But we haven’t got much to show for our nearly 21 years of democracy.

In fact, we’re falling apart at the seams. Our motto changed from the Latin Ex Unitate Vires, meaning "unity is strength", to the Khoisan !ke e: /xarra//ke, meaning "diverse people unite".

In so doing we moved, I thought quite deliberately, from an observation of what could have been to an instruction of what had to be done!

That hasn’t been carried out. If anything, due to inequality cracks are beginning to show through in our society. Nation building without common cause is a lost cause.

We have a problem. I know that’s a tired refrain, I know we have great weather, but there’s trouble coming and it is precisely because we haven’t and aren’t dealing with inequality where it counts. We don’t (yet) have common cause, we have not established national identity — we aren’t, by any simple definition, all South Africans.

What is common cause is that we have one of the worst (highest) GiNI coefficients in the world. Economically we have quite some divide, with half the money earned by 10% of the population while 10% of the money is shared among 40% of the population — depict that graphically on a per capita distribution and you’ll get a bipolar rather than a normal distribution curve.

If it were just economics, if it were just cash we could probably split it out more evenly (not really, but you know what I mean). The truth is that you can’t gift sustainable equality, you have to create an environment where inequality cannot thrive. Equal is hardly aspirational but inequality is destructive.

One of the unintended consequences of inequality is that a polarised community — not a sum of separate communities with an overriding cause, but a society without sufficient intersection beyond their differences — cannot produce a cohesive governing structure.

In SA, the rules of play, the score cards, the very essences of association differ quite radically between, say, the Economic Freedom Fighters, the Democratic Alliance and the African National Congress. When the value systems are as far apart as these parties’ sometimes are, there is little place for sensible discourse, let alone consensus. As a result we have a dysfunctional Parliament with members arguing with one another rather than debating the point — lots of dissipated energy, no decisions. Certainly no difficult decisions, and we are surely going to have to make some of those soon enough?

That confusion spreads, and at some point you are not sure what you voted for anymore, you’re just sure about the people you don’t like.

And people-centric rather than issue-centric parliaments are stillborn.

In a perfectly equal society the demand and supply curves intersect at price and everyone has a fair shot at it. In an unequal society, when there isn’t enough of something to go around, those with relative advantage can afford to hoard or consume more than what is their fair share.

If it were just economics, if it were just cash we could probably split it out more evenly (not really, but you know what I mean). The truth is that you can’t gift sustainable equality, you have to create an environment where inequality cannot thrive. Equal is hardly aspirational but inequality is destructive.

As centres of excess and shortage start emerging, so human behaviour changes because these unnatural allocations are not in a state of equilibrium. Gated communities and electric fences aren’t required in equal societies, nor are private schools. Of course, we can’t create a world where everyone ends up with the same amount of everything, and that wouldn’t be Nirvana anyway. I don’t want to live in an equal result society, in a bucket of lowest common denominators, even if Australia does have good weather and fabulous scenery. But there are places where equality must prevail.

Let’s start with education.

Because there is no equal access to education at preschool from the outset, an imbalance is created that requires artificial overrides at later stages. By then it is often too late.

If the demographic and economic drivers in our country call for a certain number of doctors or engineers or teachers or policemen, then the earlier those kids who have the aptitude and ability to fill those different requirements are exposed to the same environment of learning, the less corrective streaming will be required later.

It is surely self-evident that access to education, as a long-term necessity for competitive advantage must, and can be, made equal for all.

What are the barriers to equal opportunity in education? One of them is cost — eliminate it, completely. Let it not be money that divides here. Free, world-class education for all. And start today, start at the top, at tertiary level — because it is easier, the numbers are less and the results will make an impact sooner. Start at the bottom, because the foundation is at risk. Start everywhere. We need better teachers, not just more teachers.

We can no longer afford artificially skewed or incompetent selection processes such as admission quotas or lowering standards — but these flawed metrics need a sensible solution to give way to.

Merit is the only sustainable filter. And once we all agree that the system has evolved enough for the other divisors to step down, merit will bind us, not drive us apart. We cannot reverse select now, it will just start the cycle of injustice again – it’ll just keep us going on in parallel — our competitors are in series — and that’s where power is additive.

Privatisation has already stepped in where the state has failed to deliver. For all intents and purposes security, education, healthcare, electricity … and soon enough, water, have been privatised for those who can afford it. But that only solves the problem for the select few, entrenching divides, even if these are along new lines.

And so we need to work our way down the list …

Even in a parliament with common cause we won’t solve all of these things simultaneously, but we could at least set aside party lines and prioritise those initiatives which are self-evidently in the national good? We don’t have time to tinker — we have to fix real issues, not political agendas. Paying social grants or endlessly adding to the government payroll won’t solve things — even the recipients of these short-term pacifiers know they aren’t the solution.

We’d better unite. We’d better take a step towards the middle before the holes dividing us are too wide to step across. We’d better submit our individual differences to a higher cause, lest we emerge as no more than the sum of our irreconcilable differences. We’ve survived, but we won’t thrive unless we embrace a higher level of equality than just being able to stand in the same queue to vote.

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