The Sunday Times (4th September 2011) listed the richest people in South Africa. The 20 wealthiest, we were told, have seen their income jump by nearly 60 percent in two years and now have a combined wealth that is at least the size of Zambia’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Earlier this month we watched as residents of Themb'elihle took to the streets in protests that soon turned violent with rocks being hurled by residents and rubber bullets being fired by police. The protestors’ demanded basic housing, electricity and proper sanitation.
These stories sat side by side in many news publications this week, telling a tale of two countries; one where a select few will live to see wealth beyond their wildest imaginings, the other where people are so sick of being ignored and so desperate for basic services that they risk being shot by police. But of course, this is not the story of two countries; it is simply the story of ours, the most unequal country on earth.
There are hundreds of communities like Themb’elihle across the country – nearly 24 million South Africans live below the poverty line of R322 a month. The violence we have seen there should serve as a warning of what is to come in places where many have no economic opportunities and there is a long history of promises without delivery.
What are we to make of the people who top the rich list in a country like ours? They have no doubt worked hard to earn their wealth and many of them have changed the face of their industries. We need their entrepreneurial skills and business acumen, and of course the thousands of people who are employed by their businesses need their jobs.
Yet these captains of industry surely recognise that a situation where wealth is concentrated in the hands of so few while almost half the country lives in poverty is unsustainable. And who is better placed to mobilise the resources needed to tackle some of our basic problems?
As Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, recently pointed out, we need business leaders who will say “I have enough, I have to share for everyone’s benefit.” Gordhan has publically asked why South African business leaders do not follow the example set by Warren Buffet, the legendary investor who is the third richest man in the world.
Buffet has pledged to give away 99 percent of his immense wealth and has teamed up with Bill Gates, the world’s second richest man, to convince America’s billionaires to give at least half of their wealth to charity. This has created a healthy kind of peer pressure among the super-wealthy, and 69 individuals or family trusts have joined the pledge.
Where is the South African equivalent of this gesture? When a multi-millionaire supports a blanket drive, we allow ourselves to get misty-eyed and invite him to black-tie dinners to celebrate his generosity. But surely a better use of his time and resources would be to help people secure safe housing insulated against the elements, rather than dishing out blankets year after year.
If, for example, Whitey Basson, the highest-paid man in the country last year, learned that customers were avoiding his supermarkets because their roofs leaked every time it rained, he wouldn’t stand at the door and hand out raincoats. He would identify the source of the problem and see to it that it was fixed properly.
When their own businesses have faced challenges, these leaders go much further than throwing money at the problem. Rather, they try to spend their money as effectively as possible. They put together teams of smart people who they trust and give them the resources they need to get things right. Where necessary, they seek out the advice of experts. They implement solutions based on research and they demand results. What is stopping them from approaching social problems in the same way?
For many ordinary folk, the thought of these few individuals having so much more than they need will fill them with disgust. But this excess represents tremendous potential. Here is a group with the leadership, business savvy and, let’s face it, the clout with government to contribute to solving our most pressing social problems – and they have the money to boot. Imagine the potential of the Millionaires’ Education Group or the Millionaires’ Health Group coming together to find the best solutions to these issues. If only a handful of people on the Rich List started by giving more, giving publically and giving strategically this idea would quickly spread.
These few people have so much more than they could ever need, and they have the skills and resources to assist the millions who need so much more than they have. They need look no further than the scenes in Themb’elihle to be reminded that finding an end to poverty is everybody’s business.
- Dylan Edwards is senior consultant and researcher with the GreaterGood South Africa group.