There is no value in a house of greed. It will swallow rich and poor
With structures preventing the poor from acquiring wealth, our society makes even the rich vulnerable
If the only thing you inherit is poverty, it’s difficult to get rich. You don’t realise you’re poor until you compare yourself with someone who (at least apparently) isn’t.
If you went to a farm school, where the measure of your worth was whether you could catch a fish with a length of gut and a bent pin, or catch and kill a chicken in a move swift and skilled enough to be merciful and not cause a commotion likely to get you caught, then don’t come to the big city and you’ll be fine.
Nobody in the “platteland” owned cricket spikes or a watch (today a cellphone) before the age of 16. You never bought a new school blazer (unless you got colours for something), and your parents’ cars (if they had any) were older than you.
Life was pretty good, actually; ignorance is bliss. Gluttony and depravation were states equally unheard of. In these remote, rural areas there were hierarchies and order, but they were not founded on monetary wealth.
Once you arrive in the city, things are different and divisions in wealth are stark, if not exaggerated. Aspirations and peer-group comparison metrics change, and appearances, at least initially, seem to matter more than realities.
If you’ve never had a fast car or flashy shoes or an expensive watch, the desire to cross over to that side can be overwhelming. You want it. You need it, now. The good news is that you can borrow to get it, the bad news that you have to borrow to get it.
The lucky (clever?) ones realise soon enough that borrowing a lifestyle is difficult to keep up. As you buy the entry-level wannabe watch you’ll start keeping company with the next level and, soon enough, your (yet-to-be-paid-for) lifestyle trophies won’t be good enough. Don’t be fooled by the apparently rich — you’re only seeing one side of their balance sheets.
In a country with manifest structural inequality, a bridge has to be found which, in the absolute first instance, is available to everybody who is willing and able to cross it.
At some point your capacity to live beyond your means will be capped and, lessons learnt, you’ll find your earned, sustainable place in society.
Imagine now that poverty was structural, that there were structural impediments to crossing over into the realm of the haves. Imagine a gap so wide that debt can’t bridge it.
The principle flaw in owning stolen goods or ill-gotten gains is simply that if it took neither effort nor cost nor virtue to get it, then it’ll never be valuable to you. You will always need more. You will never feel satisfied, let alone proud.
In a country with manifest structural inequality, a bridge has to be found which, in the absolute first instance, is available to everybody who is willing and able to cross it — armed only with ability, ambition, energy and integrity. Zero-based structural enablement, if you like.
In such a society it must be clear and obviously possible to earn a better life than it would be to steal one. It must be made self-evidently true that corruption is not the only way out of relative poverty – by virtue of alternative choices and by meaningful, immediate and objective punishment for those who cheat. But first, the alternative, earned route must be real, attainable and as culturally acceptable, if not admired, as the crooked alternative is rejected and found repulsive.
Until we reverse, purposely and within the formal business frameworks and markets, our structural, broad-based poverty, we will not achieve sustainable economic balance. We will not conquer the gluttony that is so often born out of despair.
It will take time and hard work to build this house of prosperity on foundations of stone, for sure, but the alternative is a fleeting apparition, a mirage treacherously balanced on shifting quicksand which will swallow us all soon enough, rich and poor.
• Barnes, a former SA Post Office CEO, has had more than 30 years’ experience in various capacities in the financial sector.