‘SA must build economic democracy’

Published in the Mail & Guardian, 21 June 2013

This is not Constantia.Twenty years after this country chose to end relentless violence and injustice by introducing political democracy, our rightwing government is ready to roll out the troops and subdue mineworkers by force of arms. But the only lasting remedy for the discontent on the mines is to make South Africa an economic democracy.

Currently, South Africa is being crushed by economic totalitarianism. Few of us realise this, and few of us know that there are alternatives, many of them up and running in other countries.

Economic democracy is about ensuring that everyone in society, not just the elites, has a meaningful share in the wealth of the country, and a voice in deciding how that wealth is shared. It’s a term that has emerged from nearly two centuries of worker mobilisation in Europe, the United States and Latin America.

It’s particularly necessary in South Africa because of our history of colonialism and apartheid. To paraphrase Walter Rodney, most South Africans are not underdeveloped, they have been underdeveloped. This means that real development will be impossible so long as the institutions responsible for underdevelopment persist. Continue reading ‘SA must build economic democracy’

Fix inequality with a maximum wage

'Toilets, washbasins and geysers last maintained by apartheid.' Protester in Durban, December 2011. Pic copyright David Le Page.
‘Toilets, washbasins and geysers last maintained by apartheid.’ Protester in Durban, December 2011. ©David Le Page.

Published 18 November 2012 by the Sunday Times (in print, but not online)

Since the tragic massacre at Marikana, there’s been increasing discussion of the problem of South Africa’s terrifying inequality. But commentators and government representatives get rather shy when it comes to talking about real solutions. They take refuge in calls for ‘solidarity’, ‘symbolic steps’, ‘dialogue’ and, as ever, ‘poverty reduction’.

These calls are at best timid and ignorant of the real nature of inequality, and at worst, evasive.

Eight thousand kilometres from Nkandla, the Uruguayan president, Jose Mujica, eschews his official residence for his wife’s shabby old farmhouse, and gives a large portion of his salary to the poor. That’s real solidarity.

But since we’re not yet seeing that kind of solidarity here, let’s talk frankly about two things: Firstly, the ways in which the very existence of excessive wealth actually creates poverty, and secondly, what some real solutions might look like.
Continue reading Fix inequality with a maximum wage

At TEDxTableMountain, ‘the case for the maximum wage’

This is the text of a talk I did on 27 May at TEDxTableMountain, at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town. It should perhaps be prefaced by saying that it is not an argument for communism or punishing the wealthy, nor for removing decent and proportionate incentives for hard work and enterprise. The video of this talk can be viewed here – or you can find it at the bottom of this article.

Introduction

Speaking at TEDxTableMountain, 27 May 2012: 'The case for the maximum wage'I’m an environmental journalist. I believe that the environmental crisis is mostly a human crisis. It reflects profound imbalances of power in human relationships, and it won’t be solved just by switching to renewable energy and electric cars and improved seed varieties.

To restore the Earth, and that’s what we now need to do, we must begin by restoring the relationships between ourselves.

Slide: ‘It is all wrong to have millionaires before you have ceased to have slums.’

Which of course is something we should be doing anyway – but it’s a priority we seem too often to have lost sight of.

I am speaking today about what is for some people, a very sensitive topic: how we distribute wealth in most of today’s economies and societies, and particularly here in South Africa. Wealth and income, of course, is just one dimension of inequality.

VIDEO: The case for the maximum wage – David Le Page at TEDxTableMountain, May 2012

Continue reading At TEDxTableMountain, ‘the case for the maximum wage’

Buddhist economics

An old wall at the International Convention Centre in Durban, covered with wild fig treesI have recently done a couple of public talks on ‘Buddhism and economics’, explaining how the absence of values from contemporary discussions of economics undermines human life and dignity. While people tend to think of religions as being either Christianity, Islam or Buddhism, etc, I argue that religions are the things we put faith in — and that in the Western milieu, even those of us offering allegiance to formal traditions in fact put all too much faith in consumerism, economic growth and the high priests and oracles we call economists.

So, ‘economics’ — understood here not so much as a science but as a cultural phenomenon — has become a destructive contemporary cult that elevates discussions of costs and disregards ethics, engages in empty and mindblowingly expensive rituals such as investment banking, peddles unscientific myths about resource limits, reduces living beings to statistics and turns a blind eye to growing global inequality, and accelerating ecocide.

Remedies include rebuilding democracy, establishing economies based on employee ownership, reducing income inequality, shifting from GDP measurement to different metrics for social and economic success — learning to feel more for others, ‘consume less, share better’ and slow down. Here’s the presentation that goes with the talk, constantly evolving on the rather wonderful Prezi.com.

Sunday Times: ‘Save us from the super-rich’

Robin Hood cartoon: We have a job for your merry men.Published by The Sunday Times, 10 October 2010

The very rich are a danger to the environment, democracy, economic empowerment and themselves, says David Le Page

Rich people are becoming a luxury we can no longer afford. In fact, rich people are rapidly becoming even more of a danger to themselves. So it’s little wonder that rich people have been queueing up to endorse Cosatu boss Zwelinzima Vavi’s recent call for a tax on the super-rich … oh, but they haven’t. So why should they be? The fact is that all the evidence and experience of other countries that have succeeded in building more sustainable and healthy societies suggests that a class of super-rich people is not part of the solution. Our rich should declare their interests: are they for South Africa, or just for themselves?

Noting October as Social Development Month, the ANC has called for an intensification of the “war on poverty”. Indeed, the government is making efforts to deal with poverty, such as the Community Work Programme now managed from the Department of Co-operative Governance. But to truly deal with our many social afflictions, the government is going to have to get to grips with the effects of our country being host to a class of super-rich people.

What are those effects? There are many social afflictions we associate with poverty that are in fact also afflictions of Continue reading Sunday Times: ‘Save us from the super-rich’

City Press: ‘Equality is key in fight for the poor’

Published in City Press, 2 October 2010

Growing inequality is one of the awkward truths of South Africa’s new democracy.

According to local researcher Kate Philip, at a recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conference on the ­subject, South African attendants looked “contrite” as their international colleagues expressed amazement that income inequality in South Africa has actually grown since the end of apartheid.

Yet it appears vital that South Africans cease to talk only about poverty and start being honest about our world-leading inequality.

According to University of the Western Cape Professor Andries du Toit: “The proper study for poverty research is inequality.”

The South African trend of growing income inequality is arguably in part the curse of being so influenced by economic trends in English-speaking democracies such as the US, Ireland and the UK. Democratic South Africa has followed economic policies approved in spirit by the World Bank. Our approach to poverty reduction, Du Toit argues, has so far been largely shaped by Continue reading City Press: ‘Equality is key in fight for the poor’

Sunday Times: ‘Can we fight corruption in a world that’s built on greed?’

Khayelitsha, Cape Town
South Africa is one of the world's most unequal societies: Shacks in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, where many residents still do not have toilets in this supposedly world-class city

Published in the Sunday Times, 8 August 2010

The only way to stop the rot is to create a fair society

Man, are we ever in a stew over corruption. The issue is in the news every day, bloggers have launched an online reporting initiative called the Meerkat Corruption Project, newspapers are beefing up their investigative units… and it might all be pointless.

We shouldn’t feel too insecure about our corruption in comparison to some other nations. The United States Congress is a filthy stew of special interests that makes a mockery of “We, the people” and compromises not just the interests and wellbeing of ordinary Americans, but of the whole world. US warmongering is a murderous subsidy system for the military-industrial complex; US climate imperialism threatens the entire human race to preserve the pollution “rights” of American fossil fuel interests. (Obama’s leading economic adviser, Larry Summers, believes Africa is “under-polluted”.)

No bill passes Congress these days without being laden with appropriations called “earmarks”, really payoffs to the favourite special interests of individual legislators. Corrupt US legislators are currently refusing to pass legislation either to ease US unemployment or to reduce the universal threat of climate change.

So the US is hardly less corrupt than we are, but its rulers are better at corruption: they’ve written it into law and spin it well. So too, to a good degree, the British. Tony Blair supported the illegal Iraq war, blocked enquiries into dodgy arms deals, and appears to have released the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing in order to secure access to Libyan oil for BP. No envelopes of cash need have changed hands for us to call this corrupt.

But struggling young democracies should not or seek find consolation in the failures of the old. Rather, we need to Continue reading Sunday Times: ‘Can we fight corruption in a world that’s built on greed?’