Thomas Piketty Almost in Cape Town.

In the same way that people “fangirl” over celebrities, I fangirl over academics and political figures.  This time, it was Thomas Piketty because he is one of the leading academics on research about inequality and wealth/income distribution.  And if you know me, I want to address the issue of inequality.

First, please forgive me for posting this blog post about a month late.  The event was on 30 September 2015.

Second, let me explain why Thomas Piketty was coming to South Africa.  The Nelson Mandela Foundation organizes its Annual Lecture Series, inviting prominent people to push the debate on important social issues.

Previous speakers include Bill Clinton; Archbishop Desmond Tutu; former President Thabo Mbeki; world-acclaimed Chilean-American author, human rights activist and distinguished professor of Literature and Latin-American StudiesAriel Dorfman; Nobel laureate Prof Wangari Maathai; Mr Kofi Annan; Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf; Professor Muhammad YunusIsmail Serageldin, Director of the Library of Alexandria (BA) in Egypt; Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and President of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice; Dr Mo Ibrahim, Founder and Chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation; and Her Excellency, President Michelle Bachelet of Chile.

This year’s event featured Thomas Piketty, and he was going to talk about inequality, which is a deeply rooted and pressing issue here.

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So, when the email came out about the event, I was so excited, I’m kind of embarrassed.  I talked to my co-workers about him and how I knew of him and his research since high school.   I woke up at 6:30 am (which is very early for me) on the day tickets would be available (the same day an essay for my Sociology class was due) and took a friend to pick up tickets.

On the day of, I found out that Thomas Piketty was unable to make it to South Africa because he didn’t have enough blank pages in his passport, and he was not allowed to board the plane.  I was very sad.  This is why Thomas Piketty was almost in Cape Town.

But, a few hours receiving this news, we received another email that the event will still carry on and Piketty will be on live-stream from Paris.

Cool… I guess… Not the same… But, I still went merrily to the event, hoping to hear his thick French accent and his thoughts about inequality in a South African context.

Before the event began, Rhodes Must Fall, a social justice student group, entered the venue, singing a struggle song, and holding signs.  That day was also a day to protest for better workers’ rights.  They came in for a few minutes, stood on stage, and eventually, left peacefully.

Back to the event, unfortunately, there were technical issues, which in the end, prevented Piketty from giving his lecture at all that day.  We could see him on the screen, but he couldn’t hear us, and I’m not sure whether he could see us either.  Therefore, he never received our verbal cue to start his lecture.  Audio wasn’t great from his end either, but we could tell that he was growing a little more impatient over time.  I’m sorry M. Piketty!  In the end, a UCT academic used his slides and summarized the main points of Piketty’s lecture.

But, even before that, as the event organizers were trying to resolve the technical issues, we were told something like, “As this event is a live-streamed to 20 African countries, we cannot have this dead air.  Therefore, we are going to ask our panelists to take a few minutes and begin our discussion.”

Improvising, as they were only meant to ask Piketty questions and not, themselves, give a lecture, the panelists went up talking about inequality in their respective studies.  There were three panelists, but in the middle of the second panelist, Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) came in again, interrupting her.

Rhodes Must Fall makes a statement at the Nelson Mandela Lecture. The quote behind them says, "Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right. The right to dignity and a decent life." - Nelson Mandela
Rhodes Must Fall makes a statement at the Nelson Mandela Lecture. The quote behind them says, “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right. The right to dignity and a decent life.” – Nelson Mandela

They came in singing a struggle song that was in Xhosa and Zulu and stood in front of the audience again.  But, at the podium, there was a struggle for the microphone between one of the protestors and Trevor Manuel.  Max Price went off to stop another person from calling security, and finally, it was announced that RMF would have 3 minutes to speak if they promised to leave.

Sadly, I don’t remember everything that the RMF representative said, but here are some points:

  • UCT has failed to recognize the death of a worker, but technically, that worker, who died on UCT campus, was not an official UCT staff member.
  • It is hypocritical of us sitting in this room to be talking about inequality and poverty because the people who should be in a talk like this are sweeping the floor.
  • Remember the green blanket.

She makes very good points because yes, as I mentioned previously, outsourcing is a big issue for many workers at UCT.  It is the type of employment that perpetuates poverty and even, intergenerational poverty.  This is something that must be addressed by the institutions of South Africa.

Second, it’s true that the people in the room that day had the privilege to attend the event.  You had to pick up tickets, which were gone within 2-3 hours.  But, is she implying that the people in the room are not allowed to talk about these issues at all?  RMF represents the workers and students who have been oppressed by the structures, yet they were invited to the event.  Why were they not sitting in the audience too?

Third, the green blanket story alludes to the Marikana Massacre, which was a tragic event that occurred in South Africa in 2012.  Security versus civilians.  Please read up on it.

How do I feel about RMF entering the venue as they did?  Mixed.  Again, I support the causes that RMF wants to address.  But, was this a good platform for them to do it?  Maybe not?

After the event, I went to work on a group project, and the Lecture was definitely a topic of discussion.  It was a moment of embarrassment for UCT because one, technical difficulties prevented Piketty from giving his lecture at all (maybe it would have been better to just cancel), two, RMF caused an interruption twice, and three, the live broadcast throughout Africa exposed UCT’s internal affairs to the rest of the continent.

But, one of the people who were there working with me said that RMF’s “ends justified the means” because they were able to get the microphone and speak.  Do I agree?  Maybe not?

Maybe, because I still don’t understand everything.

What was RMF’s intention of protesting the lecture?  Could it just be that they wanted publicity and they were already protesting that day anyway, so was this an opportunity to knock out two birds with one stone?  Did they want to point out the hypocrisy of the academics, policy-makers, and other important people in the room?  Did they want to point out that the people who should be involved in these policy discussions are not there?  Did they want to point out that the people in the room do not understand the problems of the poor?

You know, Thomas Piketty talks about Marikana.  He writes about it in the first page of the first chapter of his book, Capital in the 21st Century.  It’s the first example he uses to illustrate that when inequality levels get so high, the system because unsustainable.  I think people understand that there is a problem here, and I think that the only way that we can systematically address these issues is through policy, social programs, and strong institutions that protect and support the people.  And that’s what the point was of this lecture.  Piketty wasn’t going to provide solutions, but we were going to have a discussion to what the solutions could be.

I eventually ending up being able to live-stream Piketty’s talk that he gave in Johannesburg the day after.  Very fancy economics and data collection.  He notes that his research primarily focuses on developed countries and really urges that more research needs to be done in developing countries.  He makes some recommendations and answers questions from the audience.

One thing I do want to reiterate is that Piketty does not have a full understanding of inequality in South Africa.  It’s not his fault, but that’s the data he had access to.  Therefore, the data he has collected is different from what he may find about South Africa.  In many ways, the inequality that resulted in the developed world — United States, France, Japan, etc. — happened “naturally” through the free capitalist system, the free market*.  Inequality grew and is reflected by the rate of return on capital (r) is larger than economic growth (g).  But, the same cannot be said about inequality in South Africa.  South Africa’s inequality was on purpose as the institutions and the laws were crafted in such a way where benefits were disproportionately given to a certain population, the white population.  It was intentional.

Additionally, even though the key to addressing inequality in many countries is the government and policy, that is not so easily done in South Africa.  When there are high levels of inequality, it could lead to less trust in the government to do what’s best for the people.  Inequality leads to corruption, and this is definitely an issue in South Africa.  South Africans generally don’t trust their government to do what’s best for them.  It was their government 60 years ago that put them in this situation in the first place, and inequality has only increased since apartheid ended over 20 years ago, despite government efforts.  So, how could they just let politicians and other people in power just discuss their poverty without them?

Does the ANC really have the people’s best interests in mind?  Can effective policy be devised and implemented?  What kind of policy will that be?  What do the people want changed?  There is no easy answer to resolve the systematic poverty and inequality in South Africa.

Over and out.


* This is definitely not entirely true (eg. segregation, Jim Crow, declining power of unions, higher bargaining power for capital, etc.), but this is the large general assumption that I’m going to stick with here.

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