Friday, May 18, 2007

Will more billionaires help the poor

Every year, in the UK, a ‘rich list’ is published that outlines the names and fortunes of the richest people in the country. Lakshmi Mittal, the steel magnate, who is also the richest company director listed on the JSE, tops the UK list with a personal fortune of £19,25-billion. The top 1 000 rich people have a combined wealth of nearly £360-billion.

The UK Sunday Times also publishes a rich list of those under 30. Those involved in sport, film, fashion and pop dominate the list, with 65 of the 100 occupying these worlds.

The 2007 list also confirms that the superrich are getting richer. The number of billionaires in the UK rose from 54 to 68 between last year and this year, with the top 1 000 richest people’s wealth increasing by 20%. Over the last decade, there was a 260% rise in the wealth of the richest, compared with the 120% average wealth increase for the population as a whole.

So what does all this tell us?

Firstly, it proves the adage that the rich do indeed get richer. Secondly, fame, sporting prowess and celebrity are now surprisingly seen by most young people as a stepping stone to wealth, hence the obsession with TV talent shows. This feeds the obsession with celebrity status both on and off the sports field. Celebrity is seen as a quick financial fix.

Interestingly, however, 75% of those on the UK rich list have a university or college education. When the list was first launched in 1989, 75% of those on it were wealthy because of inheritance. Today, 78% of those on the list have made their money through business. This suggests that hard work does pay. But this does not mean that everyone has an equal chance of doing well. Those with access to education will do better. Not to mention that 90% of those on the UK rich list are men. Although there is a growing number of Asians on the British rich list, black faces are few. Clearly, the glass ceiling for women and for most ethnic minorities is alive and well in the UK.

South Africa has an even bigger problem owing to a massively distorted past in terms of access to wealth for blacks and whites, and men and women.

Transformation in the boardroom is, however, under way. Currently, 405 black South Africans hold 558 of the 3 125 director positions on South African listed companies. Black company ownership has moved from 0% to 10% in ten years, and the incomes of the richest black people have risen by 30%.

This suggests that wealth is slowly being shared, to a degree. Broadly, this is a step in the right direction, even though there is a long way to go. With time, South Africa will, no doubt, have its own, hopefully representative and rainbow coloured, rich list. But, if South Africa follows the UK, perhaps the real question is whether a growing number of billionaires, black or white, will really make a difference to the lives of the less fortunate?

In the UK, the wealthy are quick to point out that £1,2-billion was given to benevolent causes by the top 30 philanthropists alone in the past year. But about 25% of South Africans, almost exclusively black, have little chance of getting a job, let alone making it into the so-called middle class, or becoming superrich. Will charity, which domestically in South Africa is appallingly low, anyway, be enough to change this situation? I doubt it.

To be honest, studying the rich list over the last few days has left me a bit queasy. I strongly agree with the need for the economic pie in South Africa to be deracialised and for the economy to keep growing. However, I am left wondering, especially when growth largely benefits those at the top of the pile, exactly how this will make a difference to the poorest of the poor.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 18 May 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Are we all torturers inside?

When I was flying from Johannesburg to Belfast recently, I was caught out by the new system some airlines have started of weighing bags before you check in. As a result, I was found to be carrying a 24-kg bag. I was subsequently reprimanded by an official, who claimed he was just doing his job and that I had to shed four kilos or pay for the extra weight. I removed two large books and a file from my bag, reducing the weight to 20 kg. I was then told I could carry the books on board in hand luggage. That said, I was lucky compared to the woman in front of me. Her bag weighed 26 kg and, when she pointed out she had no hand luggage, she was told by the same bureaucrat to “make some hand luggage” of precisely 6 kg of weight. She had to run around the airport trying to get a plastic bag so she could carry some of her clothes on to the plane. She then had to deal with other people “just doing their jobs” who refused to give her a large bag unless she made a large purchase. “I am just doing my job” has to be one of the most inane excuses in the world. It is a phrase that I most associate with bureaucracy and, at the risk of being melodramatic, Nazi Germany and other atrocities. Remember the case of the American soldiers who tortured Iraqi prisoners and then took photos of them – they, too, claimed they were just doing their jobs and carrying out orders.

Of course, the annoying airline bureaucrat who enjoyed bossing me and others around cannot be compared a torturer, but the process that led to his unquestioning rule enforcement has, at least to a degree, the same root cause. Like the American marine or ‘grunt’, as they are known, who tortures someone, our friend, the baggage-weighing man, also finds himself at the bottom of a heap of bureaucratic power. No doubt, he was ordered to ensure passengers’ bags do not exceed the weight limit. Whether people do this or not is irrelevant to him personally, but he feels the hand of the rational bureaucratic machine on his shoulders and that his competence will be measured by carrying out instructions. The result is an unwavering and illogical set of actions, because, in this case, extra weight would mean little (other than more profit for the airline), considering the aeroplane was half-full. But why are we, humans, so bad at resisting problematic orders? In the 1960s, Milgram carried out his famous experiment on obedience. He showed that, when people were ordered by an official-looking person to administer shocks to participants in a study (actors, who were not hurt) when they answered questions incorrectly, most people continued to ratchet up the power because they felt they needed to do what they were told. Over 60% of the volunteers obediently administered up to 450 V.

Despite Milgram’s highlighting our weaknesses over 40 years ago, people still carry out orders which are damaging. Soldiers who commit atrocities continue to use it as an unacceptable defence. It seems, as Milgram himself warned, that when individuals merge “into an organisational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of human inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority”. But Milgram teaches us more than the fact that people will follow problematic orders when instructed to do so. The real finding Milgram made was that most of us (okay, 65% of us) have a little torturer inside and, given the right conditions, we too might just “do our jobs”, no matter how unpalatable. So I forgive the baggage-weighing man in Johannesburg and his sardonic smile, because, apparently, there but for the grace of God go I.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, February 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 7 February 2007.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Reconciliation: Time to grasp the nettle

Recently, Grainne Kelly and I published a short article in the Scope, a social affairs magazine in Northern Ireland, on our reconciliation research. This research looked at definitions of reconciliation. The article focuses briefly on how this research has been taken up by the EU, to download the article click here.