SA IS facing a crisis. Those in power believe the crisis is temporary, contained and specific. Perhaps that is proof that age and wisdom are not synonymous? To be fair, they are not alone in their delusion. The rest of us also think the crisis is specific — that it is the failure of political leadership and the cancer of corruption spreading through our society. I believe, in my youthful hubris, that our crisis is a crisis of society, not simply the economy. We have bought into a perverted notion of society that is premised on plutocracy.
While black South Africans spent pretty much all of the past century fighting for freedom, economic rights and dignity, we easily discarded a dignity-based approach to social and economic development in favour of an elite-driven society premised on wealth being controlled by a minority and that society’s fortunes being dependent on that same minority.
In 1994, SA transitioned from a society built on the notion that the majority of its population was not to take part in economic development. The majority’s primary function in the old order was to be a cheap source of labour or an inconvenient subspecies. About 18 years later, it is questionable how much this has changed. For all the vaunted talk of transformation, we have not changed the economic structures of apartheid. The optics might have changed, the ideological clarity of apartheid’s architects may no longer determine the role of blacks as menial labour, but the core structural axioms of our society remain much as they were; a society that propagates elite interests.
About 80% of South Africans get by on just more than 25% of the national income. How do we think we can have a stable society with that kind of statistic? Yet the elites in this society are demanding an increasing share of the national income. Worse, political leaders propagate this elitism.
Government ministers clearly find no moral incongruity in owning a BMW X6 in Johannesburg and a Range Rover in Cape Town at taxpayers’ expense, in a society where the median income is R3,000 a month. Political office has become about building wealth through patronage.
Of course, most of us will read that last sentence and say, "Yes, this society has become a kleptocracy." In fact, we are a plutocracy, a society ruled by a wealthy elite and designed to perpetuate elite interests. The plunder of the state is simply a manifestation of the corrupting structure of plutocracy. We have built a winner-takes-all system in which the aggregation of boundless and pointless wealth is an essential virtue and where the poor are treated as something less than full human beings even by those political leaders who govern on their mandate.
In truth, most middle-class South Africans are anything but. We live lives of wealth and elitism and we have all bought into a society premised on structural inequality, a country of two worlds, where the gulf between them is a metaphorical universe.
We shake our heads when unions demand above-inflation wage increases and demand the same for ourselves, even when our incomes already outstrip those of the working class. And we probably give our domestic workers, who earn a pittance, the same inflation-linked adjustment we rejected in our negotiations. The sad fact is that the rest of our society probably aspires to joining this elite world, rather than creating a different society for ourselves.
For most communists and socialists, this is a country that socialism passed by.
Unions may demand collective bonuses but they also work to preserve the interests of entrenched workers over the opening up of new opportunities.
SA is a plutocracy; a society governed by the wealthy in the interests of a small, wealthy elite. It is the society we have designed and that we perpetuate. To be poor in SA is to be a cancer, an irritant, a scar on society. The poor do not embarrass us; rather we both desire and loathe them. How many of us can honestly say we want a society in which we can no longer afford permanent domestic labour? We have created a society in which most of us aspire to the spoils of elitism and excessive benefits. This could be part of the reason why people who are securely in the working class see themselves as outsiders and why the aspirations of our society are out of kilter, even taking into account genuine deficiencies — including how the lack of proper public goods and services has had a negative effect on working-class wages.
If SA is going to survive the trajectory we are on, we need nothing less than a reimagining of our society. The upside — and irony — is that this vision exists in the most morally credible vision we could ask for: our constitution, which argues for a society in which substantive equality is a necessary condition for achieving human dignity.
We need a society in which people aspire to be the middle-class masses and not to be the wealthy elites.
• Mahabane is head of Brunswick SA.