Mamphela Ramphele's article, is but another reminder of how far backwards we have gone in "the new South Africa", writes Jeff Rudin.
Alas, Mamphela Ramphele's article, "Poverty is not the problem, inequality is" (September 7), is but another reminder of how far backwards we have gone in the 18 short years of what we once called "the new South Africa". The bold radicalism that brought her to the side of Steve Biko in the 1970s has evaporated. In its place is the limp analysis of her presentation at the opening session of "Towards the Third Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Inequality".
She sees poverty as having three main causes: "denialism" of the way poverty taxes the poor; the "inefficiencies" that undermine poor people's opportunities; and the "refusal" by the "power elite" to admit to being part of the problem. Inequality, rather than poverty per se, is the ultimate problem for her. And tackling inequality is essentially a matter of "rooting out the mindset that tolerates" the various forms of inequality. Hence the need for "affective and spiritual reconstruction – the revolution of the spirit".
Calling for a spiritual revolution and a radically new mindset is, however, manifestly inadequate. There would be some credence to her Carnegie analysis if poverty and inequality were uniquely South African. But this is far from being the case. Indeed, the opposite is much nearer the mark. Poverty and inequality are among the defining characteristics of modernity and have marked all industrialised countries for 250 years, just as they are common to all today's "developing" countries.
All this strongly suggests a shared, worldwide material basis for the "mind-set" that tolerates inequality. The spiritual realm in need of Ramphele's revolution would seem to be firmly vested in the global economic system, which not only creates poverty as part of the production of wealth but could not function without inequality.
The profit-maximising imperative of capitalism is enormously effective in cheapening wages. Marikana highlights what many would describe as the open and intolerable exploitation of the miners, without whom the obscene wealth of the mine owners would not exist. But the remorseless, relentless drive to maximise profit by cheapening the cost of labour – both absolutely and relatively – creates the unsolvable problem of the workers, the collective producers, not having the money to buy the commodities of their own production.
The greater the gap between the value of the commodities waiting to be sold and the wages available to buy them, the greater the immediate profit of the individual capitalists who make the various sales involved. Yet this source of maximum profit comes back to bite the collective capitalist because, sooner or later, they have the problem of either over-production (in the form of unsold goods) or non-productive capital (in the form of unutilised productive capacity).
The inevitable outcome of this is the poverty of "surplus" workers. The casualties of profit maximisation, the unemployed, then become a further source of profit. The oversupply of would-be workers is essential in keeping down the wages of those lucky enough to have any work. This is the vicious cycle producing and reproducing poverty – and inequality.
None of this is to deny the urgent need to humanise our mind-sets or to place people, rather than things, at centre of our spirituality. But the spiritual revolution Ramphele calls for will never happen unless poverty and inequality are seen as the un-avoidable byproducts of capitalism's wealth production.
Ramphele is entirely blind to these systemic connections. Indeed, she thanks Trevor Manuel for "stabilising ... our macroeconomic foundations". Yet those "foundations" led to the growth of both the poverty and the inequality that, in our desperate attempts to make sense of the Marikana massacre, we are now having to confront. – Jeff Rudin, Cape Town