Vol.6 No.4, 01 February 2006

Entitlement At The Top

Margaret Legum

This article appeared in the Cape Times on Friday 27 January 2006.

Received wisdom at our liberation was that the combination we needed to overcome was a culture of entitlement on the part of Black people, and White fears. Black people would lack the patience to wait for the fruits of democracy, thus justifying White fears of their irresponsible behaviour.

It has turned out different. Only now have most Black people’s patience over jobs, schools, housing, water and other surely legitimate entitlements begun seriously to erode. And White fears have been assuaged to the point where we take peace and prosperity as our right.

Instead we have a global culture of entitlement at the top. It starts in business, and spreads to government. There is no limit to what people at the top have come to expect for themselves. The world is their oyster. Could we have imagined thirty years ago executives taking annual salaries running into tens of millions of dollars?

How would we have explained that on top of whose salaries – thousands of times more than the wages of workers – they would be getting bonuses for doing their work properly. Whereas people at the bottom expect to be dismissed for failing rather than rewarded for succeeding. Even more astonishing, how did we reach a point where top people got those incomes even when they fail dismally: the bonuses are built into the system - unto the point where they are compensated for dismissal.

We got here because people at the top of business have the power and influence to create conditions in which a global benchmark was set for their standards of living. Rich people and their capital were enabled to travel, holding nations to ransom for higher and higher proportions of the world’s wealth. Poor people’s incomes compete with the worst globally – South African workers must accept sweatshop conditions because that is what they accept in Asia. But our executives and managers must compete with the top in Europe and America. Why? Because they can cut loose and have no loyalty.

That culture has spread to governments everywhere. It is part of the iron rule of the market. If we want to attract the best for the public service, we must give them the best in pay and perks. That means competing with the private sector. If we are to attract the best people, they too must enter the culture of unlimited entitlement.

The global creed that giving people ‘handouts’ creates dependence does not apply to elected leaders and officials. In the Palace of Westminster, in Congress and in our own House of Assembly, members have highly subsidized meals and enjoy a host of entitlements in terms of free travel, entertainment, service and allowances. When officials travel on business their meals are taken in the best restaurants with the finest wines. Exactly like their business equivalents. The cost is not an issue. They are entitled to it. Taxpayers foot the bills for both: business expenses reduce the tax bill.

So what’s odd about our Vice-President’s use of luxurious government transport for her holiday? Her apparent surprise at the fuss seemed to me wholly genuine. We all do this! Do business executives eschew the company plane when they go on holiday? Not the ones I know. Do they make a clear distinction between holiday and work during the Christmas vacation? Do they refuse to justify a business expense at a restaurant when entertaining a business friend on holiday – plus the wife? Hardly.

The point is that no one even notices when big business does it. Nor when Bush or Blair or Chirac go on holiday. A combination of colour and snobbishness has informed the outrage here: they are Black and they are nouveau riche, so they stand out against the accepted assumptions of White and old money.

I happen to think it entirely wrong that either government or business should use public money profligately for the comfort and pampering of top people. But our criticism of the phenomenon should be in the context of understanding the market conditions which we have set up, and in which it exists. Those conditions are supported by everyone at the top - including the media, whose members enjoy, without objection, huge benefits at the expense of the taxpayer.

It also includes the opposition parties. The outrage the DP and others express about the salaries and bonuses of municipal officials is right. But their stock criticism of government’s economic policy is that it is not rigorous enough in freeing the market. The policies they propose deepen the unfettered global market that creates inequality, free lunches at the top and stern warnings about soup kitchen at the bottom.

At the bottom income end, the market also works its impersonal magic. In Cape town, I discover, even the best restaurants pay their waiters between nothing and R40 a shift; meaning they must survive on tips virtually alone. Shifts may be up to ten hours. Breakages incurred during that time, whether or not they were responsible, are deducted from their wages. If they don’t like it, there is a queue at the door to replace them. Some managements justify this as a chance for waiters to ‘make a business for themselves’: presumably they would object to the sale of dagga and sex on the side?

Similarly, domestic workers are increasingly being employed by agencies, who give them R50 for an eight hour day, while charging the customer R160. Employers find this simpler, more reliable, less personal; the agencies make a killing; and the workers subsidise the system. That’s the unregulated market for you: it works at the top.

Back to previous

© South African New Economics Network 2007. Page generated at 10:21; 03 August 2007