'Growing inequality threatens to pull our societies apart'

The panel of the Critical Thinking Forum on Increasing Inclusive Economic Development In South Africa. Photo: Elvis Ntombela

The panel of the Critical Thinking Forum on Increasing Inclusive Economic Development In South Africa. Photo: Elvis Ntombela

Fallists went head-to-head with National Treasury director-general Lungisa Fuzile at the Mail & Guardian’s Critical Thinking Forum on Increasing Inclusive Economic Development In South Africa, held at the University of the Witwatersrand on the last day of February.

This comes in light of the release of Oxfam’s annual inequality report, An Economy for the 99%, which looks at how the mega-rich and large corporations are driving the inequality crisis and what needs to be done to change this. “Left unchecked, growing inequality threatens to pull our societies apart. It increases crime and insecurity, and undermines the fight to end poverty. It leaves more people living in fear and fewer in hope,” reads the report.

The Critical Thinking Forum featured Oxfam’s Ayabonga Cawe, Numsa’s Azwell Banda, Founding Secretary of Cosatu Jay Naidoo, alongside Fuzile. Mail & Guardian editor-in-chief Khadija Patel moderated the panel. It was Fuzile’s comments that incited a lot of debate and back-and-forth with the audience, which consisted to a large extent of students.

“Let me run through some stats. Currently government spends about two-thirds on the social wage, which includes expenditure on education,” said Fuzile in his opening remarks.

“Changing things in govt takes time - doesn’t mean you give up. So let’s engage. That’s why I’m here.” Fuzile @TreasuryRSA #InclusiveEconomy

— Mail & Guardian (@MG_Reporter) February 28, 2017

But Fallist Busisiwe Seabe challenged him on this, posing questions on why the budget then indicated that there was a greater increase in spending on measures of securitisation than there was on education. “If Treasury is assisting in the facilitation of a capable state, why are we then seeing an increase in the budget for the prison system? Why is there an increase in the police budget as well, because that speaks to the fact that even if there is an uprising in relation to the inequality we speak of, a lot of emphasis is placed on the militarisation of our country.

Audience member at #InclusiveEconomy, Fallist Busisiwe Seaba presses Fuzile on how treasury is asking in advancing a capable state. pic.twitter.com/tksUR2AcyX

— Mail & Guardian (@MG_Reporter) February 28, 2017

“How are you not facilitating the policies that are designed to help the middle-class and the poor?”

The Oxfam report details that certain assumptions that drive aspects of the economy need to be changed. Some of these assumptions are that the role of government should be minimised in the marketplace, that the planet’s resources are limitless and that our economic model is gender neutral.

An audience member brought up that black women remain the most marginalised in a South African context, owing to the fact that they suffer from “intersecting oppressions.”

“More than 70% of the people that constitute the working poor are women, cleaners, people that work in retail, and other outsourced sectors that the student movement has been talking about,” said Cawe. “One of the things we really need to talk about is not only women as entrepreneurs, but also the question of the work that women do in social reproduction.” 

According to the report, in 2013 the World Economic Forum identified rising economic inequality as a major threat to social stability, and in 2014 the World Bank twinned its goal for ending poverty with the need for shared prosperity. Despite the fact that world leaders signed up to a global goal to reduce inequality, the gap between the rich and poor has only widened.

Azwell Banda said Numsa consisted of workers who would welcome the proposed minimum wage of R3 500 only because so many of them were already living way beneath that. “The colonial experience was about making the native invisible, and reducing them to a site of labour. And that is what has continued in South Africa. It is a system of consciously designed inequality where the native male can only be on the farms or in the mines or a security guard or a toilet cleaner or waiter, and the native woman is only confined to the domestic sphere of biological production. Even Pravin [Gordhan] recognises this today – 95% of South African wealth is owned by 10% of the population.”

“No amount of budgeting is going to deal with the fact that 95% of the wealth locked up with 10% of the population”- Banda #InclusiveEconomy

— Mail & Guardian (@MG_Reporter) February 28, 2017

According to the report, “The very design of our economies and the principles of our economics have taken us to this extreme, unsustainable and unjust point.  Our economy must stop excessively rewarding those at the top and start working for all people. Accountable and visionary governments, businesses that work in the interests of workers and producers, a valued environment, women’s rights and a strong system of fair taxation, are central to this more human economy.”

Second-year politics, philosophy and economics student Neo Masoeu brought up that the concept of “decolonising the curriculum” is central to achieve true understanding and transformation. “If we are talking about a more humane economy then surely we need to be rethinking the way that economics is taught in class.”

Fallists continued to grill Fuzile on many of his statements, including comments that young people should have greater regard and respect for the law which protects them in order to allow them to be who they want to — something they owe to “Luthuli and Mandela.” He also said that he had met with students at the height of the student protests in 2016, and managed to understand their varied viewpoints.

“A lot of the time what I found with students is that the students would say, notwithstanding anything else, give us a roadmap towards free education, nothing else. There is more to that demand than just putting it on the table.

“In a constitutional democracy — and I must say this in front of young people – you must demonstrate a lot of respect for the law. A lawless society is not good for anyone. If it irritates you to comply with the law, then you probably shouldn’t be in this country. And if you don’t have tolerance for people who have a different view from yours, you better think again about why you are in a university environment,” said Fuzile.

Lerato Motaung, a Fallist, addressed the director-general directly and told him, “I can’t engage with you if you bring more bullets to the table, I can’t engage with you if when I come to you saying I don’t have money for fees, you point a gun at me.

“It’s more profitable for you to listen to white monopoly than it is to listen to the people on the ground,” she said. “How do you want us to work within the law when the very things that are oppressing us are in accordance with that law?” Seabe added.

Seabe also made mention of how that system is one that remained inaccessible due to the low literacy rates – and said that not enough was being done to break a cycle. “In sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa has one of the leading rates of illiteracy – the people who are actually affected by this budget can’t engage it and this goes back to not having access to education.”

Jay Naidoo highlighted that the situation was not going to go anywhere unless there was real action. “Across this country, people are dissatisfied, that is why we’ve become the protest capital of the world. And they have a legitimate reason to demand accountability. The arrogance of government is feeding a situation that is very dangerous for this.

“My advice to the next generation: don’t get distracted, go and organise the change that you want. Build the system that you want. And build the power to achieve that. I admire you, and we’re here to support you, but will not be leading anything. You will have to lead the changes you want to see in this country and in the world,” he said. Fuzile echoed a similar sentiment, urging the audience to remain mindful of the power they possess as young people.

As the report states, “Humanity has incredible talent, huge wealth and infinite imagination. We need to put this to work to create a more human economy that benefits everyone, not just the privileged few. A human economy would create fairer, better societies. It would ensure secure jobs paying decent wages. It would treat women and men equally. No one would live in fear of the cost of falling sick. Every child would have the chance to fulfil their potential. Our economy would thrive within the limits of our planet, and hand a better, more sustainable world to every new generation.”

And before there is actual work that is done, there need to be a few honest reflections about the state of things, says Cawe. “There needs to be some conversation around our national systems of provision.”

As panel concludes, @OxfamSA gives vote of thanks. “An economy is too important to leave in the hands of technocrats.” #InclusiveEconomy pic.twitter.com/uOFl2gRsTR

— Mail & Guardian (@MG_Reporter) February 28, 2017