Surveys say voters prioritise job creation, the economy, service delivery, and corruption. The ANC wants to emphasise inequality.

If we build many large blocks of flats, with each housing hundreds of urban homeless people, while also providing grants so they can eat, what will they then prioritise? For many, the answer is the type of dignity that only a job can provide.

The extent to which the ANC blocks job creation is reflected in our having higher unemployment than almost any other country. Our youth unemployment rate is more extreme still – and profoundly entrenched. 

That the ANC maintains substantial electoral support despite its destructive policies and practices traces to so many people being directly or indirectly reliant on the patronage, legal and illegal, that is doled out. The party prioritises staying in power and it has expected to achieve this indefinitely through patronage plus much messaging around the injustices of inequality.

South Africa is a critic’s paradise. While there are many legacy effects from whites having prospered under apartheid, the ANC has undermined the development of ‘born free’ black South Africans’ productive capacities to an extraordinary degree. 

Business leaders have responded by seeking to work with the ANC in pursuit of investment-led growth in the hope that this would provoke more commercially supportive policies leading to ‘trickle down’ benefits. This reeks of desperation and it has produced meagre results.

South Africa also stands out for those drawn to solving complex challenges. While the ANC’s recklessly overindulged patronage is reaching its fiscal limits, the full effects of this won’t be felt until well after the upcoming elections. The party has already recalibrated by refreshing its ‘blame apartheid’ messaging.

The ANC’s policies were always more likely to backfire electorally in urban settings. It is more expensive to house and feed people in cities. But where the ANC is truly stuck is that more and more of its patronage must fund sub-subsistence grants for healthy young adults. Thus their refreshed messaging has sought to redirect the anger arising from so many young adults being denied the dignity of skill-enhancing employment by rehashing the evils of apartheid. 

When the ANC first came to power, their messaging could use ‘apartheid’ and ‘inequality’ interchangeably. Over time, politically motivated references to ‘apartheid’ became increasingly feckless. Even less experienced voters will be leery of a party that constantly blames ongoing failures on a long-gone regime.

However, chanting about ‘inequality’ is also losing its effectiveness, particularly in urban settings, as it is no longer synonymous with apartheid or the legacies of apartheid. In cities like Johannesburg, there are more affluent blacks than whites.

The ANC never accepted the importance of steadily increasing worker productivity. This must at least partially reflect its alignment with unions and SA’s communist party. Nor do the patronage minded want there to be a large middle class which need not rely on government for jobs or grants.

The electoral impact is that the ANC’s competitiveness in our three most-urbanised provinces is expiring alongside the government’s fiscal capacity to fund massive patronage. It’s not just that providing housing and food is cheaper in rural environments. Our cities display diverse upliftment paths which provide real dignity – just not nearly enough of them. 

Such merit-based paths do not, however, lead to equality because there are no paths to equality. Nor do people wake up in the morning seeking equality. Rather, equality is a myth-based ideology exploited for political gain.

For millennia, tribal structures were the norm and chiefs or barons controlled land which peasants worked. Nearly everyone was a peasant and, until international trade and industrialisation took hold, upliftment paths were exceedingly rare.

Karl Marx then developed an ideology which prioritised equality while defining it in starkly materialistic terms. Time has been unkind to his notions about how to run an economy but the mythical appeal of income equality has been kept alive – it is particularly useful for populist and patronage-focused politicians.

As their productivity would soar, peasants could be paid sufficiently that they would flock from fields to factories. But the factory owners needed their workers to work far more hours than the former peasants needed to cover their basic living costs. This disconnect was overcome through the emergence of a consumption-oriented popular culture. 

From a Marxist perspective, the barons had controlled the mode of production by owning the land and what the factory owners were doing was little different. Peasants merely migrated from one inequality-entrenching oppressor/oppressed structure to another. 

Among the many shortcomings of persisting with such thinking is that, when Marx was born, two centuries ago, about 90% of the world’s population was extremely poor versus less than 10% today. But what Marxists dare not admit is how income inequality and consumerism have propelled upliftment.

A poor country today that does not engage in international trade will remain poor for many generations. Conversely, there are many countries, including the behemoth, China, that have transcended ubiquitous poverty to achieve broad prosperity in less than two generations.

Whereas for centuries wealth had been achieved by controlling farmland, and then natural resources deposits during the 20th century, those wealth-creation models can’t compare to today’s digitally driven successes. Marx’s belief that inequality followed from oppressor/oppressed structures has been largely turned on its head.

The digital world is a completely different domain. The scarce commodity to be rewarded is not fertile land or commodity deposits but rather solution-focused creativity. Nor could Marx and his contemporaries have imagined a global economy spurred by commerce where there are, in effect, no reproduction or transport costs.

For instance, the affluent pay for the production of a tremendous volume of knowledge and entertainment content. This has led to low-income households having access to far more education and entertainment options than anyone would have imagined just a generation ago. 

There are important caveats to consider – yet, still, life has never been so good for so many. If future generations are far less materialistic, they will judge our political elites very harshly for over-prioritising income inequality while tolerating extraordinary youth unemployment and abundant poverty.

[Image: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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For 20 years, Shawn Hagedorn has been regularly writing articles in leading SA publications, focusing primarily on economic development. For over two years, he wrote a biweekly column titled “Myths and Misunderstandings” without ever lacking subject material. Visit, and follow him on Twitter @shawnhagedorn