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The politics of being really, really rich

A recent article in The Atlantic about the world's super rich makes it clear that it's an interest in humanity binds the poor to the rich.

By Osiame MolefeGuest blogger / January 26, 2011

Microsoft Corporation founder Bill Gates attends a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. Polio can be stopped in all but one place within three years, billionaire philanthropist Gates said on Jan. 24, adding that he would step up his investment in a global plan to eradicate the crippling disease.

Christian Hartmann/Reuters


Cape Town, South Africa

In an article for The Atlantic, Chrystia Freeland talks about the new super elite and how America (and perhaps the world) may already be a plutonomy, where “the rich display outsize political influence, narrowly self-interested motives, and a casual indifference to anyone outside their own rarefied economic bubble.” While not entirely convinced on the later two parts of that statement (blame the eternal rose tinge of the optimist’s mind), the first is certainly true. The rich the world over do hold a disproportionate amount of political sway. If a plutonomy is indeed the current (or near-future) state of global politics, herein lies the rub: it renders untrue one of the core arguments in the fight for social justice and equality, that the fate of the rich is inextricably linked to that of the poor.

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An economic apartheid

It is estimated that the American 2010 midterm elections cost $4 billion. That’s a mind-numbing sum to you and me but for the super rich, the ones who in Ms. Freeland’s article say (with no hint of irony) “20 [million] is really 10 after taxes,” $4 billion is a half-a-day’s work.

We don’t have a complete picture of election spending in South Africa – only information on public funding of political parties is required to be disclosed. But we do know that in the 12 months leading up to the 2009 national elections, the Independent Electoral Commission, tasked with allocating and disbursing election funding from the public kitty, paid out almost R90 million (approximately$12.8 million) to 19 political parties based on their representation in the National Assembly and provincial legislatures. The ANC received R61.1 million and the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, received just R10.5 million. However, based on the spending of both, it is clear that private funding does find its way into their coffers.

Campaigning for the 2009 elections, the ANC spent R200 million, most of which it says it raised from selling paraphernalia. Now I fail to see how that’s even possible unless of course they were selling their custom leather jackets or trademark black, green and gold flags for R20 million a pop. The truth is, some of the funds came from the ANC’s own investments (of which it has plenty) and the rest from private donations from local and foreign (possibly mostly Chinese?) sources. Without information on these private donations, we’re left to educated conjecture to answer our questions. The majority of the $4 billion spent on the mid-terms came from corporations, rich and super-rich individuals, and advocacy groups, so it stands to reason that the same possibly held true for the R200 million spent by the ANC on the 2009 election campaign.

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