Transformation in South Africa has been the subject of discussion since the dawn of democracy and has continued to dominate the country's sociopolitical and economic landscape since then. In fact, as if just "transformation" was not enough, it recently shifted up a gear to "radical economic transformation".
There is general consensus among South Africans, particularly blacks, that political freedom without economic empowerment is empty and meaningless. The right to vote certainly does not put food on the table; all it does is to give you a right to choose a political representative. Whether or not they actually deliver on their promises is another matter.
So who is the right person or group to advance the transformation agenda? Is it the politicians, the business community, the unions, civil society, the rich, or the poor?
Business and politics
Most successful businesses have "arrived", having proved themselves over time. By hook or by crook, through blood, sweat and tears, they have reached the top ladder and are determined to stay there. Similarly, politicians in their hierarchies are also at various stages of ascent (or descent).
Many have made personal and family sacrifices — such as jail time as political prisoners under apartheid — to make it to where they are. By virtue of their positions, they too wield significant power and influence. Politicians will also not easily give up their positions, as politics is their bread and butter.
These people all have vested interests, and for that reason alone they cannot be expected to champion transformative causes of the poor. They are seriously conflicted, if not compromised. For privileged people of any race to champion the cause of the poor, they would need to give up some of their privilege.
Politicians too cannot be trusted to champion the cause of the poor.
For them to continue enjoying the fruits of their privilege entails ring-fencing their class and preserving it to ensure it is not diluted. The more people infiltrate this class, the less there are outside to exploit in ways such as low wages. The law of supply and demand for labour applies here.
Politicians formulate the policy framework. Although they are supposed to work for the national interest, we are aware that they sometimes are influenced by personal and class interests — they can be influenced, bought and sometimes even captured. For these reasons politicians too cannot be trusted to champion the cause of the poor.
Most rich people are either out of touch with the needs of the poor or simply do not care, hence the tendency to be prescriptive in terms of what they think poor people need — there is lack of consultation. After all, there is a proverb to the effect that one needs to walk a mile in another's shoes to understand how they feel.
The privileged do not know the toils and sufferings of the poor and middle class. Most rich people live in expensive homes, drive expensive cars that are paid off, and are debt free. Their lifestyle is upmarket, and they can afford to go on holiday as often as they like. They don't have to apply for anything at the bank; banks approach them with generous offers of various credit and investment facilities at favourable interest rates. They are generally considered low-risk — until an Enron or Steinhoff happens.
The middle class, on the other hand, has to apply for everything at the banks, and often has to settle for higher interest rates due to lack of credit record and perceived high risk. They are the "wannabe rich" people — they are well educated and most have good jobs.
They live in decent bonded houses and drive expensive financed cars and send their children to expensive private schools. This group often has to resort to working overtime or second jobs to finance its lifestyle. It is generally very competitive, debt-ridden and stressed, and is often harassed by creditors for late payments.
A vague, one-size-fits all solution will not work. Targeted strategies must be devised that are going to address issues relevant to an electorate that is maturing...
It is clear from the above that the plight of the poor and the middle class cannot be entrusted to the privileged, rich elite to resolve. They cannot be trusted due to a conflict of interest. Transformation can therefore only be championed by the poor themselves, who know and understand their needs and their sufferings. As reggae great Peter Tosh told us, "Who feels it knows it".
After all, the poor have spent their lives living their experiences. The rich have a totally different perspective on the needs of the poor, and are therefore not properly placed to champion the cause — they can only facilitate the process.
Going to an election, it is clear that the bulk of the electorate lies in the middle class, the poor and the youth. Any political party that aspires to win the elections, or at least perform well, has to target this sector and must appeal to their concerns.
A vague, one-size-fits all solution will not work. Targeted strategies must be devised that are going to address issues relevant to an electorate that is maturing and more experienced — in the sense that many have voted a few times before, been taken for a ride by their parties and become wiser in the process.
This segment of the electorate is a ticking time bomb. It has no assets or vested interests to protect, and therefore nothing to lose — so it can easily be swayed and manipulated by the powerful to serve their own interests, in return for meagre short-term benefits.
This group has more power than it probably realises — power that lies in its numbers and in its desperation. It has the power to change its own destiny through forcing transformation.