White-washed Equality


If you lean just enough against the window of your business class seat to discomfort yourself, you can see the shanty towns as you come into land at Cape Town International Airport. South Africa is unequal. And we know it.

In fact, we are told in multiple headlines that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. But what we aren't told is what that means, why it matters and what we should do to respond.

Inequality, as most people think of it, is simply the existence of both rich and poor.

In other words, there is some inequality in the outcome of people's lives. If we interrogate ourselves, I think many people would find that it is not inequality of outcomes that is so problematic.

If I choose not to work and live a modest, subsistence lifestyle, I don't think many people would think I deserve to earn as much as a teacher or doctor that works many hours a day.

Really, what many people find inherently objectionable is inequality of opportunity.

Many libertarians will tell you this and I am sure a couple of CEOs are nodding their head in agreement, thinking to themselves, “That's right. It's not about taxing my income anymore, it's about fixing education so that everyone has the opportunity to work as hard as I have for my money.”

But in reality, there still seems to be something so unsettling about driving from Alexandra Township through to Sandton. There seems to be something so wrong with the inequality of outcomes in South Africa that must prompt us to look past inequality of opportunity and focus on the sheer inequality of outcomes. And there is.

I would argue that there are three primary reasons South Africa needs to address inequality of outcomes. First, the extreme spectrum of wealth in South Africa means the very poor simply do not have sufficient means to lead a dignified and humane life. We have a responsibility to provide a minimum standard of life to our fellow human beings.

Second, South Africa is not a society where inequality of outcomes has arisen as the result of chance.  Instead, we can identify the unjust acts under apartheid and colonialism that specifically engineered the repression and robbery of black people in our society.

While most of the laws may be gone, there remains the obligation to ensure corrective justice. This raises difficult questions of blame, guilt and how one practically ensures restitution in the face of intergenerational injustice. These two questions of basic standards of living and restitution, whether land or money, have been debated at length.

I, however, think there is a third, more nuanced reason that demands our consideration. The third reason is that inequality of outcomes fundamentally obscures our conception of what it means to have equal opportunity and thus hinders our ability to deliver a society in which we maximise equality of opportunity.

Even a society with perfect equality of opportunity suffers from the fact that unequal outcomes result in unequal power distribution. This power is used to favour elites. At first, I am sure your thoughts turned to business deals going to the politically connected or corporates colluding for illegitimate profits.

Rather turn your thoughts to the more subtle and morally ambiguous ways in which society operates. What about the inheritance you received or plan to leave? What about places in top schools for children of alumni, large donors or simply those whose parents can afford it? Or the jobs and internships you gave to the son of a friend or the daughter of a colleague?

Even well-intentioned power brokers that explicitly work to create a society truly characterised by equality of opportunity are necessarily required to decide what the concept of opportunity means and what the barriers to equality of opportunity are.

And extreme inequality of outcomes means that those in power may not know what the barriers to opportunities are. In South Africa's case, this is at an extreme. The result of apartheid is a society that is starkly segregated in such a way that private power, economic class, culture, geography and race are largely divided along the same lines.

The result is that white middle-class South Africans can live their lives in such a way that they rarely have to interact on the terms of the average, poor black South African. Sure, increasingly there are instances where the “best friend” might be black but he is likely to have interacted on the terms of white South Africans: he's middle class, he attended his model C school and forked out the R50 to go watch movies at the mall.

This is a dangerous situation where the influential in society – and here I mean us: the white professionals, professors, business leaders – do not understand the extent and nature of the inequality of opportunities. In fact, without structures to ensure a proliferation of views of what the conception of equal opportunity is, it is difficult to even know what needs to be done to ensure it.

The best example of this are my friends who complain bitterly when they are passed up on the job they were after at a top bank because a black candidate, with far lower marks, was taken on under affirmative action. They complain that AA does little to resolve the inequality of outcomes and help the poor; which is true.

I recognise their very real pain and disappointment and ask them what they are doing now. Their response is almost universally that a friend's dad or some other connection has taken them on in a job at a small, private firm.

And this is where they fail to grasp the extent of their advantage and the barriers to equal opportunity. A poor black person, who doesn't get the job at an established corporate, cannot tap his network or those of his parents to get a job in a small, private firm.

Furthermore, at the many interviews I have done in my life, almost every company says they want a candidate who will get on with the team, fit into the company's “culture” or who the boss will enjoy spending 10 hours a day working with. How can that person be a poor black person if the rest of the team are white, middle-class men who have never engaged on the terms of the average black South African?

Similarly, it's often asked why Africans rarely turn entrepreneurs and seize the opportunities that BEE has offered.

But the decision of striking it out on your own is heavily influenced by your attitude toward risk, your role models and your community's expectations. Can you even understand the barriers to equal opportunity in entrepreneurship that community and personal mentalities impose on someone who's grown up in a society characterised by  generational destitution versus someone who's been surrounded by successful businesspeople?

What this argument should illustrate is that there exists an inherent tension between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes.

Being aware that inequality of outcomes limits our ability to ensure a society that strives for equality of opportunity, we may need to adopt policies that prima facie work against equality of opportunity. For example, we need AA appointments in companies so that that person will one day be in management and able to say, “These are the difficulties people growing up in the townships of Eldorado Park face. I understand them and so I am not adverse to the person who offers me a soft handshake and I love talking with her about memories of shisa nyama on Sundays.”

To what extent we need to make that trade-off depends on how well we understand the lives of our fellow countrymen. Unfortunately in South Africa, there are few public spaces we all interact in, few public goods we all share and cross race, class and cultural understanding must be one of the poorest in the world.

This reality needs to inform our discussions of policy in general. When we consider policies like a year of compulsory community service for school-leavers, most of the debate surrounds the economic impact but what about the role such a policy would have in creating a space where the poor and the rich, black and white, interact?

Or should all school-goers learn an African language? While personally I thought it was a terrible idea, with little to no direct economic benefit; I have come to realise that perhaps in the context of allowing our future power brokers to interact and understand South Africa on the average South African's term, it could be immensely valuable.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French philosopher, remarked when he arrived in America that he'd never seen a country so free and equally led. He wasn't amazed by the fact that everyone earned the same, but that the equality meant that leaders governed whilst fully cognisant of the circumstances of their fellow men.

Inequality, of both outcomes and opportunity, is so problematic in South Africa because we have opportunities being ever suppressed for the poor and a corporate and government leadership that is becoming ever more out of touch with those realities.

• Michael Fargher recently completed a postgraduate economics degree at Oxford University. This article was first published by Politics Web.

October 2013
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