SA elite succeeding in creating 'most unequal society'

DEVELOPING countries that have been successful since World War II, particularly those in East Asia, have done so by empowering the widest number of people at the same time, not just an elite.

It is clear that since 1994 the economic dividends of South Africa's democracy are benefiting only a few - the old pre-apartheid white establishment and a small black elite. The majority of black South Africans remain in grinding poverty.

The gap between rich and poor in South Africa is now so wide that research by Haroon Bhorat, University of Cape Town economics professor, shows the country is officially "the most unequal society in the world". This ever-deepening divide between the affluent and the destitute is no longer just between blacks and whites, but also between a minority of rich blacks and the majority of poor blacks.

The tragic story in Africa since independence is that in almost every African liberation and independence movement that came to power, only a small elite has benefited from the end of colonialism or white-minority rule. Many of those who got rich after liberation were those connected to dominant leaders, factions, families, regional or ethnic groups.

They exploit their struggle credentials and "political connectivity" while the overwhelming majority of those less connected, but who sacrificed more during the struggle, starve.

In many cases the old colonial or white-minority elite, even if they opted out of public life, struck economic alliances with the new liberation elite, giving up shares in companies in return for being allowed to retain their prosperity.

Top public representatives live in mansions in exclusive suburbs, drive R1million cars and surround themselves with bodyguards. Their electricity, water and children's school fees are subsidised.

In the private and parastatal sectors the old apartheid-era elite and new black elite pay themselves huge salaries even if the companies they run fail spectacularly.

To imagine that the new elite will support a basic income grant for every family that lives in devastating poverty is foolish.

This new black liberation and independence elite retains its legitimacy either by giving patronage to selected poor communities, or to just enough poor people to prevent widespread social rebellion.

In every African country the leadership has sustained this inequality by continuing to spout liberation rhetoric and professing their "commitment" to the poor.

They prevent information about their conspicuous consumption from reaching the movement's members and supporters.

They often deflect scrutiny by blaming colonialism, apartheid, imperialists or individuals, parties or organisations linked to the old order.

Alternatively, the post-independence new rich portray members, activists and supporters who criticise this inequality as "being in league with the colonialists, imperialists or the white minority, or as reactionary, alleging they are opposed to the advancement of the poor.

Critics whose struggle credentials cannot be dismissed are sometimes muzzled through state institutions such as the security apparatus, police, intelligence services and tax authorities.

The African independence elite has always seen success not in lifting the greatest number of people out of poverty, but on how a "struggle" individual can accumulate and display the most wealth.

l The writer is co-editor with (Leslie Dikeni) of The Poverty of Ideas.