Written by Khaya Dlanga
Khaya Dlanga ponders why the face of poverty remains black, and what needs to be done to ensure a more equal and just society in South Africa.
Poverty is black. Under apartheid, to be born black meant to be born into poverty, injustice and inequality. Poverty was black under a white government and it remains black under a black government.
According to the most recent Economist, South Africa is the most unequal society in the world. In fact, South Africa is even more unequal now than it was in 1980. What makes it even more disturbing is its division by race even 18 years after democracy.
It is shameless and in your face. It is so blatantly clear by the juxtapositioning of Sandton and Alexandra township. The one rich and white and the other poor and black. A few rich black people do not make South Africans any more equal, nor blacks any more equal to whites. We may be equal on the paper upon which the Constitution is written but not where it matters – wealth ownership. There is no dignity or romance in poverty. Yet the poor can be dignified and are not precluded from romanticism. Those who say the poor are happy have never experienced poverty.
We are told of course not to talk about poverty and inequality in terms of black and white. When we do, some ask why everything must be about race. The ones who say that are of course not affected by poverty and inequality. We would love to not talk about poverty by race if it were not so blatant and in your face. To deny what we see is to deny ourselves progress.
Thabo Mbeki angered many when he was state president with his Two Nations speech, where he said: “We therefore make bold to say that South Africa is a country of two nations. One of these nations is white, relatively prosperous, regardless of gender or geographic dispersal. It has ready access to a developed economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure.
“The second and larger nation of South Africa is black and poor, with the worst affected being women in the rural areas, the black rural population in general and the disabled.
“This nation lives under conditions of a grossly underdeveloped economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure.”
But it is true, and the two nations continued to be so even under his presidency. The rich stayed white and the poor stayed black. The country got richer but the haves got more and the have nots’ continued to own less in comparison to the rich.
Nowhere is the gap between the haves and have nots more obvious than the mining sector, where the extremely rich bosses are white and the extremely poor are black. Naturally some will say Patrice Motsepe is black and extremely rich and he owns mines. Rich blacks are like the chocolate sprinkle on top of white cream, to paraphrase Gwede Mantashe. It should be no wonder then that we see those who are striking in the mines poor, uneducated, and black. The rich miners appear to be entitled the their wealth and give no pause to think of the poor beneath them.
The face of poverty was black because of the historical injustices of the past, and it remains black because the current government has not done enough to ensure that the gap between the rich and the poor decreases. And asking executives to curb their pay is not a way to ensure income equality – well-executed implementation of well-thought out policies will get people out of poverty and on to the road towards equality.
According to Bill Freundman in his book, Developmental Dilemmas in Post-Apartheid South Africa, “government grants are the main source of income amongst the poorest 50% of the population, not salaries, not the informal sector and certainly not peasant livelihood activities”. We should aim to be a society where we will no longer have to have people living mont to month from one government grant to another. We need to create opportunities for them.
Inequality breeds inequality. The poor get fewer opportunities and barely get a chance to make it out of their situation. One of the ways we keep excelling at inequality is the quality of education – or lack thereof – we keep providing the poor with. We all know of the textbook saga as case in point. When we give our children an education (not just any education, but a great quality one) we also give them opportunity. Denying them an opportunity is a crime – it is stealing a whole future from them.
Our politicians, who are something of celebrities to many of our people, have to be careful how they spend their own money in the face of poverty. When they splurge, it is as if they are out of touch with the realities many South Africans live in. Nkandla is a case in point. The cost is difficult to fathom, and even harder to justify. Whether or not the building of Nkandla is justifiable, one still has to question the wisdom of it.
We need to invest in the poor and provide them with the skills and ability so that they can help others out of poverty. This alone won’t be enough without rooting the evil of corruption and maladministration. Corruption is shamelessly taking from the poor. The poor are rarely corrupt, it is those who have opportunity who often deal in corruption, and continue to take from the poor the little they have – f we can call what they already have “having”. If we do these two simple things: give more opportunities to the poor by equipping them with education; and rooting out corruption and maladministration, we will be well on our way to a more equal and just society.
Khaya Dlanga writes for Mail and Guardian, South Africa