Did Mandela Work for Nothing?

Unless we build an all-encompassing middle class soon, the political miracle we like to harp on about will fall to pieces, argues Eric Miyeni.

A man who should have been given the death penalty was given a life sentence. That man could have died in jail, but he did not. Instead, he lived to help negotiate a virtually bloodless handover of power from his jailers to his people.

That done, he managed to stop his people from seeking revenge and led them to the reconciliatory path that has guided them to this day and thus created what is now known as South Africa’s political miracle.

I love this Mandela-driven part of our history as a country.

In politics, we chose to make peace with the past, leave it back there where it belongs and, together, looked to the future and asked, united as one people, what we would like to see there, what country we would like to build, explaining that this is how this unlikely marriage between the oppressor and the oppressed was forged.

It was not an easy marriage to bring to life because we came from such different worlds. But in the end, we agreed on a common view on how to handle religion. We came to an understanding about how to view sex and sexual orientation. We were in sync about our political systems and the politics we wanted our country to subscribe to. And so, you can argue that we tackled the hardest issues and came to the conclusion that we could go down the aisle for better or for worse until death did us part.

Sadly though, like most couples who marry, we never discussed financial issues.

This is a serious oversight because over 50% of all marriages that end in divorce do so because of financial incompatibility. For a country like ours, where the marriage covenant is between the super-rich and the hungry and homeless, a disagreement that leads to the possibility of divorce could be deadly.

This is not difficult to understand given that there is very little use for freedom if you have no money to enjoy it with. What is the point of having the freedom to live anywhere you want when you can’t even afford the cost of materials to build a shack?

By extension, the constitution holds no value for those among us who have nothing to protect. If my life is riddled with disease, without education, and marked by starvation and joblessness, what value does the “right to life” hold for me? And if my life has no value to me, what value can your life have in my eyes? If I don’t value life, who around me is safe? And if we are not safe, how can we call ourselves free?

This brings me to the sad conclusion that South Africa’s Mandela-driven political miracle might be a house of cards, a flimsy structure, built on quicksand, a disaster really, waiting to happen because too many among us have no means by which to enjoy its fruits.

And so I have had to ask myself: Why is it that words like “empowerment” have become swearwords? Why have phrases like “economic freedom” become so thoroughly feared? And since when has the desire for wealth become a dirty desire?

I was being interviewed on Radio 702 once. This young white man called in and said that he was leaving the country because, as a qualified metallurgical engineer he could not get a job in this country. He said he had gone to an interview where at the end he had been told that unfortunately he could not be hired because the position was reserved for blacks.

I asked him why he had been interviewed for an hour before anybody realised that he was white and therefore the wrong candidate for the job on offer. He said he did not know. I reminded him how long it takes to produce a metallurgical engineer and how few of them there are worldwide, and asked him if he was sure that the company was willing to wait that long, some sixteen odd years, simply because he was white and they wanted blacks? He seemed confused. Then I said to him, “Son, go and brush up on your interview skills. I am convinced that your interviewer did not know how to tell you that you did something wrong in the interview, that you did not fit his company’s profile somehow, and he lied to you”.

We are constantly being fed the untruth that every time a white person fails, it is because there is a black person standing in the way. We are being fed the lie that black prosperity equals white poverty. When this rubbish is fed to us every day, we become an economically divided society with two communities standing against each other, instead of standing together to prosper in unison.

The desire for South Africa’s economic success should be driven by the desire for each and every South African to see no South African living below the middle class level. The fear that has been instilled in us is of the financial success of the other; the warped belief that one group’s success signals the demise of the other is unhealthy and wrong. It is holding us back from realising our truest potential as a nation.

Since 1994 the rich of this country have become even richer than they could be under apartheid, richer than they have ever dreamed! During the same period, the gap between them and the poor has grown to the point where we have now surpassed Brazil, which had held that dubious distinction of having the widest gap between the rich and poor for quite some time. Ironically, South Africa’s political miracle has resulted in the impoverishment of the very people who brought it about.

If the wealthy of Zimbabwe had not hogged all the riches after liberation; if they had not refused to hire the poor Zimbabweans that Robert Mugabe had educated to the highest levels; and if instead those moneyed Zimbabweans had said to their poor counterparts, “We might come from a politically divided past, but we will forge an economically united future with you”, then Mugabe would not have had anybody to incite to kill people, plunder and ruin Zimbabwe’s economy.

Selfishness in the face of a generous people is a recipe for disaster.

The poor of South Africa fought the political fight and won. We chose to forget the past and build a political future that benefits all South Africans, rich and poor. The time for this gesture of goodwill to find reward is long overdue.

Let’s face it, even Black Economic Empowerment, as it is practiced today does not begin to do this. We all know the model: A poor guy borrows money from the rich guy to buy 26% of the rich guy’s company. The government then rewards the rich guy’s company with contracts and accolades. The poor guy earns nothing because he is too busy paying off the highly inflated price of his share of the rich guy’s company while the rich guy makes more money than he has ever dreamed possible.

The poor guy finally gets close to finishing paying off the rich guy but by then the rich guy has found a reason to kick out the poor guy and replace him with another poor guy who starts afresh, in debt. And so the cycle repeats itself.

It is a model which tells poor people that they are useless on their own, that their own government won’t trust them with contracts unless they find that rich guy who is a majority shareholder in whatever vehicle the government wants to work with. It is a model that tells the rich guy that he is correct to think the poor guy is inferior. It is a toxic model based on prejudice and it perpetuates an economic apartheid.

But let’s forget how things have worked to date. Let us rather join forces and together seek to create South Africa’s next miracle. Whatever companies do today, and whatever individual citizens do, let’s make it our challenge to work to the upliftment of all South Africans to an economic status above the middle class. Let’s see if we can’t do this over the next twenty years. How can you and I, as companies and as individuals, contribute to making all of South Africa a middle class country by 2033?

The idea behind all our economic actions must be to help this country rise, prosper and thrive in its totality. Japan’s economy is open for all Japanese people to thrive. Sweden’s economy does this. So does the German economy. China is working hard to get there and give all her citizens the economic space in which to prosper. We should not be held back by the remnants of our shameful apartheid past.

You are bound to reap more reward simply by making sure that those around you are not left to starve. Empower with the view to uplifting South Africa in her totality.

Uplifting all of South Africa to live above the middle class line would be the “economic miracle” we need to underpin our political one. It would build the house that we can all live in, that safeguards us all and every one of our freedoms, that we can all be truly proud of. This is what Mandela’s political legacy was designed to help us achieve.

If our marriage crumbles, our country will go down in flames. We have to take this necessary next step. Otherwise Mandela’s entire life will have been in vain. We have all the rights that any human being needs to live a good political life, thanks to this great man. Now let’s improve on his legacy and help everybody generate the wealth with which to enjoy these rights because the last thing this country needs is for the political marriage between the rich and the poor to end in divorce.

Keeping our national marriage alive is too big a job for our largely uninspiring and uninspired politicians. It is a job for you and me. It is a job for the fifty million. It is our job because this is our country.

– Truth-telling author and filmmaker Eric Miyeni spent over 15 years working in advertising before taking up positions as a talk-show host for SABC’s SAfm and as a columnist for the Sowetan newspaper. He was fired from both positions for his “controversial” views. His films include the feature documentary “Mining for Change – A Story of South African Mining” and the feature narrative film “Frozen Time”. As an actor he starred opposite James Earl Jones in Darryl Roodt’s “Cry, the Beloved Country”. His Books include “The Only Black at a Dinner Party”, “A Letter from Paris” and the novel “The Release”. Miyeni is a WHAM! Media contributing editor.