Inequality, vultures & Covid-19

Posted on August 5, 2020


(Initially published by City Press, South Africa)

There continues to be much talk about how unequal our society is, how the wage and welfare gap is the biggest in the world. But how many people are aware that there are perhaps 30 South African billionaires? Or that, for the most part, they seems they have retained, despite some losses, their billionaire status throughout the lockdowns and economic stress?

It does help, of course, if one inherits great wealth, along with a functioning business empire. So it is scarcely surprising that Nicky Oppenheimer, son of Harry and grandson of Anglo American founder Ernest, tops the list. But two post apartheid figures also feature quite highly: Patrice Motsepe and Cyril Ramaphosa.

Mind you, they are some way behind the now perhaps R100 billion-plus wealth of Oppenheimer. A year ago, before the greater economic crunch caused by Covid-19 and reactions to it, Motsepe was listed by Forbes magazine as being worth R33.9 billion, while Ramaphosa was way back at R6.4 billion. And most of this super rich list reflects our apartheid heritage: most of the mega rich became rich under the old dispensation.

If, like me, you have some difficulty comprehending what R1 billion — let alone multiple billions — means. look at it this way: if you saved R1,000 a day, seven days a week, keeping the money in a case under your bed, you would have to live for nearly 3,000 years before you had saved R1 billion.

As increasing numbers of the poor, globally, continue to be cast onto the unemployment scrapheap of capitalism, the gap between working people and the mega rich grows ever wider. Yet the vultures continue to circle, landing from time to time to gouge out the last remnants of profit from desperate and often starving workers.

I mentioned in a recent City Press column the way in which the pharmaceutical companies, those vast, and, for the most part, money-making machines, were positioning themselves to profit from the development of a Covid-19 vaccine. And this, again, would be mainly at the expense of working people.

But these companies are, with few exceptions, vultures that do at least provide some benefits in terms of health and wellbeing as a justification for their profiteering. However, there are also bloodsuckers who prey on the isolated and perhaps newly retrenched, growing fat on the induced misfortune of the desperate.

Because many desperate workers, promised the chance of winning thousands or even millions of rand, will wager their last R100 on a gamble, unaware that such games are rigged; that R2 million from punters will be wagered while, to much fanfare, R1 million will be paid out.

These particularly obnoxious vultures are the gaming operators, now shown regularly on the DSTV platform in advertisements featuring usually young people winning apparently large sums through online betting. Yet such online gambling is illegal in South Africa.

Not that the question of legality seems to bother officialdom. After all, casinos have been allowed to open, along with permission being given to taxis to carry full loads. Yet, along with alcohol and the nicotine in tobacco products, gambling is considered addictive.

Surveys in Britain have already shown that, in lockdown conditions, there has been a boom in online gambling. Young and often desperate people, many stranded in their homes, have been reportedly “groomed” into become hooked, using devices such as free “bonuses” to start them gambling. Similar tactics are being employed here.

But then, as a Muslim woman worker complained to me this week, the most convenient place she can legally get together for a face-to-face chat with her mother is in a casino.

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