Social Justice And The Economy
The #BlackLivesMatter movement that started in the United States and quickly spread throughout the world has shown once again that we cannot fix the problems of economic justice in this country without first addressing racial justice. Addressing racial injustice must form an important part of rebuilding South Africa’s economy.
The deck has always been stacked against poor people – this is the same in South Africa as it is in countries worldwide.
Despite government attempts to deal with youth unemployment through initiatives such as employment tax incentives, the Jobs Fund and Expanded Public Works Programme, Statistics SA data consistently shows that young people remain discouraged. Only about a third of employable young people have jobs. Almost half remain economically inactive.
Wide wealth gap
A recent report from a pair of Harvard academics has found that “just being in a poor neighbourhood virtually ensures that you’ll never make it up the socioeconomic ladder”. Boys from poor households who grow up in beleaguered, mostly black neighbourhoods, will earn roughly 25 per cent less than their peers who moved to better neighbourhoods as children.
As Thomas Piketty demonstrated in his best-selling book on inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, “creating a system of capitalism that more equitably distributes wealth is our biggest challenge now”. As a growing body of research from outfits such as the Brookings Institute has shown, “more inequality means less opportunity”.
The wealth gap between whites and blacks is far worse than most people would guess. One reason for the difference is that a disproportionate number of blacks have little or no access to formal retirement savings plans. The majority of whites keep most of their wealth in housing. Most blacks live in rural areas and many in the townships do not own the houses they have always lived in and, therefore, can never use these as collateral. This is bad news for both the economy and our country, which has always been majority black.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement is a reminder of how social injustice cannot be viewed separately from economic injustice. Most black people in America are poor, just as most black people in South Africa are poor. Access to justice is often denied to poor people.
The problem in South Africa has never been coloured people or Indian people. All of us have been systematically excluded on the basis that we are not white.
The single most important reason why apartheid survived for 350 years is because of the “divide and rule” strategy, which ensured that blacks only fight for the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. Our biggest challenge is the concentration of poverty – the 10 per cent of the population that still occupy about 80 per cent of leadership positions and own about 70 per cent of large agricultural land.
It has never been easy for black people. The things that happen to us daily in real life, are not exactly a surprise to us. The depth and frequency of recent incidents against black people give expression to the old James Baldwin observation that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time”. Baldwin’s observation is about America, but it could easily have been about South Africa.
Economic justice and racial fairness have always been the same thing. We will not be able to sort out many of the problems with inequality in our country if we do not make social justice one of the key issues when rebuilding our country’s economy.
*Bonang Mohale is chancellor of the University of the Free State, professor of practice at the Johannesburg Business School College of Business and Economics, chairman of The Bidvest Group Limited and past president of the BMF. He is the author of Lift As You Rise.