Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The recent spate of instances of conflict and scandal, ranging from universities to communities to Parliament and the Union Buildings, underscore how far we are from the 1994 vision of a peaceful, inclusive and just nation. The wounds from divisions linked to class, ideology, region and race risk overwhelming the sticking plaster of reconciliation.

In many ways, conflict arises from the tension between a democratic political system, where everyone is equal, and an economy that remains among the most unequal in the world. That conflict became harder to manage when the commodities boom ended in 2011, bringing slower growth, fiscal constraints and large-scale net job losses. Mining alone has lost 15% of its total employment, or about 80,000 jobs, since 2012.

The contradiction between political democracy and economic inequality has never been secret. From 1994, the government argued that democracy could not survive if economic benefits still went disproportionately to the wealthy, even if that group became more representative in racial terms. Today, the richest 10% of households, just more than half of which are now African, control close to 60% of consumer income and nine- tenths of assets.

Inequality persists in part because it is hard to change functioning economic systems. The democratic state has to negotiate with the powers that be in the economy. Push them too far, and they may shut down. Don’t push them enough, and inequality will persist.

During the commodities boom, it was easier to improve state services for the poor than to pursue more equitable economic outcomes. Today, social grants are the main source of income for one household in five. But the share of the working-age population with jobs has crept up, from 39% in 1994 to about 43%. Globally, the figure is closer to 60%. Moreover, for employed people the ratio of top to bottom wages in SA is among the worst on record. That’s not to ignore the benefits of SA’s heroic social measures. In 1994, one in four households went hungry at least sometimes; today, the figure is around one in eight. But mitigating the worst poverty is not the same as building a more equitable society.

The failure to tackle core economic challenges facing most voters can also be understood as reflecting the fact that the democratic state accepted the unaccountable, hierarchical and arbitrary power systems entrenched under apartheid. Examples include:

Making the president solely responsible for choosing the Cabinet, which at best breeds an unhealthy dependency;

Letting each department in effect pursue its own priorities, without ensuring it supports a more inclusive economy;

Paying public servants at the top scale for formal business rather than at the going rate for professionals. That in itself drives a wedge between government leaders and voters;

Making a university degree, rather than competence, the deciding criterion for employing public service managers. That excludes many South Africans who could do the job but could not afford tertiary education;

The maintenance of unnecessary secrecy. Why should every Cabinet memo, still be labelled top secret?

Budget procedures centre on controlling spending and avoiding risk, which makes it difficult to fund innovative programmes on a large scale. All too often pilots are permitted, but only on such a small scale that they can never succeed in achieving real change.

Above all, little was done to challenge the inherited model that saw government services as targeting beneficiaries rather than empowering communities. Government would "roll out" programmes, "deliver" services, provide social "grants". In very few cases does it support collective action by working people and communities to define their needs and explore how to meet them.

Fixing the inequalities that underpin today's conflicts is difficult and requires clear objectives and accountable, transparent governance. But getting rid of corrupt individuals would be just a first step. It would have to be followed by rigorous measures to bring about an equitable economy.

Ultimately, social cohesion can be achieved only if all stakeholders take a longer perspective and accept some sacrifices to achieve it. Equally important, the state would have to make greater equality a central goal for all departments. And it would have to see support for collective action by ordinary citizens as a pillar of change, not just a distraction, another interest group among many, or even a threat.

Makgetla is a senior researcher with Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies

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