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The scourge of inequality: There can be no peace or freedom while it persists

Guest content
18 January 2017

What we are witnessing in South Africa and around the world is an inequality emergency, and the solutions require all of us to listen to the most marginalised and co-operate with all. Once again we need to follow the inspiration of our young people, and work towards building a mass social movement that fights for economic transformation, writes Jay Naidoo.

Lasting peace, justice and well-being for all cannot exist in the current neoliberal economic system we are trapped in, which has caused the highest inequality levels in history. Growing inequality is being felt in our country, and between countries, with no state spared from this injustice. The global gap between the rich and the poor has reached extreme levels, with the richest 1% hoarding more than half of the world’s wealth.

This inequality is not just economic. It is also a problem of who can influence our democratic processes. The power of disproportionately wealthy global companies is growing; many of them are worth more money than the entire nations' economies. Many conglomerates, hedge and equity funds and a handful of billionaires have more cash on hand than most countries in the world, including South Africa.

And they are using this financial muscle to unduly steer the affairs of state, pushing everywhere the privatisation of public goods, deregulation, tax breaks for the wealthy, and a race to the bottom on environmental standards and human rights, where they are the main beneficiaries.

The United Nations says no continent will be struck as severely by the impacts of climate change as Africa, where crops, water sources, health and livelihoods are already being destroyed by its impact. And it’s the power of the dinosaur fossil fuel industry that is sabotaging the world’s response in shifting to a just, sustainable energy future that can arrest the trend of global warming. 

The world was inspired by and stood behind First Nations activists from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, in the United States, in their fight against an oil pipeline that was about to cross beneath their sacred water source. We are cautiously celebrating as the permit is currently denied, until Trump's administration is in place, at least. But their fight echoes around the world, and in South Africa, where communities are losing access to and control over resources and territories that define their intergenerational cultural identity and sustain livelihoods.

Heartbreakingly, 2016 was the deadliest year yet for our brothers and sisters making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe for the hope of a safer life it might hold. Fuelled by a hugely unequal world of conflicts, climate change and hardships, many of them from Africa, they are part of the largest flow of migrants and refugees since World War II. 

The failure to implement more effective regulations and redistribution measures since the onset of the global financial crisis of 2008 means the effects are still hitting us. Largely driven by the greed of the super-rich, it brought the world to the brink of an economic meltdown, and caused a food crisis, and was bailed out by eye-wateringly large sums of public taxpayers’ money, in effect nationalising the criminal mistakes and debts of the banks. It was enough money that it could have funded global anti-poverty targets a couple of times over, and has instead driven an austerity regime that penalises ordinary citizens by cutting public benefits and social protection. 

The terrifying surge in right-wing, racist, xenophobic, nationalistic, fearmongering leaders in the industrialised world we saw last year has been fuelled by the uncertainty this inequality has brought. These toxic leaders are stirring division and discrimination, and have no intention of ending corporate greed, tax dodging, privatisation of services, and exploitation of workers, women and minorities. 

Africa is a rich continent, but that wealth is flowing to a narrow political and economic elite instead of for the betterment of all our people. The damaging impact of neoliberalism is building on the immoral and unequal conditions and trauma of slavery and colonialism. In South Africa, we did not fight and die for this. More than 22 years ago we won a basis of democratic freedom, but have remained in economic shackles, while a political elite has joined the old economic system and enriched itself. 

Despite our nation being the most developed economy in Africa, with our budget leaping ahead in the last two decades, and wealthy in minerals, natural resources, and young people, we have squandered the political and social opportunity for our people. In a country where one in three is hungry, and one in four is unemployed, the daily life of millions of our citizens in the poorest communities suffer under many of the same problems as two decades ago. 

Income inequality has worsened since the end of apartheid, although it has begun to deracialise somewhat. In 2006, more than two-thirds of South Africa’s privately owned land was still in the hands of a whte minority. Currently, while about half of whites and Indian South Africans enter some form of higher education, only one in 10 black South Africans will. The unemployment rate for black South Africans doubled to 39% in 2015. Our country has one of the most unequal income distribution patterns in the world, and the impact on people’s lives is causing anger to grow. 

With half the world’s population now under 25 years of age and 85% residing in developing countries, today there is no guarantee that a good education will graduate you to the elite of any shape. High levels of unemployment, particularly among young people, as a result of jobless economic growth, are deepening inequalities, with millions of young, highly qualified graduates being pushed into debt, and precarious jobs as their reward. 

It’s our young people in South Africa who are shining a light. Their movement has been the most positive development in the country in recent years. Their bursting frustration at a failing education system, lack of jobs or fair wages, and an economic system that marginalises them, has been the antidote to a sleeping political establishment plying business as usual, sticking on plasters. 

And while good things happened in 2016 – globally, child and maternal mortality and malaria deaths went down, Portugal ran on renewable energy for four days, and a new global climate change deal, that the South African government also signed on to, became the fastest to become international law in modern history – the reality remains that while we are winning some battles, we are losing the war. 

We need to step up our fight for the society we want.

What we are witnessing at home and around the world is an inequality emergency; a wicked problem, where time is running out, those seeking to solve the problem are also part of causing it, and the solutions require all of us to listen to the most marginalised and co-operate with all.

Now is the time for something transformative. It was the youth, the workers, the poor who won the freedom and democracy we enjoy today. Real change happens from people. We need now again to follow the inspiration of our young people, and take it to a mass social movement that fights for the economic transformation to complete our democratic revolution.

It must take place where the people are, in communities, slowly, to painstakingly build their skills, strategies and innovation to reverse the impacts of inequality.

The villagers of Naledi in the eastern Free State represent a beacon of hope in how a community can lead the change to narrow the wealth and power gap, if given the opportunity. Like thousands of other communities across the country, after two decades of democracy they still had to struggle with no land rights, no water or electricity, a crumbling school, and no escape route out of poverty for their children, who would probably experience the same.

But now for the first time, the Naledi workers and families, around one hundred people, many of whom have worked for generations in the area, are the sole beneficiaries of 42 hectares of land, with the security of a land title. They own their own homes too, and with those title deeds they can now go to banks and use it to apply for loans so they can improve their village themselves. 

After generations of exclusion from the national economy, they can now enter it. But the pride of ownership is also transforming the energy of the village. Complex and profitable skills have flourished where they never had a chance before, such as how to build and roof a conference centre, a schoolhouse, and a community run eco-lodge.

In tough times, the people of Naledi give me hope. In our country, across the continent, and around the world, let us look to build this kind of hope again. It is not our leaders above us, but our people around us, who can show us the leadership we need. These communities brought the apartheid regime to its knees, and their activism can bring the economy back to serve the people and the planet that is our home.

The option to hide behind higher walls, turning our faces away, securing our own needs while ignoring others, can only lead to the increasing breakdown in our social cohesion. Many progressive people have been failing to tackle the current crisis with the strength or innovation needed. Small or technical reforms, far away from the lives of our poorest communities, working only with the elites, cannot bring the change we need. Old ways will not solve the scale of this current problem.

I’m impatient. This week, corporate bosses will pay more money than some South Africans will earn in a lifetime to cosy up to governments at an exclusive Swiss ski resort, for the World Economic Forum. They will be selling more of the same medicine. These people who caused the problem cannot solve it, and won’t change without pressure. 

After a lifetime of the pursuit of justice, while I despair of the current state of affairs, I have great hope that we can disrupt this surreal conversation, harness a vision and mobilise for a better future. People are rising up globally to question the legitimacy, transparency and effectiveness of our economy and its governance. They are fighting for achievable and just solutions, such as decent work, fair wages, fair tax, and better public services.

That’s why this week while the elites meet in Davos, I’m joining millions to loudly challenge the concentration of power in the hands of an elite few, and to demand a better future where governments fight inequality. And it’s up to each of to join. We cannot betray the next generation by allowing the scourge of inequality to continue. No lasting peace, freedom or justice can exist while it persists. 

Original source: Daily Maverick