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Sunday, 1 July 2007

Tutu on Rising Inequality in South Africa

The Financial times on Thursday reported on the growing calls from Desmond Tutu regarding the widening gap between the rich and the poor in South Africa.

The gap between rich and poor is widening in South Africa, threatening to sweep away the gains brought about by democracy since 1994, Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of Cape Town, has warned.

“Most [people] are languishing in the wilderness,” the archbishop said of the slow pace of wealth redistribution since the end of white rule 13 years ago. Using a Biblical analogy, he said South Africans had crossed the Red Sea in their struggle against apartheid but that very few had reached the promised land.

“I’m really very surprised by the remarkable patience of people,” he told the Financial Times at the launch of the Tutu Foundation in London on Wednesday. It was hard “to explain why they don’t say to hell with Tutu, Mandela and the rest and go on the rampage.”

Archibishop Tutu’s warnings on the potential impact of rising inequality in South Africa has important transfareble lessons to other African countries as they pursue pro-poor growth policies. The social lesson is that as bad as poverty is, its much worse when you see others are better off than you are, and the gap appears to be increasing. The economic lesson is that economic growth could be unsustainable in the long term without prolicies that reduces the divide between members of society or atleast prevents a widening of the exisitng divide. It is therefore necessary to ensure that pro-growth policies go hand in hand with social and income equality goals.

The policy linkage is important because inequality has important implications for social cohesion (i.e. whether we as a society feel more as one nation with common interests). Social cohesion is important because a more united nation would be able to have internal peace and its citizens would lead happier lives. In South Africa’s case, it would prevent people saying “to hell with Tutu, [Nelson] Mandela and the rest and go on the rampage”.

This is why responsible Governments generally persue policues that encourage civic engagement through initiatives such as devolved decision making and greater voter participation. Unless we as society are more cohesive, the problems of crime and disorder would not be easilty eliminated.

No one has described the the linkage between greater inequality and a less cohesive society better than James K. Galbraith. In his book Created Unequal : The Crisis in American Pay (1998), Galbraith argues that when citizens have diverging access to services (due to income and social inequality) the result can be social and political fracturing. Inequality may endager society’s ability to think of itself as a single entity or nation. In his words :
“With high inequality, it becomes easy to know whether one is likely in the long run to be a net gainer, or a net loser, from public programs of family assistance, pension security, and health care. High inequality therefore weakness the willingness to share at the sane time that it concentrates resources in the hands least inclined to be willing. In this way inequality threatens the ability of society to provide for the weak, the ill, and the old”.

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