“In politics, we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics, we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.” – BR Ambedkar, leader of India’s “Untouchables”, 1949
There’s an old story that’s been passed around in some circles here, where I live. It’s about an old woman who, upon learning that freedom had descended in South Africa, left her home in a predominantly black township and headed towards the tree-lined cool mansions in a whites-only neighbourhood and stood outside her dream house, waiting. The old woman had been convinced that, with democracy, black South Africans who had been previously excluded from sharing in the wealth of the country, would automatically gain access to it. For her, this meant that she could have her pick of her dream house and move in – just like that.
In the period leading up to the elections of 1994, part of the ANC election campaign included promises to provide free housing, free education, free electricity and free water. It is said that this woman camped outside the house for days – waiting for the occupants of her house to leave – until someone had to explain to her that that’s not how democracy or freedom works.
The occupants of this house were not moving out. They owned the house. Even if they were willing to sell, she would have to find the money to buy the house and pay for its upkeep, including amenities such as water and electricity. To get that house she would have to work and earn enough money to qualify for a loan to buy it. Democracy meant that she was free to move and live anywhere in the country – but at her own cost.
In many ways, I think that there are many South Africans who are still camping outside their dream homes – waiting for the occupants to come out so they can move in. Like the old woman, they seem to have never gotten the memo.
Nothing is free
In her book, Money From Nothing: Indebtedness and Aspiration in South Africa, Deborah James notes that the novel economic policies adopted by the new democratic dispensation – which was a surprising deviation from the Marxist-leaning ANC – had unintended consequences. She says statistics showed a significant rate of indebtedness in the population.
“As consumers, new aspirations were unleashed. It began to appear that the freedom to exercise political choice was being paralleled, even outstripped, by the freedom to engage in conspicuous consumption.”
Since the creation of the black middle-class seemed difficult to achieve without credit – people were getting in over their heads and this trend has not abated.
Data released in 2016 by the debt managing firm, Debt Rescue, shows that South African men and women have now become almost equal in the R1.64 trillion debt they collectively owe to creditors.
CEO, Neil Roets, said the group’s in-house statistics showed that men made up 49% of the indebted consumers, while women came in first, making up 51%.
I did not join the revolution to be poor
Even the government has not been immune to this trend. In an article published in 2015, Budgeting In The Real World, Michael Sachs of the National Treasury notes that despite increased government spending in the public sector, growth in South Africa remained sluggish. “The economy has grown slowly for six years. If the National Treasury’s projections are correct, we face another three years of slow growth. Despite massive additions to spending on social services, economic growth has remained sluggish. Instead of promoting faster growth, it is likely that public spending is now contributing to a widening current account deficit, entrenching our dependence on foreign savings.”
Not only are individuals over-indebted, so is the State, which is now being forced to rely on foreign loans to meet domestic needs. The overstretched middle class will have to face the reality of having to pay even higher taxes in order to help government bridge the shortfall. We have become slaves to debt.
What this comes down to is: instead of more money we need more creative thinking around our current problems. Instead of more money-laundering schemes, we need more mind-laundering strategies.
Because even if that old woman’s dream had come true – even if the occupants of the house vacated and said, ‘here’s the house; you can have it’ – she would still need to find a way to maintain the house in the leafy suburbs. She would need money to pay for goods and services and, in the end, without any means of generating an income, she will end up being poorer than she was before.
We need to count the cost
Back in 1992, African-American writer and academic, bell hooks, raised an issue among black intellectuals and professionals which I think is one we need to ask ourselves collectively, particularly in black communities who are afflicted with the burden of addictions and a myriad other psychological diseases brought on by a breakdown in the support systems within our communities. “The question for me then is how do we share resources within diverse black communities… For me, dealing with addicts in the family – the concrete questions of co-dependency to what extent do we share our resources to enable (continued drug use), to what extent do we share resources in the interest of allowing people to redeem their lives?” What models of responsibility do we have in cases where people are trying to figure out how to share resources without further disabling those who have made progress?
How do we talk about the redistribution of resources without talking about what we are all willing to give up? I don’t believe that we can convince masses of other people to give up some of their resources if we don’t.
The answer, it seems, does not lie in more money, but in what we do with it.
“The greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
― Steve Biko