I’m not one of those white people who moan about crime all the time. In fact I don’t have any time for that kind of talk. Crime is one of those social diseases that grows, like rising damp, even up to the highest floors of the tallest ivory towers. But that’s not what I want us to talk about…
South Africans are greedy. We covet shiny things and we try to accumulate them to show how much better we are than each other. Every day we hear about scrap metal dealers who buy holiday property with cash, tycoons who rent whole floors of hotels for their family functions and politicians with relatives that eat until they cant fit into their sports cars. We know people who live in shacks with more than one plasma TV and absent fathers who never pay maintenance and shamelessly wear expensive gold watches to dinner dates with prostitutes. The greed is as rife among the rich as it is among the poor, and the reasons for it are the same:
When you have a history like ours, where people have been brow-beaten and made submissive, divided and dehumanised, they invariably end up with low self-worth. Self-worth cannot be improved except through aggressive therapy, but it may be assuaged a little by the snake-oil of crass materialism. Having cash, cars, fancy shoes and jewellery can give instant relief from the emptiness of low self-esteem. It’s a pain-killer. It treats the symptoms but not the disease.
Suppliers plunder government coffers, CEOs award themselves extortionate bonuses, politicians leverage their office for personal enrichment – we’ve seen it all. Travelgate, the Arms Deal, Oilgate, the Banking Crisis, Nkandlagate, copper cable theft and e-Tolling – they’re all about greed – trying to find ways of extracting value rather than adding it.
Accumulating money and things seems to be the real business of most South Africans, but why do we steal from each other and why don’t we get it?
Simply taking someone else’s hard-earned material gains won’t make you wealthy, it’s just temporarily topping-up the creaking, leaking vessel of recurring poverty. You only become wealthy by adding value. People will give you money for what you do, think, make or sell – and which they can’t or won’t do themselves. If you steal all the money in the world, it will only be yours for a while. Your inability to add value will ultimately leave you with an empty cup. Winning the lottery wouldn’t pull some people out of poverty. In fact, if you look at the statistics, most Lotto winners end up poor again. Poverty is therefore, a state of mind – it’s not in the balance sheet. To Bill Gates or Patrice Motsepe you and I are poor. To a Calcutta Untouchable, the poorest man in Johannesburg is rich.
We need to change our attitudes to money and value, and stop thinking that moving cash or possessions around will improve the lives of so many miserable South Africans. The much-maligned ‘capital’ that Gwede Mantashe decries from Luthuli House is at least as good as the highways and infrastructure he keeps telling us government has built. Gwede forgets that what funds government is the industry of hard-working people in private enterprise who are not employed by our bloated public sector and financed by our gargantuan government salary bill. Indirect, hidden and stealthy taxes turn government into the greediest animal of all in our economy.
If we are thieves then we are thieves because we steal value, and if we are poor we’re poor because we can’t create value. It has nothing to do with how much or how little we actually have. Comforts and luxuries are the fruits of that labour. What you do for someone else is the labour itself. If you really want to be wealthy, think about what you can do for other people. Let them be the ones to reward you.