If you have money, you can do whatever you want

The Spur scuffle, lack of black representation on the JSE, land restitution and water restrictions: There is an economic threat that runs through all these incidents, writes Ryland Fisher.

Cape Town – One of the things that always surprises me about South Africans is how astonished or outraged we are by something we should have expected as a natural response to something that happened previously.

For instance, did we really think that the apparently racist and sexist incident in a Spur franchise in Johannesburg, where a white man insulted and verbally assaulted a black woman, would have no repercussions? The incident apparently began after what looked like a scuffle between children in the restaurant’s play area. The man, from Orkney in the North West, was subsequently banned from Spur restaurants countrywide.

Since then there has been something of a right-wing backlash against Spur’s response and the punishment meted out to the offending patron. It seems some white people have been boycotting Spur in droves, impacting seriously on the franchise restaurant group’s profitability – at least in branches that used to be supported mainly by a certain demographic.

I don’t begrudge anyone the right to decide where they want to buy their steaks, but incidents like these make me realise how much wealth is still concentrated in the wrong hands in South Africa.

I thought about this saga this week when I read articles about the lack of black representation on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange, the Department of Labour’s struggle to get companies to comply with employment equity regulations, continuing battles about land restitution and water restrictions in the Western Cape.

All of these things are related, although this might not be initially obvious.

There is an economic threat that runs through them all. This means that people with money will not hesitate to use it to get their way.

It’s amazing how many white people will oppose anything that could potentially impact on their pockets without thinking about how the money ended up in their pockets in the first place.

Most white people still benefit from laws and procedures put in place during apartheid and colonialism and they will continue to benefit for the foreseeable future, unless something drastic is done to redress this situation.

The other day I was reading a story about a supposed whizz kid who bought, renovated and sold his first property when he was 21 years old.

I thought that he was definitely not from my old neighbourhood because, where I come from, nobody has money to buy property at that young age, and often not even at an older age.

Yes, he was able to go on to build a successful business, but he would not have been able to do this without the help he received at the beginning, help that in most cases is not available for people of a different demographic.

Companies on the JSE will continue to conduct business in the same way as they have always done, because they have enough money to pay fines if they do not comply. In the same way, companies that do not comply with employment equity legislation will just buy their way out of trouble.

Because they can.

Many white people who own large tracts of land will not want to give up any of that land and are not even concerned about how they became the land owners in the first place. They will use their economic muscle to prevent giving up land for as long as they can.

The same principle applies to many other areas of society. For instance, there are people who do not mind how many traffic fines they receive and they do not change their driving behaviour because of fines. In fact, they just pay and move on. Because they can.

The Western Cape is facing one of its biggest crises at the moment – lack of water. There are many people who probably do not even think about the implications of fines for using excessive amounts of water. They will just pay the fines and continue to waste water. Because they can.

Granted, not only white people have money in South Africa. Thanks to black economic empowerment and the relationships that some previously-disadvantaged black people have developed with previously and currently advantaged benefactors, there are quite a few black people who now fit in the middle class, with some even fitting into the upper class.

One of the things many of the nouveau rich will probably have learnt by now is that, while money can’t buy you happiness or love (if you have to believe the Beatles), it can probably buy you just about anything else.

It is untenable for South Africa to continue on the current trajectory where poverty, unemployment and inequality are meant to live side by side with so much blatant wealth in the hands of a few. We will never be able to have a truly free South Africa as long as this situation is allowed to continue.

The wealth in our country needs to be distributed more equally, and not only to the elite, whether they are black or white. This is not radical economic transformation or whatever the government is calling it today. It is common sense.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 27 May 2017)