Friday, May 18, 2007

Will more billionaires help the poor

Every year, in the UK, a ‘rich list’ is published that outlines the names and fortunes of the richest people in the country. Lakshmi Mittal, the steel magnate, who is also the richest company director listed on the JSE, tops the UK list with a personal fortune of £19,25-billion. The top 1 000 rich people have a combined wealth of nearly £360-billion.

The UK Sunday Times also publishes a rich list of those under 30. Those involved in sport, film, fashion and pop dominate the list, with 65 of the 100 occupying these worlds.

The 2007 list also confirms that the superrich are getting richer. The number of billionaires in the UK rose from 54 to 68 between last year and this year, with the top 1 000 richest people’s wealth increasing by 20%. Over the last decade, there was a 260% rise in the wealth of the richest, compared with the 120% average wealth increase for the population as a whole.

So what does all this tell us?

Firstly, it proves the adage that the rich do indeed get richer. Secondly, fame, sporting prowess and celebrity are now surprisingly seen by most young people as a stepping stone to wealth, hence the obsession with TV talent shows. This feeds the obsession with celebrity status both on and off the sports field. Celebrity is seen as a quick financial fix.

Interestingly, however, 75% of those on the UK rich list have a university or college education. When the list was first launched in 1989, 75% of those on it were wealthy because of inheritance. Today, 78% of those on the list have made their money through business. This suggests that hard work does pay. But this does not mean that everyone has an equal chance of doing well. Those with access to education will do better. Not to mention that 90% of those on the UK rich list are men. Although there is a growing number of Asians on the British rich list, black faces are few. Clearly, the glass ceiling for women and for most ethnic minorities is alive and well in the UK.

South Africa has an even bigger problem owing to a massively distorted past in terms of access to wealth for blacks and whites, and men and women.

Transformation in the boardroom is, however, under way. Currently, 405 black South Africans hold 558 of the 3 125 director positions on South African listed companies. Black company ownership has moved from 0% to 10% in ten years, and the incomes of the richest black people have risen by 30%.

This suggests that wealth is slowly being shared, to a degree. Broadly, this is a step in the right direction, even though there is a long way to go. With time, South Africa will, no doubt, have its own, hopefully representative and rainbow coloured, rich list. But, if South Africa follows the UK, perhaps the real question is whether a growing number of billionaires, black or white, will really make a difference to the lives of the less fortunate?

In the UK, the wealthy are quick to point out that £1,2-billion was given to benevolent causes by the top 30 philanthropists alone in the past year. But about 25% of South Africans, almost exclusively black, have little chance of getting a job, let alone making it into the so-called middle class, or becoming superrich. Will charity, which domestically in South Africa is appallingly low, anyway, be enough to change this situation? I doubt it.

To be honest, studying the rich list over the last few days has left me a bit queasy. I strongly agree with the need for the economic pie in South Africa to be deracialised and for the economy to keep growing. However, I am left wondering, especially when growth largely benefits those at the top of the pile, exactly how this will make a difference to the poorest of the poor.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 18 May 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Reconciliation: Time to grasp the nettle

Recently, Grainne Kelly and I published a short article in the Scope, a social affairs magazine in Northern Ireland, on our reconciliation research. This research looked at definitions of reconciliation. The article focuses briefly on how this research has been taken up by the EU, to download the article click here.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Is there a point to the web?

Every time I make my way into cyberspace to trawl for interesting news, the words of recently deceased Kurt Vonnegut, American novelist and social critic, come to mind. Vonnegut nobly stated: "We are here on earth to fart around." His words ring true when it comes to the Internet. The Internet is, of course, a source of vast information, but it is also a time waster and source of junk par excellence. Needless to say, I find it irresistible.

The most recent Internet toy I came across is Google Zeitgeist. This tool highlights the so-called "the spirit of time" by retrieving information about what people are searching for on the Internet. It is meant to provide a snapshot of a past week, month, or year. Google Zeitgeist excludes generic searches such as 'ebay', 'dictionary', 'yellow pages', 'games', 'maps' and X-rated keywords, drawing out trends and topics that are obsessing net users.

Credit Michael Mandiberg / CC BY-SA
In 2006, for example, it noted that Bebo, My Space, and World Cup were the top three Zeitgeist movers. This highlights how, particularly among the young and restless largely in the Western world, social networking on sites, such as Bebo and My Space, made a major impact on the Internet that year. The soccer World Cup also sucked up hours of Internet (not to mention TV) time.

More recently, Google Zeitgeist introduced a facility to track trends in different countries. A quick review of top queries for March 2007 is revealing.

The five top queries gaining the most growth in South Africa were medicine, a porn site that slipped through the Net that I won't mention, Martin Luther King, Christianity and Starbucks. In the UK, they were PSP games, Johnny Depp, PC World, Audi A3 and British Telecom. In Ireland, the top four searches were tourism and health service-related. Number five was slownik angielsko polski, which I think is an online Polish-English dictionary or, alternatively, I just inadvertently advertised a Polish porn site.

Does this tell us anything? To some degree it highlights where different societies are at. The Internet in the UK is largely a tool for shopping, gaming and celebrity gossip, and is clearly used a lot by young people. This is made possible because over 60% of people have access to the Internet at home, and broadband speeds are high. In Ireland, Google Zeitgeist provides evidence of a growing Polish population.

In South Africa, the picture is less clear. Seemingly, the Internet, which is only used by 10% of South Africans regularly, is a growing source of medical advice, but also a place of contradiction. It currently appears to be oscillating between porn seekers, Christians, or those in search of non-violent political action or a cup of coffee.

Worse still, South Africans could be searching for the five categories simultaneously. Could this mean the average Internet user in South Africa, at least in March 2007, is an ailing perverted activist Christian who needs coffee to keep himself or herself awake to engage in wicked habits?

But before you write to complain about my provocative analysis, the South African trends could also suggest that South African activists, inspired by Martin Luther King, are considering a mass protest against Starbucks. Or Christians are trying to head pornographers off at the proverbial moral pass. Conversely, coffee is the source of all evil.

Then again, in Vonnegut's words, it could just be evidence that indeed we are here to fart around and cumulatively it all means squat. So what does that tell us?

Well, if you have read this far, it is yet more evidence that baiting a reader with useless information is easy, no matter how inane. It is no wonder the Internet is filled with garbage. We love it. So why did the chicken cross the information superhighway? Sadly, the evidence suggests it was simply to get to the other site.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 4 May 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.