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Cape Town — Human community is impossible in conditions of poverty and inequality, and unless current levels of inequality are addressed, social cohesion will be unattainable in South Africa, a major conference on ending poverty has been told.
Speaking at the opening of the conference, entitled "Towards Carnegie III", at the University of Cape Town last night, academic, activist and businesswoman Mamphela Ramphele said few countries were given three chances to address poverty and inequality.
The first Carnegie inquiry into poverty in South Africa took place against the backdrop of the Great Depression in the early 1930s and focused only on uprooting poverty among whites and was a "resounding success", said Ramphele.
The second inquiry in the early 1980s uncovered extreme levels of poverty among black South Africans but, according to Ramphele, suffered from a lack of political will from the government of the day and a lack of vision among business leaders who failed to see that the long-term interests of their companies would be better served in a less unequal society.
Very few countries are given three opportunities to address poverty and inequality, said Ramphele. "Three strikes and you're out, and we're on the third strike".
South Africa does not have a poverty problem, said Ramphele. Poverty is a result of denialism in face of the corruption that is taxing poor people, the inefficiencies of government, and the refusal to admit we are part of the problem, each one of us.
"We need a new approach, one that binds citizens, government and the private sector for a more equal society," she added. Citizens must hold those in government accountable.
In an examination of the relationship between the South African Constitution and poverty, retired Constitutional Court judge Kate O'Regan said that while the Constitution was simply words on paper, the ideas and vision it propounds were not at all flimsy.
O'Regan said that the South African Constitution clearly recognised the need to change the lives of the poor, as was clear from the compact on socio-economic rights and the responsibility of the state to achieve the progressive realisation of these rights.
However, she acknowledged that the gap between the promises of the Constitution and the lived experience of millions of South Africans as "immense". O'Regan urged citizens not to give up or become fatalistic as this corroded the spirit of democracy.
"Democracy breeds possibility", said O'Regan. For that reason it was both exciting and infuriating. "Democracy is not a good thing in itself. It is what makes good things possible," she added.
Minister in the Presidency responsible for the National Planning Commission Trevor Manuel said that the country's democracy, which would shortly be 20 years old, was "woefully behind" in delivering economic freedom and rights to all South Africans.
While it was important to have a constitution that empowers and enables citizens, change would not happen in society without human action, said Manuel. He added that policy should guide and provide a framework, but policy documents could not "walk, talk, or act".
Manuel warned though, that transformation was only possible in environment of stability.
Quoting Esther Duflo from the Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Manuel said that "ideology, ignorance and inertia" prevented development. These three problems needed to be fixed before the big "I" of implementation could take place.
Manuel said he hoped that the third Carnegie inquiry would produce a "handbook" that will help people eliminate poverty across the world.
In a rapid review of papers to be presented at this week's conference, Manuel identified key areas he believed merited further development: how to create sustainable livelihoods when there aren't sufficient jobs; who will drive new enterprise; how to ensure access to markets; effective and fair financial services; how to insulate the poor from shocks such as fires or floods; and how to keep high enrolment through all levels of basic and high school education.
The real strength of the National Planning Commission and Carnegie 3, said Manuel, was the possibility of tying them together to create a "mosaic for action".
The conference is entitled "Towards Carnegie III: Strategies to Overcome Poverty and Inequality".