Publication: Business Day Issued: Date: 2006-05-08 Reporter: Peter Bruce

The Thick End of the Wedge



Business Day

Date 2006-05-08


Peter Bruce

Web Link


Comment & Analysis

ITíS D-day today for Jacob Zuma (if you didnít already know). There is a tension in the land. If he is found not guilty of the charge of rape, do he and his supporters get to run the country next? If he is found guilty, does a tidal wave of poor and rural and traditional black rage break over our tender young democracy and its brittle institutions? Thereís no point telling ourselves we arenít nervous. We are.

And it isnít Zuma. Weíre nervous because we know we live in an unfair society with an unfair economy. We know there are lots of hideously poor people out there with whom, if push ever came to shove, we middle classes could not reason.

Zuma has managed to build ó or it has been done for him ó an image as a man of the people. The implication many poor people take from that is that if he were president he would look after them much better than the current government.

We are nervous, we whites and we blacks in the middle classes, because we know we donít do enough to change our society or our economy. Black empowerment we endlessly debate as if it were important. But BEE merely changes the colour of the economy, not the way it works. Faced with the terror of revolt (remote though it may now seem), our instinct is to look for people or institutions to keep the lid on. But Thabo Mbeki can only do so much. The ANC itself, whose political hegemony should be the best guarantor of peace in SA, is divided and restless. We should look to the economy to give people a real stake in the future.

SA finds itself after 10 years or so of democracy still without a broad consensus about how best to organise the ways we create and distribute wealth. In a poor country this is just asking for trouble. Unless poor people concede that the status quo is appropriate, they must (and will eventually) try to change it or destroy it.

If we had been able to construct a market economy with rules guaranteeing the inclusion in it of the majority of people there would be no nervousness this morning about the Zuma rape verdict. I have written on this subject many times before only to be told by my betters that, dear chap, you just canít distort the market.

Well, stuff them. We have to distort the market here. We have to give poor people assets and collateral. Why can the state not give its properties to poor communities and lease them back in perpetuity? Why can the people of Gugulethu not own the Simonstown Naval base, or the people of Winterveldt the headquarters of the South African Reserve Bank? Why can workers not, by law, sit on the boards of large companies and why does the treasury still make it expensive for companies to give their workers equity? Does any of that threaten the market economy? No, it virtually guarantees its legitimacy.

Why have we not made it easier for companies or shareholders to invest for the long term? Why can equity investors not be rewarded for not speculating? Or companies for not firing people? We brag constantly about how much more tax weíre collecting but why is it then used so conventionally? Why not use tax as a tool for change?

Weíre nervous this morning because we donít know what will happen after the verdict. But if we had made an effort to create a capitalist economy for all the people we wouldnít be nervous.

Why would a creative people like ourselves not be able to come up with an economy of our own? We inherited a Victorian, patronising capitalism from colonial and apartheid SA and, unbelievably, we have done just about everything possible to preserve it.

So, yeah, get scared.

With acknowledgement to Peter Bruce and Business Day.