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EMPOWERMENT IS NOT A ZERO-SUM GAME

29 December 2019 - Jimmy Ramokgopa


In the great words of Abraham Lincoln, “You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift. You cannot lift the wage earner up by pulling the wage payer down. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred. You cannot build character and courage by taking away people's initiative and independence. You cannot help people permanently by doing for them, what they could and should do for themselves.”


The above mentioned words are very relatable to South Africa. The divide and inequality correlates to a particular racial profile - a racial profile that has been deliberately designed and perpetuated by previous regimes. Of course, I appreciate the logical principle that “correlation is not causation”, but in this case, history would argue that it is. Nonetheless, the focus of this discussion will not be on the blaming of one race for the difficulties of the other. Instead, it will be solution-oriented with the hope of facilitating a conversation upon which all South Africans would find common-ground.


I think that we can all agree that not all of the issues facing South Africa today are products of Apartheid. Stats SA’s March 2018 report titled Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in South Africa mentions that, despite “extremely high and rising unemployment, skilled labour can be difficult to find in most skilled and professional segments, largely due to the poor state of the public education system.” It also mentions how education has a strong influence on the probability of labour market participation. In addition to that, “Small Micro and Medium Enterprises (SMMEs) have been struggling to advance inclusive growth and development as envisaged in the country’s NDP.” The economic participation of SMMEs has been falling over time as well as the number of employees working in this sector, which is one of the most concerning crises facing the country today, apart from Eskom.


How do we fix the country?


Primarily, there are two schools of thought. One believes that the only way to fix South Africa is through restoration and redistribution; the other believes that it is through economic growth only. The former then argues that there cannot be economic growth without redistribution. The latter then says that there cannot be any redistribution if there is nothing to distribute [i.e. if there is no economic growth]. Indeed, it is true that if you eat the wealthy, it will be your last meal. But what choice does one have when there is nothing else to eat?


The truth is that both schools of thought are correct. Considering our past, there needs to be some form of restoration and redistribution. It is not by coincidence that certain groups find themselves in poverty - in their majority. They don’t just happen to be poor. There was a deliberate effort to position them that way, and so, there has to be a deliberate effort to emancipate them. At the same time, the emancipation of those who have been wronged cannot be at the expense of the economy. If that happens, then indeed, it shall be our last meal.


However, if we agree that something has to be done about the inequality and, at the same time, agree that this should not happen at the expense of the economy, then perhaps “redistribution” is not the correct term to use. I would suggest that, to change our perspective, we talk about “development” instead of “redistribution”. “Redistribution” implies the loss from a particular group, whilst “development” describes the gain of a particular group without the loss from the other. “Development” describes what a non-zero-sum game is, and I believe that that is the approach that is needed in South Africa right now.


A non-zero-sum approach would be the implementation of policy that develops “previously disadvantaged groups” without taking anything from existing businesses. For example, instead of taking shares from an existing business and giving them to a black individual, one would rather incentivise the business for doing business with other black businesses; or incentivise businesses for contributing to the training and development of black people.


Many of these principles are present in the updated version of B-BBEE, where the focus is more on development rather than the transfer of ownership. Even though B-BBEE has a lot of room for improvement, I believe that a paradigm shift from “redistribution” to “development” is what will help fix South Africa. This is a more sustainable solution because “development” is permanent and transferable to other generations. You cannot “un-develop” a person. This is why white South Africans are generally able to sustain themselves even after the Apartheid regime - it is because development is transferable.


This type of development would allow black people to learn and grow for themselves without relying on being given ownership of existing businesses. As Abraham Lincoln would say, you cannot help people permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves. And as I would say, it is within everyone’s best interest to develop those who have not been developed yet, before they decide to have their last meal.


-     Jimmy Ramokgopa (@JimmyRamokgopa)

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AUTHOR

Jimmy Ramokgopa

BSc. Engineering (Civil) - University of the Witwatersrand

Businessman - socio-economic and political commentator

Activist - The Collab Movement 

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