Targeting the big bucks

The Mail & Guardian has consistently supported the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as a vital service to the truth about South Africa’s past. But the TRC was premised on the idea of exorcising historical abuses as a foundation for a just, non-racial future. For the past to prejudice the future is a precise contradiction of the purpose of the TRC.

It is impossible to set the ”right” level of recompense for individual victims — the TRC’s proposal is hugely more generous, but in a sense just as arbitrary, as the government’s once-off offer of R30 000. Indeed, no amount of money can compensate for the murder of parents, children and friends, or the horrors suffered in apartheid’s torture chambers.

Singling out business for a wealth tax to fund reparations has a similarly arbitrary feel to it. The mines clearly benefited from the migrant labour system, and industry in general was well served by the legal and other obstacles placed in the way of black trade unions.

On the other hand, financial sanctions, the collapse in the value of the rand that followed them, and the years of workplace disruption from political stayaways were headaches not faced by entrepreneurs in the relatively sane world beyond. Is business collectively more culpable than the white apartheid-era politicians, civil servants and security force chiefs now retired on fat pensions?

Why no exactions from the former ”homeland” leaders and bureaucrats, tricameral politicians and black local councillors who were central to ”grand apartheid”? Why are the political parties implicated in gross human rights abuses, the New National Party, Inkatha Freedom Party, African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress, not expected to do their bit for victims? Essentially, business has been targeted because it is seen to have the bucks.

But the central issue, as Minister of Trade and Industry Alec Erwin argues, is whether paying individual reparations is the wisest use of the resources available to business for socio-economic spending, and whether the country’s future development is served by an additional, windfall tax on enterprise. Business argues that it already spends proportionately more on corporate social responsibility than its counterparts abroad.

It is already subject to various apartheid reparations in the form of black economic empowerment targets, employment equity requirements and a skills levy. It faces a mounting bill from HIV/Aids among workers.

It has contributed R800-million to the Business Trust for skills enhancement in employment-generating areas like tourism. Should billions more be spent on individual apartheid victims or, in a planned and targeted way, to spur growth and job creation to the benefit of all South Africans?

Are the poverty-stricken millions who do not qualify as victims in terms of the TRC process really less deserving?

Of course business has not done enough to redress the past. But additional resources need to be invested in the country’s future, in jobs, skills, health and housing.

Instead of fleeing to safe havens in London and New York, business should display confidence in South Africa, promoting it to outside investors and ploughing more into job-creating production. A good start would be an enthusiastic and creative engagement, rather than reluctant participation, in the upcoming growth summit.

Most importantly the business sector needs to develop a more positive outlook on the transformation of South African society. It should not always have be to be cajoled to accept initiatives such as employment equity, transformation charters and compulsory skills development.

A more positive attitude from this sector would not only help us deal with our ugly and destructive past, but would also make business sense.

Give us hope

April 17 2002 was a day not of elation, but of hope. After several years of acrimony over the depth of our Aids crisis, the collective view Cabinet had come to — that HIV causes Aids, full stop — trumped the president’s dissonance. With it came a range of promises on the prevention, treatment and care aspects of the disease and, essentially, of partnership.

The denialist babble emanating from key government and ruling party figures would be ditched in favour of language that showed the authorities cared about those infected with the virus. The government pledged to forge parternships with those at the front line of the anti-Aids fight and would assume its rightful role as a leader in this battle.

For some months ministers and ruling party leaders were galvanised into action and the ship began to move in the right direction. Hope lived.

A year later we find ourselves in the same position we were in a year ago. A row is raging between the government and Aids activists. We are, once again, an international Aids pariah. The good news — and there is some — is being obscured.  

The antics of the minister of health are taking on the character of a low-budget, badly directed satire. The president has refused to lead his people in this vital battle. Without his leadership, hope is unraveling fast. Uganda, Botswana and Senegal have battled the demon and could not have done so without leadership from the top. We cannot either.

Every day more South Africans are infected with HIV. More South Africans are degenerating. And more South Africans are dying.

On this day, we ask the government to take us back to April 17 2002.

To give us hope again.

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