It’s not often that we have the time to stop; time to stop and explore a little into where we’re going collectively. On the best side, South Africa has continued to surprise even the biggest sceptics with its ability to maintain relative stability and economic calm through stormy financial periods and a larger-than –life World Cup. Yet poverty and inequality; coldly economic terms, continue to threaten every aspect of the Social and Economic well-being of the vast majority of South Africans. The reality is as stark as the gini coefficient. Although so much is already being done; the rift between the top 20% and the bottom 80% of the population isn’t getting any smaller.

The Carnegie process is a metaphor for the power of South Africans to engender significant change. Our history is punctuated with two previous Carnegie Conferences. The first Carnegie Inquiry took place around the time of the Great Depression. The second took place in the 80s and both conferences sought unity between theory and policy which might pave the way to an answer. What has changed so dramatically is the focus of these conferences as Carnegie III marks the first which is inclusive and places equality at its core. Now, so many years after the establishment of our iconic and proudly South African constitutional Democracy, the spotlight, at last, falls on poverty and inequality. We have come a very long way. And the realised aspects of our potential really are evidence of the potential contained in what lies ahead.

In their droves, the sociologists, the activists, the teachers, lecturers, the academic purists, the economists, the students and a beautiful long list of movers and shakers arrived at the Baxter Theatre to put theory and practice in the ring for a fight for the truth. It was truly awe inspiring to see so many fascinating minds hard at work over the problem, working hard to improve the lives of all; working hard to try to understand how this unobtainable goal keeps eluding us. This legged abundance of information was united toward a collective effort, for one week, which I hope will mark important paradigm shifts in how South Africans address questions of poverty and inequality. Carnegie has united forces before to turn theory into action; and the unity between all present, government, university and mense was tangible.

The presentations on Education ranged from topics around the significance of multilingualism in the early years, to extensive social participation model schools – which work, and the importance of pleasures as simple as reading and playing sport in creating happy people; people happy enough to high-five Maslow and become their dreams.

The presentation of papers on Social Cohesion explored aspects of the prevalence of violence which is perpetuating a helpless situation, with a potential poverty trap; while on the lighter side, presented the Citizen’s Movement for Radical Social Change; which hopes to unite and empower citizens to act collectively for the common good. Subject2Citizen wrist bands were donned by many after this inspiring talk.

The unemployment sessions were a little more data heavy, but were nonetheless filled with surprising potential future paths for employment creation. It is always saddening to face the figures, to have the data prove that increasing exports might do more bad than good in terms of employment creation, that causality is indefinable between private sector growth and employment growth. However, a case study by PLAAS of a man with nothing, now farming some 1400 head of cattle plants the seed for the vision of a vibrant, self-creating South African economy. Not formal, nor informal, but simply the product of people who are sufficiently empowered to create their own livelihoods.

Having conducted research into exchange rate controls for export promotion once myself, I was misguided into the room where an econometric study around Voluntary Export Restrictions on Chinese textiles showed that the result has only been a distinct disadvantage for ‘the poor’.

The poor. This phrase was something which three of the groups I attended argued should be dropped from our vocabularies. The acknowledgement of the impossibility of finding a ‘right’ answer, of being able to necessarily understand or categorize ‘the problem’ from the bird’s eye view and then to apply the answer on the ground was also a common theme. Every article and case study showed a different community, a different place, a different time. With such radically different circumstances for every South African, the challenge before us is indeed great. Another issue raised more than once is the difficulty of the conflict of interests between Capitalism and the strive for equality. Lower the pay of the rich, up the pay of the poor was the anti-capitalist banner; while the other team claimed that ‘no minimum wage’ was the answer. Whichever theory wins; research and policy don’t connect wirelessly to the attainment of Equality. Themes around the ‘appreciative approach’, which uses indigenous knowledge and asks questions; rather than arriving with a barrage of answers for problems so endemic, we couldn’t begin to understand; were promoted. In one presentation of the success of the approach, there was emphasis placed on changing paradigms in the smallest way, by using phrases which gravitate toward positive outcomes. The example is still loud and clear in my mind; use the words “children need 3 square meals a day” in place of “children are hungry”. The hard economics and the softer sides all played their part in these exquisite exploratory discourses.

A final aspect which featured on several platforms during this conference is facing the possibility that what South Africa really needs, is a coordination exercise. Entry level game theory paints a picture of the potential win-or-lose aspects of coordinating, or failing to do so and the gains are indeed great; if we can get it right. There is no question that unity is something we should apply, especially as it is one of the primary goals we all hope to achieve.

Through it all, everyone present was able to develop a richer and deeper understanding of South African development; her people; her problems and her incredible capacity to adapt. It was a great week, of listening, talking, sharing stories and so, was a really powerful expression of the beautiful beaded South African tapestry.

They say the only thing inevitable is change. And to this, I add difference; change’s stationary counterpart. Then what we have is a conception of uniqueness; of something which can never just be stuck shut with a generic band aid. The work that individuals are doing is astounding and the understanding of the true aspects of what it means to be a South African is deepening daily. The conference was a tour de force; I was moved, inspired and most of all, I learnt. It is sad to realise, that after all this time, we haven’t even begun. The reality is truly sobering. But at the same time, this gathering of energies toward a unified effort is indeed, a celebration. If we can find a way to translate more effectively what we all know so well, into actual practice, it is then that the future will be bright.


Angela Biden
Portfolio Manager – Education to Read & Write, DG Murray Trust