25 January 2016

South Africa: Davos Can't Solve Inequality - Only People Power Can

Photo: Michele Limina/WEF
The 2016 World Economic Forum meet in Davos, Switzerland.

Johannesburg — When pundits talk about the economy here in South Africa, they usually focus on who is the Finance Minister this week, or they highlight the growth numbers; in July 2015 the IMF estimated a 2.1 % growth for South Africa in 2016, but the World Economic Outlook Report released on 19 January 2016 projects a 0.7 % growth for South Africa. Of course it does matter who the minister is and it does matter that growth is so sluggish, but the bigger question that is too rarely asked in the media but regularly being asked in the student halls, hairdressing salons, stadiums and shebeens: Is our economy working for majority of the people? We all know the answer.

This is an opportune time to reflect on trade liberalisation used over the past twenty years and to look at who is actually benefitting from this model. Despite all of the reforms, the economy is sluggish, exclusive, with increasing levels of inequality and unemployment. While current poverty figures are being disputed, it is clear that over 12 million people in South Africa live in extreme poverty and one in four people go to bed hungry. At the same time, two South Africans own the same wealth as 50% of the population. It is now commonly agreed by economists, world leaders and institutions like the World Economic Forum that high levels of inequality is bad for everyone.

World political and business leaders are meeting in Davos to discuss the current global challenges and to strike bilateral deals. Three things are certain. Firstly, governments will continue to bail out the rich believing that this is the only solution to the global crisis based on the failed notion of "trickle-down". Secondly, countries will continue to race to the bottom with offers of incentives in terms of tax, land and other resources like electricity where poor people in countries often pay more than multinationals. Thirdly, women will bear the brunt of the crisis, and will continue to experience the least secure employment, the worst working conditions, and will persistently suffer from the brutal violence exacerbated by social and economic inequality.

In South Africa, we can somehow find a trillion Rands for big nuclear projects, while not being able to find a few billion for ensuring children from poor communities have access to quality health and education, and communities do not have access to water during the on-going drought. The biggest threats to the security of South Africans are not foreign armies. South Africa has not been involved in a war since democracy. Twenty years of arms procurement could have funded basic services in South Africa. The biggest threat is the social implosion being generated by a failed economic model that protects the strong and neglects the weak. Our conflict is an internal one: we need to focus where lives are being lost on a daily basis instead of preparing for battle with our neighbours.

Civil society has tried asking the rich and powerful. They have tried amassing all the data needed to show that hyper-inequality between the rich and poor, between races and between men and women is hurting us all. It hasn't worked. The reality is that the people, or rather the few men who own and control resources, will not willingly hand over the power that comes with these resources. They will continue to rig the rules and control governments in the name of economic growth. This will continue until there is a change in the balance of power and when people across the globe stand together to challenge this system and find alternatives.

Recognition that change is only won through collective struggle that has seen, in a beautiful counterpoint to Davos, a broad range of civil society organisations declare that they will work together to fight inequality by supporting the building of people's power from below. Human rights organisations, women's organisations, trade unions, environmentalists, faith-based groups and NGOs have all committed themselves to a common agenda. Bringing together powerful global networks and campaigning capacity, the organisations are committed to working together to fight for changes to tackle inequality globally and in countries across the world, and to reach out to others to build a global movement to counter balance the power and influence of the 1%. Organising under #FightInequality, they have declared: "We choose to imagine a better world than this, where everyone's human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. We believe humanity has the talent, technology, and brilliance to build that better world, where the interests of the majority are put first. And we believe the time has come to fight for it together."

This gathering together of different movements is happening in South Africa too -- #FeesMustFall and basic services campaigners, LGBTI activists, green groups, unions and faith groups are demanding that we look back to the Freedom Charter and to our Constitution to ensure we build power together for a more equal society.

We've all seen the power of people mobilising, think Arab spring, the occupy movement, and annual climate negotiations. Despite the restricted space in Paris late last year, people's movements made their voice heard with a few hundred thousand people marching across the globe and over 10 000 in the streets of Paris to demand climate justice. With the carbon consumption of the 1% being as much as 175 of the poorest, it is time that the movements break the silos to connect for a stronger and united fight to reduce inequality and end poverty. It is clear that we need to accelerate the path towards renewable energy where women have an ownership stake in these projects.

It is time that we in South Africa and other parts of the world be bold enough to think about the alternatives while building on some of the current initiatives. The rights to health and education are fundamental in reducing inequality. And so, we need to end to tax dodging and ensure fair tax that will ultimately fund social services. Ensuring minimum wages for workers are crucial and women's access to and ownership of land will also help transform highly unequal societies like South Africa. Governments must ensure that the resources of this country benefit majority of our people. This requires policies that move away from benefitting a few.

A fundamental and radical shift is required if we want different world, one that is sustainable, wherein rights are upheld and where people have the basics to live a meaningful life. An equal world won't be given to us by Davos or determined by the World Economic Forum. Nor can we achieve it as individuals, or even as individual organisations or movements. Only together, in a sustained struggle can fight inequality and win. In the words of Wangari Maathai, "Human rights are not things that are put on the table for people to enjoy. These are things you fight for and then you protect."

Pooven Moodley is the Head of International Campaigns at ActionAid International, based in Johannesburg. ActionAid South Africa is member of ActionAid International; a global movement of people working together to further human rights and eradicate poverty.

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