Best of SACSIS: What Kind of Society Do You Want to Live In?

By Fazila Farouk · 22 May 2014

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Picture: Platinum belt mineworkers courtesy GovernmentZa/flickr
Picture: Platinum belt mineworkers courtesy GovernmentZa/flickr

Inequality is hard to avoid here in the most unequal country in the world, yet South Africa’s chattering classes have for a very long time done exactly that. Admittedly there are many titillating distractions, from our polygamous president engulfed in corruption scandals to the vulgar display of wealth by our black economic empowerment beneficiaries, there is much to keep the chins of the more established sections of South African society wagging in gloomy disapproval.

However, as South Africa emerges from the important 20-year milestone of our democracy, the harsh glare of our inequality has cut through any illusion of achievement. The mask of the rainbow nation has been peeled away to reveal a nation divided and traumatized. There is little evidence to point to the upward mobility of black South Africans who remain deeply wounded by the unrelenting hardship of their poverty. At the same time, white South Africans continue to enjoy an extraordinarily high standard of living.

Worse, the racial chasm that was papered over for two decades has been ripped open to reveal a population in conflict. We’ve just come through an election where white South Africans voted as a bloc for a party that has its roots in the white politics of apartheid South Africa. At the same time, black South Africans predominantly voted for the party of black liberation despite its inability to bring real change to their lives.

As we embark on the post-Mandela era with the ugly truth of South Africa’s cruel divisions in full view of the world, and as we look into the future with all our anxieties driven to the surface, the question we must ask ourselves is what kind of society we want to live in?

People are correct to argue that we urgently need to create jobs for the masses of unemployed black South Africans. But before we rush out to expand our burgeoning collection of street sweepers, rock drillers, burger flippers, petrol pump attendants, garden boys and kitchen girls; let us first consider what kind of society we are building.

Black lives have always been expendable in South Africa’s racial and economic hierarchy. Others have already pointed out that South Africa’s mining industry, which came into sharp relief in the wake of the Marikana massacre, couldn’t be bothered to transform from its apartheid-era labour practises and migrant labour system because of continuing racism and greed. Why incur the cost of modernisation and mechanisation when there’s a bottomless pit of poor black men that can be exploited and discarded?

Of course mining executives cloak their deeds with the veil of honour because they’re creating jobs. But while the industry presents itself as a valuable contributor to our nation, it is actually doing our society a great disservice.

Cambridge development economist Ha Joon Chang explains the paradox perfectly. To paraphrase Chang, free market advocates argue that it doesn’t matter whether we produce microchips or potato chips, as long as we make enough money. Of course this sounds like a sound proposal to investors and executives. But in the long run, Chang points out, what a nation produces fundamentally defines its relative position in the world economy and its long-term standard of living.

The equivalent of Chang’s potato chip jobs are extractive industry jobs in South Africa.

The fact that our government is facilitating the creation of these low-skilled/low-wage jobs apparently frees it from any obligation to think about developing a cutting edge sustainable economy built on the energy and collaboration of a nation of highly skilled, creative and entrepreneurial people.

In thinking about our future we must consider whether we want South Africans to continue competing with low-wage Bangladeshi factory workers in an exchange economy that doesn’t differentiate between cabbages and people or whether we, as South Africans, envisage making a firm bid to participate in the emerging post-capitalist hybrid economies developing in the advanced north?

Make no mistake, South Africans will have to start thinking about moving beyond free market capitalism if we want to remain relevant in a rapidly changing technologically advanced interconnected global economy.

In his critique of the crisis of capitalism, Marxist geographer, David Harvey argues that new technology is actually removing labour from having much significance in the dynamics of capitalism.

However, far from being afraid of this future where clever robots are poised to become the burger flippers of tomorrow, we should be embracing this change. We ought to see it as a necessary step in the human race’s journey towards a higher form of civilisation.

Harvard Professor, Roberto Unger, is a proponent of structural change with radical ideas about how to move our societies and economies forward. He calls for “a radically democratised market economy…in which no human being will be condemned to do the work that can be done by a machine.”  Unger maintains that enlightened civilisations are places where people’s greatest personal assets - their drive, vision and creativity - are focused on new frontiers of learning and innovation with heightened levels of collaboration.

It might sound like pie in the sky to advocates of the current economic regime, which is based on competition and exploitation, but Unger could be getting his wish for structural change and a new democratised economic regime thanks to the internet and evolving technologies.

Just as the now world-famous economist and author Thomas Piketty has mainstreamed his “r versus g” equation, which shows that the rate of return on capital is exceeding economic growth (bringing the problem of our highly financialised and unequal market economies into sharp focus), prepare yourself to hear more about “zero marginal cost” and a new alternative economic system in which people collaborate and share things generously.

Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, explains that zero marginal cost is the “trigger that is taking us from the capitalist system to the collaborative commons”. He recently delivered an inspiring and optimistic lecture at the Royal Society of the Arts in London under the banner, “A World Beyond Markets”, which can be viewed on the internet. In it he talks about the emergence of a collaborative commons - a place where there is high productivity at low or no cost and lots of sharing.

In the collaborative commons, says Rifkin, there is a new generation of young people aided by the internet who are “producing and collaborating laterally, moving from ownership to access, from markets to networks and from a capitalist system to a collaborative commons.” Think couch surfing where people offer free lodging to complete strangers via an online social networking platform or car sharing where people simply have access to a car, but don’t necessarily want to own one.

Rifkin argues that zero marginal cost, which transformed the information and music industries in the last 15 years in addition to democratising communication, is now set to change the very structure of the global economy because we will soon be able to produce not just information at zero marginal cost, but also renewable energy and transportation. For example, the first 3D printed electronic car running on solar energy is already on the road.

What does all this mean for South Africa?

It’s clear that this new economic system, which is based on advanced human relations and collaboration, requires high levels of social cohesion. What’s becoming apparent from Rifkin’s examples is that societies with greater equality, such as Germany and Denmark, with their parallel commitment to renewable energy, are the ones taking the lead in transitioning to the collaborative commons. More than half of Germany’s new electricity from renewable sources is already being produced by consumer and producer co-operatives that interface with the internet.

Presently 40% of the world’s population is on the internet and the future looks promising. The effects of zero marginal cost are bound to reach all corners of the world just like the information revolution did. But South Africans will have to consider whether our participation in this future global society is going to be inclusive?

Sending people down mineshafts for slave wages while expecting them to live under the most inhumane conditions is not going to create the conditions necessary for a new generation of visionary tech savvy entrepreneurial South Africans who will be able to compete - let me rephrase that - who will be able to collaborate in the hybrid economies of the future.

Mining companies should follow through on their threat to mechanise the industry. They’ll be doing us a huge favour. Poor black men deserve better than to spend their days stuck underground with their feet rotting in rubber boots doing the work that machines can do.

Our energies should be directed at investing in our people’s skills so that they too can take advantage of the zero marginal cost phenomenon and collaborative commons. But we will need to do more than just that. We will need to address South Africa’s savage inequality and social divisions too. As Unger puts it, “Money transfers organised by the state are not adequate as a basis for social solidarity…The only adequate basis of social solidarity is direct responsibility to take care of other people beyond the boundaries of one's own family.” 

Piketty has shown us how capitalism concentrates wealth at the top and increases inequality inside societies, as inherited wealth becomes more important in determining one’s fate. Here in South Africa, twenty years of democracy have not altered the status quo. Wealth is still concentrated among white South Africans who have fared the best in the post-apartheid economy.

Writing in the Mail & Guardian last year, Justin Visagie, director of economic research in the Eastern Cape provincial government reported that the number of whites in the middle class declined from 4.1 million to three million people. According to Visagie, “The number of whites in the middle class dropped — mostly owing to emigration, but also because of movement into the upper class income category.”

It’s become extremely unfashionable to talk about racism in post-apartheid South Africa, but it’s clear that as the wealth gap has grown, so too has the empathy gap between white South Africans and black South Africans. Paul Krugman’s thoughts on the subject of race, class and redistribution in America bring some truth to bear on this assertion.

In a recent interview in which he talked about the relevance of Piketty’s book for America, Krugman was asked why redistribution is such a “noxious word” in the American political system. He answered, “Race is always lurking under almost everything in American life, and redistribution in the minds of a lot of people means taking money from people like me and giving it to people who don’t look like me.”

Similarly, the establishment remains resistant to change here in South Africa.

The future can be a kinder place where the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest, need not apply to South Africa. What kind of society do you want to live in?

Farouk is founder and executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service.

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Mervyn Brouard
22 May

What Kind of Society Do You Want to Live In?

I see the author reads extensively on the internet. The source of, funding model for SACSIS and its annual budget would help me evaluate what appears to be a naïve article.

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