This week the Western Cape branch of the Association for the Advancement of Black Accountants in Southern Africa (Abasa) held its annual dinner to celebrate all the black candidates in the region who had passed their board exams to qualify as chartered accountants.
The theme of this year’s celebration was “Impactful Economic Development”, and Advocate Thuli Madonsela and I were invited to share our perspectives on how young professionals can play their part in driving economic development that can positively affect the society they live in.
I could totally see why advocate Madonsela was the perfect lead in this conversation, given her recent fellowship at Harvard University in Boston and her chair in social justice at Stellenbosch University’s law faculty, focusing on accelerating the pace of what she calls “achieving the constitutional promise of an inclusive society based in social justice, shared prosperity, friendship and peace”.
As for why they invited me, I suspect Abasa had gotten wind of a certain past president of a certain organisation suffering from FOMO and pitching up at meetings, sticking out the entire agenda without saying a word. Typical of accountants to find a way to mitigate the risk by inviting us old folk to speak at such gatherings to manage us from attempting to “rule from the grave”.
I got the hint.
On a more serious note, the advocate and I touched on various things young people can practically do in this regard, and stressed the importance of doing so.
As I listened to advocate Madonsela, I kept thinking about just how different impactful economic development is to economic growth. The latter simply measures change in the size of an economy and which sectors are responsible for it. If one wants to make it more relative and comparable with other economies, one divides that number by a country’s economically active population and ends up with GDP per capita.
This measure theoretically tells you how much economic output is delivered by each person in a country. This is why, for example, Nigeria has a slightly larger economy than South Africa. However, Nigeria has a population of 170 million people compared to Mzansi’s 55 million. Technically, this means that the average South African is actually three times richer.
Or is she? Inequality is the single biggest threat to our constitutional democracy and socioeconomic stability. As we know, South Africa is now officially the most unequal nation in the world, and yet, for whatever reason, we don’t seem to fully appreciate the implications. In layman’s terms it means that the gap between “the haves” and the “have nots” is the largest in the world.
This is by far the most serious threat to social stability in any society, especially one where that gap is characterised by race, disproportionate wealth and a history of segregation that has created a rich white minority and a poor black majority.
Spatial planning and inequality have become the inconvenient cousins, and their combination is a ticking time bomb. The natural state of humanity is freedom.
No matter how successful one can be, it is of no use if one cannot enjoy one’s prosperity peacefully wherever and whenever one wishes.
The township of Alexendra is only a few kilometres from the centre of Sandton. Of course, when the architects of apartheid were working out where blacks should stay in relation to the big cities to make their cheap labour affordable within reasonable proximity, but not as next-door neighbours, Sandton had not yet been built. The blacks were far enough from Joburg. The folks at Liberty changed all that when, in 1973, they started building what is now a city on its own.
When the decision was made to build a commuter bridge between Sandton and Alexandra in 2014, one newspaper reported, “The City of Johannesburg is moving to overcome one of the legacies of apartheid spatial planning in an innovative way”.
No doubt many celebrated the move, especially the Alexandra residents who shop and work in Sandton. I’d be interested to hear what the residents of the suburb said.
The bottom line is that the “haves” cannot rely on higher walls to keep the “have nots” out. The pleasures of apartheid that many now pretend they never enjoyed are over. The challenges of building a cohesive, nonracial, nonsexist society are before us. If we truly want to be free in the country of our birth we must all play our part in reducing inequality, and building a stronger and larger middle class. Or else the Zulu saying of which advocate Madonsela reminded us will become true: “Indlala Ivusa Ulaka.” Look it up.