Pearl Valley Golf Estate in the Western Cape. Picture: SUPPLIED
Pearl Valley Golf Estate in the Western Cape. Picture: SUPPLIED

With sex and religion, South Africans don’t like talking about their annual income. We thus often have wildly incorrect estimates of what other people earn and where we fit in the income distribution.

That’s where research can help. A 2019 report by Stats SA and the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (Saldru) shows that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer.

If SA was made up of 100 people and we lined them up from richest to poorest, the 10th poorest person’s income declined 15% and the 99th person’s income (richest 1%) increased 48% from 2011-2015.

To be in the top 1% in 2015 you needed to have an annual taxable income of R1m or more, making you one of only 350,000 South Africans (R400,000 a year put you in the top 5%). That’s according to Ingrid Woolard’s analysis of anonymised SA Revenue Service (Sars) tax data for her 2019 inaugural lecture at Stellenbosch University, in which she showed that since 2003 the incomes of the top 5% have consistently grown faster than everyone else’s in SA, and especially that of the poor.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise since it is largely in keeping with the negotiated settlement and ANC policy. The postapartheid social compact was a straightforward quid pro quo: “If you pay your taxes and agree to pay for most of your own health, security and education services, you can keep your property, your wealth, your privilege and your place in society”.

Nowadays, about 5%-15% of South Africans opt out of all public services; 17% have private medical aid, 7% have private security, and 5% have private schooling or high-fee (R12,000-plus per annum) public schooling, according to the general household survey (GHS) 2016-17 and Stats SA victims of crime (VOC) survey 2017-18.

For God’s sake, there are 23 other golf courses and driving ranges in Cape Town and another one literally next door: the King David Mowbray Golf Club

The main reason this is a problem is that the new “integrated elite” governing SA are totally unaffected (and uninterested) in the challenges 70% of the population face.

Redress and transformation are impossible while those in government are unwilling to take the risks on which they campaigned, and for which they were elected. Implementing the National Development Plan, arresting corrupt politicians, large-scale social housing, land redistribution, well-funded long-term teacher development — we only ever hear plans. Name one corrupt politician currently in jail.

Some of these are complicated initiatives that involve long-term appointments, policy reform, and court cases, but even when they don’t the political will is lacking. The most recent and visceral example of this is Cape Town’s indefensible decision to renew the 10-year lease of the Rondebosch Golf Club rather than use it for social housing.

In one of the world’s most spatially-segregated cities, the city in its wisdom has chosen to renew the lease of 450,000m² of prime public land to the Rondebosch Golf Club. And in exchange it asks for the princely sum of R1,000 a year in rent.

This is for the equivalent of 45 rugby fields of public land in the middle of Cape Town. Rather than prioritise the needs of those who live in shacks and are physically excluded from economic opportunity, services and schools, the city instead advocates for the needs of golfers. For God’s sake, there are 23 other golf courses and driving ranges in Cape Town and another one literally next door: the King David Mowbray Golf Club.

Why does the city consistently oppose civil society when it shows countless sites for social housing and shows the economic viability of using cross-subsidisation models proven in Spain and Hong Kong? In an excellent report on city leases, Ndifuna Ukwazi has shown five viable sites for social housing in Cape Town, yet they are ignored. Where is the city’s courage (or shame) to actually implement its own policies? Through its choices and lack of action, Cape Town spits on the needs of the poor and panders to the rich.

I often wonder how long the SA status quo can carry on before Paris-style gilets jaunes protests break out and stop everything. There is a line in the latest Batman movie in which Catwoman turns to Bruce Wayne and says: “There’s a storm coming, Mr Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

• Dr Spaull is a senior researcher in the economics department at Stellenbosch University

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