Ramphele: Poverty is not the problem, inequality is

South Africa is a very privileged society to have had three such opportunities.

I am privileged to have been associated with both the second and now the evolving third inquiry, known as Carnegie III. Thanks to Professor Francis Wilson and the University of Cape Town, this has been made possible.

The first Carnegie inquiry was in the 1930s and was driven by the need to build white solidarity against the reality of appalling poverty, which then existed among Afrikaners and made their community with English-speaking South Africans impossible. Carnegie I was a resounding success in uprooting white Afrikaner poverty. The key success factor was the alignment between the political and economic interests of the power elites at the time.

The legacy of the alignment of elite interests between the British captains of industry and the Afrikaner political elites generated even more poverty among black South Africans through the institutionalisation of socioeconomic engineering that systematically excluded black people from wealth creation. Laws such as the Job Reservation Act of 1936 and the earlier Land Act attest to this.

The second Carnegie inquiry in the 1980s suffered from a lack of political will on the part of the apartheid government, as well as the failure of foresight, vision and leadership on the part of captains of industry: they could not see the long-term interests of their own companies as being better served by a more equal society. However good the analysis and the case studies presented were, progress in uprooting poverty and in-equality could not occur without the power elites in the public and private sectors playing a decisive role.

Growing inequality
Since 1994, successive post-apartheid governments and private sector players have failed to grasp the nettle of growing inequality – an inequality that is, in the words of the French philosopher Raymond Aron, making human community impossible. The recent events at Lonmin's Marikana shack settlement and other violent hot spots are a cruel expression of the urgent need to transform our social relations towards what Sampie Terreblanche, in his new book Lost in Transformation, calls "the desperately needed change of power that would change the nature of power itself".

The question Carnegie III faces is: What needs to be in place for South Africa to tackle successfully the inequality that prevents an unleashing of human capability and our capacity to become a prosperous democracy united in its diversity?

South Africa does not have a poverty problem. Poverty is a result of denialism of the way corruption taxes poor people, the inefficiencies that undermine poor people's opportunities and our refusal to admit that we are part of the problem. When we avert our eyes to these tyrannies of inequality, we become complicit in generating poverty from one generation to the next for the bottom 50% of the population.

I would like to suggest that, in the words of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket in The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone: "If we are to gain further improvements in the real quality of life, we need to shift attention from material standards and economic growth to improving the psychological and social wellbeing of whole societies.

"A proper understanding of what is going on could transform politics and the quality of life for all of us. It would change what we vote for and what we demand from politicians."

We have to be proud of our successes in setting the constitutional framework of our democracy and, thanks to Trevor Manuel's grounding of the finance department team, the stabilising of our macroeconomic foundations. We have to thank the national planning commission for the national development plan, which lays bare the systemic failures that need to be urgently addressed if we are to become the country of our dreams.

We need to lay the foundation for "affective and spiritual reconstruction" – the "revolution of the spirit", as Nicaraguan psychologist Martha Cabrera calls it – to address the legacy of systematic humiliation and trauma that socially engineered wounds brought on. The exclusion of the violation of socioeconomic rights from the otherwise highly laudable work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission robbed us of the opportunity to acknowledge our wounds as both black and white South Africans whose human connectedness was ruptured by the racist engineered inequalities of our society. We robbed ourselves of the opportunity for healing those wounds and freeing ourselves to work together as fellow citizens, black and white.

We need a new approach that binds citizens, the government and the private sector in a "walk together" approach to achieving a more equal society. Citizens must hold those in the government accountable at all levels, but many need to be enabled through vigorous civic education. The government must return to serving the public and not simply concentrate on feeding the greed that drives corruption and the failure to regulate and manage the socioeconomic system effectively and efficiently. The private sector must take a long-term view of its best interests and use its considerable skills and economic muscle to tackle the skills crisis that is robbing young people of hope in an inclusive future.

The success of Carnegie III will be measured by the success, or failure, of the attempt to root out the mind-set that tolerates inequalities at the many levels of our society where we, as citizens, have influence. It has to start with you and me committing to "the change in power that would change the nature of power itself".

South Africans have demonstrated that they have the ability to tackle similar daunting challenges. We can do it again. From this day forward, every day that you wake up with a fervent determination to change South Africa for the better will count. Indeed, those are the only days that will truly matter.

Mamphela Ramphele is a founder of the Citizens Movement. This is an edited version of a speech she made at the opening session of Towards the Third Carnegie Inquiry into ­Poverty And Inequality. For more on the process, go to carnegie3.org.za.

The Carnegie Corporation’s legacy

In 1929 the Carnegie Corporation commissioned a study of poverty among white people in South Africa, especially failing farmers. It was published in five volumes in 1932 and contained some recommendations that HF Verwoerd used in planning apartheid and the economic empowerment of Afrikaners.

Carnegie president Alan Pifer initiated a new study in 1982, which ran for two years. University of Cape Town labour economist Francis Wilson led the study. The results were published as the book Uprooting Poverty: The South African Challenge, by Wilson and Mamphela Ramphele. It focused chiefly on the rural black poor and found that their situation was much worse than had previously been known.

The beginning of the third Carnegie inquiry into poverty in South Africa was launched in Cape Town this week.

The Carnegie Corporation was founded by industrial mogul Andrew Carnegie in 1911 to advance "knowledge and understanding". It has funded social and scientific research around the world, as well as institutes, libraries and a teachers' insurance scheme in the United States.

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Guest Author
Mamphela Ramphele
Mamphela Ramphele is the co-founder of ReimagineSA, a public benefit organisation and nonprofit and co-president of the Club of Rome

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