A new economy means undoing the old one

Inequality is South Africa’s most pernicious economic inheritance. The New Frame, New Economy forum on inequality shows that a properly democratic future demands we reckon with it.

Do not look for our society’s barbarism in the back-breaking daily pursuit of the many for their barest needs. Do not look for it in the glut, vanity or ostentation of the few. Look for our barbarism in the chasm between the two.

There is no surer sign that the South African economy needs to be reimagined than the country’s staggering inequality.

The wealthiest 3 500 people own more than the most impoverished 32 million. Nowhere in the world is the documented gap between the wealthy and impoverished so vast. Nowhere else do so few own so much. And there are few other places where that privilege is protected at such costs.

Whatever South African triumphalism may exist, the country is haunted as much as ever by a devastating and pathological inner life. Where gains have been made since 1994 – more people are better educated today than they were then, for instance – inequality lays bare the ways we remain stuck in the economies we inherited. Regardless of those educational gains, for instance, children born today are more or less guaranteed to end up in the same position as their parents. In a country where nearly half the population are unable to escape poverty, that is a damning indictment.

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Inequity of these depths makes ours a society where – to paraphrase one famous Genevan philosopher – freedom and the public good have been put upon the auction block. A society – to paraphrase another from Martinique – to be replaced.

Ultimately, a new politics may be required to cure the ills of an unequal society. Until then, however, a new economics must be fought for. It must be an economics of morality, freedom and compassion. It must be an economics of equality.

In the second forum of our New Frame, New Economy project, we begin to consider just such an economics.

Inequality is the barbed answer to many questions. Some of them are about our past. How do the geographies laid down in the brutal dispossession of land continue to shape inequality today, for instance? Others are about our present. Have the democratic state’s efforts to redistribute the country’s wealth since borne any fruit?

These and many other pressing questions are taken up by the authors in our forum, which opens with a lead article by Murray Leibbrandt, who heads the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit.

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