% of our gross domestic product. It is immoral and ridiculous. We need to plug what amounts to extraordinary government "leakage".
The problem is not just corruption without delivery, or unidentifiable expenditure. Government financial accountability threatens to develop into a substantive collapse of our budgetary system with only the facade of form remaining.
Our resources are not infinite. The South African Revenue Service can continue to find extra sources of undeclared income but it has very nearly reached the limits of what is economically available without additional taxes. We cannot create additional redistributive capacity except through improving government allocation and expenditure. This is our income distribution; it does not get better than this without growth and jobs, period.
Let us not fool ourselves; the required growth and jobs are a long-term game. We may get the government we deserve; nonetheless, we cannot create a better society without an accountable government, especially not when the government looms as large as ours and, while patchy in delivery, is becoming more proficient in extraction.
That is only part of the equation. We also need to change our mind-sets as individuals. We need to be more accountable individuals. We need to ask ourselves what kind of society we want. South Africa is, if not quite a market society, certainly a money society. Too many of us have insatiable expectations. We seek perpetual material mobility, and not just small upgrades but quantum shifts.
The empowered in our society do not aspire to the middle class, they aspire to extreme wealth. This is not in itself a bad thing if it is the product of our value creation. Unfortunately, far too often it is predicated on rent-seeking, and I’m not referring only to black economic empowerment and tenderpreneurship. The propensity for cartel behaviour, price-fixing and cynical fronting says that the rot is widespread.
Part of this issue is about our understanding of economics because it is clear that some of the theoretical premises of mainstream economics need to be revisited. One of the most important is improving our understanding of how surplus is distributed.
A second important conversation is about long-run growth. Increasingly, mainstream economists are willing to revisit long-held views about the structural implications of the grossly uneven distribution of surplus. Linked to this are growing questions about what levels of economic growth are possible at certain levels of development, which of course also dovetail with the broader question of whether our economic models are flawed in their approach to pricing the cost of global economic development.
We know for a fact that without a radical technological breakthrough or a fundamental redesign of our economic organisation, global aspirations of economic development cannot be met. For instance, India and China cannot continue to grow their middle classes at this rate without disrupting our world.
Our growth assumptions must be recalibrated and, together with them, individual and societal expectations. For instance, Europe is grappling with the reality that Europeans must accept that they need to adjust to being relatively poorer. South Africa may need to grapple with the question of whether it is possible, given our level of development in a world facing dire economic implications, to achieve developed-world status.
We need to ask ourselves what kind of society we envisage, what the sacrifices are that we are willing to make, and what the non-negotiables are. How do we fundamentally commit to that society?