A recent report by Deloitte shows executives of the Top 100 companies listed on the JSE earn on average R69 000 a day. While upsetting in itself, what was more concerning is that AngloGold Ashanti – one of the top listed companies – announced it might retrench close to a third of its workforce on the very same day.

The company says it was a very “difficult decision” but one that needed to be taken to “protect the long-term sustainability of this business and the majority of our workforce”.  A sombre day at AngloGold’s head offices, that is until 17:00 when CEO Srinivasan Venkatakrishnan went home with a day’s earnings equal in his body weight – depending on his choice of denomination and calorie intake. (Note: The author has never had the privilege of weighing R69 000 in cash so couldn’t say for sure)

It is no secret that South Africa’s top executives lead lavish lives, often residing in some of the most pristine neighbourhoods our cities have to offer. At the same time, their employees tend to live in shacks, lacking basic services, hundreds of kilometres from home, often to be closer to work.

The coincidental context given to South Africans on the 28th of June paints a worrying picture, one that speaks to the inequality prevalent in a society with a record-high unemployment rate and a Gini coefficient starting to resemble the country’s expected economic growth.

Commenting on the Deloitte report, Econometrix economist Azaar Jammine said CEOs believe they deserve the big pay checks, but adds the growing divide between rich and poor cannot be ignored. The question therefore arises: Can anyone justify a pay check stretching into millions, when six of your employees died in 2016 trying to extract the minerals from the earth that your wealth depends on? Is it further justifiable to retrench 8500 of those employees to remove any threats to said wealth?

But this is not a uniquely South African problem. Capitalists, those who own the means of production, as Karl Marx would say, have been thriving all over the world. And despite increasing criticism of a system that depends on inequality, the rich continue to get richer while the poor are headed the other way. It is no wonder that political leaders are grabbing at every opportunity to get their slice of the cake, even if it comes at the expense of those they claim to represent.

War among elites

Populist rhetoric is aimed at convincing the electorate that political decisions will result in equal distribution of wealth when in fact the true goal is to replace the current economic elite with another group, most likely those who have close ties to political leaders driving the narrative behind the scenes. Catch phrases such as ‘White Monopoly Capital’ and ‘Radical Economic Transformation’, while not always entirely flawed by definition, are often used to suit the interests of whoever makes use of the phrase.

In the absence of a concrete definition, those pushing a particular narrative – including Mzwanele Manyi and BLF’s Andile Mngxitama – tend to bend the meaning of these phrases to drive their own agenda. Black First Land First members did not defend the Gupta compound to lift millions of South Africans out of poverty; neither did they intimidate journalist Peter Bruce outside his home in the name of greater equality. No, these actions are driven by far more concrete incentives: to disrupt the status quo, and replace it with another.

And while the war is being waged over South Africa’s wealth, the rest of the country, including the nine million unemployed, remain excluded. Throughout history, wars between kings have never been for the wellbeing of their subjects and the so-called ‘noblemen’ need to be exposed.

South Africa is in a recession, unemployment is sky-rocketing and marketing tactics, such as a group of rich people sleeping on the street for one night, are not cutting it. The true remedy requires pro-active steps to realise equality, narrowing the gap from both ends. Because the current notion that the majority should be grateful for the wealth that ‘trickles’ down – like breadcrumbs and bones from a dinner table to a dog – is nothing short of insulting.