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Wanted: some economic hope

The rand may have strengthened but economists warn that the fundamental weaknesses in South Africa’s economic landscape remain. High unemployment and low growth rates continue to stand in the way of true economic emancipation for millions of South Africans and a significant percentage of the world’s poorest people. Chris Chatteris SJ calls for prophetic heroism to demand sustainable economic models and renewed political leadership to overcome current levels of inequality.

Economic hope is what our world needs right now. One only needs to look at South Africa — but many other parts of the world have similar levels of inequality — to see that it has incredible wealth but over 7 million citizens are unemployed and our politicians offer no real signs that we can turn this desperate situation around.

They cling desperately to the tired mantra of high economic growth at some time in the future. But they know that we would have to grow consistently at Chinese rates for a very long time to get even close to full employment, something which is unlikely to happen.

Nonetheless, the South African and global economies could produce enough for everyone if we could spread our fruits fairly. ‘Fairly’ would mean that everyone has enough to live a secure and dignified life with sufficient food, shelter, access to medical treatment and education. A handful of societies, such as the Nordic countries, have shown that the sustainable administration of resources and greater economic equality is possible.

Normalising the unacceptable

It is the acceptance of what is so clearly abnormal that is so distressing. We have normalised massive unemployment. We have normalised shack-dwelling. We have normalised hunger among people living next to luxury restaurants. We have normalised a Gini coefficient (inequality index) which is among the worst in the world.

South Africa has incredible wealth but over 7 million citizens are unemployed.

We cannot begin to imagine the despair of those whose who know that they and their children will live in a shack for the rest of their lives. Where is the hope in that prospect? The dream of economic emancipation hasn’t so much been deferred as dashed.

Pope Francis, and others, who challenge the indifference which permits us to regard these abominations as normal, are the prophets of our time. They are dismissed as dreamers and romantics, but as the historian Rutger Bregman reminds us, those who first challenged slavery or the exclusion of women from the vote, were also thus dismissed and today their ideas have become mainstream.

Can we envisage a time when South African children will look at pictures of squatter camps and ask their history teachers what they were? Or ask how people managed to live without a basic income grant?

Called to prophetic heroism

We are called to this kind of prophetic heroism. We must, as Bregman says, be part of the global movement which is challenging the economic status quo and demanding its transformation, so that it serves the 99% rather than the 1%. Christians must be part of the movement that demands an end to an economy that trashes the planet and jeopardises the future of the human race.

We must be part of the global movement which is challenging the economic status quo and demanding its transformation.

Failure to do this will condemn humanity to continued the political instability that will give us more Trumps, Modis and Bolsonaros, increasingly violent protests, and a barren and uninhabitable earth.

There are some hopeful signs that calls for a levelling of the gap between the super rich and the extremely poor are entering the consciousness of policy makers. For example, US President Joe Biden is attempting to standardise the rate of corporate taxes among the G7 nations. If he could successfully use America’s power and influence to close down the tax havens where the 1% stash away their vast wealth, it would constitute some progress in levelling the inequality gap. These measures alone are not enough, but they are a symbolic start.

It is also surely time to say “no” to conspicuous consumption. When billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson offer the expensive thrill of a few seconds of space flight for their rich friends, while millions languish in poverty, such juvenile self-indulgences should be widely condemned.

Waiting for a visionary leader

The South African political landscape currently offers little hope for the genesis and implementation of another economic order. President Ramaphosa has made a fortune through BEE and his network of connections. He talks about the need for an economy that serves the needs of all, but he has arguably lost touch with the plight of the ordinary family in the shack. In addition, he leads a party which is now clearly in the grip of systemic corruption.

With the economy in decline, it is increasingly likely that the desperately poor will become even more impoverished.

Julius Malema is all revolutionary slogans about redistribution but since the VBS corruption scandal, he and the Economic Freedom Fighters cannot be trusted to carry out the economic transformation that South Africa needs. The DA’s John Steenhuisen continues to adhere to tired Thatcherite trickle-down economics which might possibly uplift the poor in a few decades. With the economy in decline, it is increasingly likely that the desperately poor will become even more impoverished.

Sadly, a political leader with a bold yet feasible, post-growth economic vision of sharing our common wealth fairly and heal the planet has yet to emerge. But that does not mean that citizens should not demand the changes that the poor and the planet desperately need. If public opinion stands behind a sustainable economic solution, then these policies will be far easier to implement when a visionary leader appears.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.