To increase the size of the pie or share the pie more equally?

A friend of mine once did a study which found that your income level is the greatest predictor of your economic view. He found that people who earn over a certain amount per month almost exclusively believed the key to dealing with poverty is to increase the size of the pie, while people who earned under a certain amount almost exclusively believed that in order to address poverty, the pie needs to be more equally divided. In other words, our view of solutions to the economic challenges we face is more likely determined by self interest than hard facts. I have found this very interesting in my informal conversations with friends from the suburbs. They keep telling me that the key to dealing with poverty is to create economic growth. My friends on the margins, however, are often quick to complain about how much bosses earn and wonder why they can’t just share some of their wealth.

Theologian Robert McAfee Brown once said “where you stand will determine what you will see; whom you stand with will determine what you hear; and what you see and hear will determine what you say and how you act.” Living in the Hillbrow among the most vulnerable in society, while attending a church in the suburbs among the wealthiest in society, means that I often get to hear these two worldviews – sometimes on the same day! Both sets of friends are able to argue their view-points vigorously.

tricklePope Francis recently said, “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”

I think he states it well. South Africa, 20 years into our democracy, is a case in point. Between 1994 and 2013, South Africa enjoyed positive economic growth in all but two of the 78 quarters. The 76 quarters of economic growth are the longest South Africa has enjoyed since the Reserve Bank started keeping statistics. Despite this, between 1994 and 2006, the number of people living below US$ 1 per day doubled. We now have 57% of South Africans living in extreme poverty. As a backdrop to these statistics, and perhaps the explanation as to what has happened to the additional money in our economy, the Gini coefficient (measure of inequality) has increased from 0.55 in 1994 to 0.77 in 2013. South Africa overtook Brazil as the most unequal society in the world in 2009. The increase in economic growth has therefore not led to addressing poverty, but rather to the rich getting richer, while the poor have got poorer.

Living where I do, I often get to see the devastating effects of poverty and its bedfellow injustice. Over the last two years I have mourned with a close friend who lost her baby after being turned away from a local clinic. This clinic I am told has one of the highest infant-mortality rates in the world. I remember helping to carry the lifeless body of this little-10-month old baby girl to the private hearse we arranged after failing to obtain assistance from the state, as the mom begged for a living and did not have money to pay for a private burial. We fought on the phone for over 2 hours with the police who would not send out a hearse as the baby had died of natural causes. We got money together and paid for a private hearse to take the body. I remember how at the funeral of the baby I had to rush out to buy clothes for the little baby as her clothes had been stolen at the mortuary and it was going to be an open casket funeral. I remember how a year later, this same mom had another baby, who died a day after complications with the umbilical cord during labour while waiting at the local fire station for 4 1/2 hours for the ambulance to arrive. I have mourned with a mom who lost her 20 year old son to HIV/ AIDS complications after he was turned away from clinics and an ambulance did not come out for 4 days. I remember sitting on a rubbish dump with this mom, chasing away rats from the body while we waited for 2 hours for the police to arrive to declare the young man dead and remove the body. Eventually we just moved the body ourselves, figuring that as he had not been officially declared dead it would not technically be breaking the law. I remember spending two hours talking a suicidal boy off a ledge and then taking him to the Hillbrow clinic emergency room where I was promised he would be admitted and cared for. My celebration was turned to mourning later that day as he ran away after being left unattended for 2 1/2 hours and jumped off a ledge down a shaft in the same building as before . He was still alive when I got there and so I called an ambulance. They eventually arrived after 4 more hours. They were too late, he was dead.  I have assisted a mother who delivered her still-born-full-term baby only to be told by the social workers at the local hospital that she needed to pay R 2000 for the body to be disposed of. She was told to bring this money directly to the social worker that week  or she would be arrested. This is not true – the state disposes of bodies of babies free of charge for the poor. I have assisted many children in my neighbourhood who have been kicked out of school for late or non payment of school fees. These schools have often refused to give transfer papers to children so they could attend no-fee government schools thereby violating their right to education. I have assisted homeless friends to get access to heath care because they were being chased away from the local clinic. I have had meetings with the station commander of my local police station after several of my homeless friends had been repeatedly beaten with sjamboks and batons during the regular raids that the police, metro, home-affairs and PickItUp (the city council’s garbage removal service) conducted on the streets. PickItUp were included in the raids to collect all the possessions of my homeless friends – including all their documentation which they treated as trash. I have watched some of my friends have their goods confiscated by metro-police in sometimes unlawful raids of informal traders. I have written letters, phoned, and formally complained repeatedly to the local municipality about rubbish removal, sewerage leaks, repair of street lights, road collapses, police violence and discriminatory by-law enforcement in my neighbourhood. I have assisted friends during illegal evictions to get returned into their buildings. I have handed out blankets repeatedly to homeless friends after the police removed blankets from them during their winter raids. Two of the homeless community died during the snow in August two years ago after metro police removed their blankets. It is estimated that 20,000 people do heroine in Hillbrow every day. Despite this, police continue to make petty arrests of users and appear to be complicit with dealers.

Poverty is ugly! No-one should have to live facing these circumstances. Poverty excludes people. It prevents them from getting access to services. It often renders them powerless. It is unjust.

When you stand where I do, and see what I see, your views change. When you become friends with the poor, your personal economic worldview changes. Economic growth, with all its promises, has not resulted in a better life for the poorest of the poor. I can no longer remain silent in the face of ill informed opinions based on self interest which leave structural injustice intact. I can no longer accept that the poor must wait.

I am not waiting, however, for government or for a revolution, I am starting with me. I am going to be the change I want to see in the world. The economy around me is going to change. As Shane Claiborne says “When we truly discover how to love our neighbor as ourself, Capitalism will not be possible and Marxism will not be necessary.” Sharing my life and my possessions does not have to wait any longer. I can now begin to live my dream of a new world. In this world, I want to experience the rich not tolerating extreme poverty and inequality. I want to see many people around me actually laying down their lives of comfort and convenience for the sake of bettering the lives of others. I want to be part of a world where seeing people freed from poverty, inequality, racism and exploitation is more important than fulfilling our lust for more things! I want to be part of a society in which people are valued more than things. I want to see the god of consumerism in South Africa bowing its knee to a love motivated revolution which results in freedom from oppression and exploitation. I want to see this for all people, regardless of class, citizenship, race or religion. I dream of equality in every sector of society. I believe that if the education system is not OK for a rich kid, it is not OK for a poor kid. The same goes for healthcare, housing, security. The same goes for rural kids and inner city kids. The same for black kids and white kids. We are not more valuable than the least valued in our society. My family are doing our lives in a new way. We are going to live our dream and see this reality briefly described above happening around us. We hope others will join us and this will happen around them too. Who knows, very soon, the world can be a different place!