Steven Friedman on Making South Africa's Democracy Work for the Poor

12 Dec 2012

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Talking about how to make South Africa's democracy work for the poor, Steven Friedman, Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy argues, "telescoping" all the countries problems onto one mediocre politician (Jacob Zuma) is misguided. Government does not have a bad record of "sheer physical provision to the poor". The real problem that South Africa has faced over the last 18 years has been that we haven't got to grips with the inequalities in the market economy, he contends.

Referring to census data, Friedman contends that the global statistics of income distribution, access to jobs and access to opportunities, present a dismal picture because we haven't come to grips with the question of how to change the formal economy -- and unless we do that then the role that government plays is simply one of patching up the wider inequalities in our society.

What we don't have in this society is a workable strategy for how to engage with economic elites to shift the balance of power towards poorer working people, he argues - and if you want those balances to shift, then business has to be part of the story. If you have a powerful constituency in this country, probably far more powerful than the government and that constituency has the power to frustrate equity, you need a strategy to deal with that.

Part of that strategy is about power, but part of that strategy is also about engagement. The view that says, "who cares what business people think, it's just about organizing poor people," is a short sighted view, contends Friedman. The capacity of poor people and workers to change their situation also depends on business' response.

There's always going to be a dialectical relationship between organizing the poor and talking to elites -- and talking to elites is always going to be very important, argues Friedman.

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Sarah Henkeman
12 Dec


In recent background research for an analysis of restorative justice and peacebuilding in SA's unequal, transitional context, the data told the same story - that 'we haven't got to grips with the inequalities in the market economy' and how this is superimposed onto uninterrupted inequality from the colonial and apartheid eras.

Whatever lens we use - we will find that historically ascribed and nested INEQUALITY has a finger in almost every instance of social harm/direct violence (and counter-violence) in this unequal society.

Unless we deal decisively with the 'formal economy', other forms of inequality will continue to suffer the knock-on effects, and we (in the peace and justice sectors and others), like government, will continue to do firefighting until Jesus comes. My 2c worth.

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