The vulnerability of the poor

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA PABLO ESCOBAR WAS A NOTORIOUS COLOMBIAN drug lord in the 70s, 80s till his death in 1993. Then, he was a king of cocaine trafficking. His cartels supplied cocaine to many parts of the world. He became a millionaire and one of...

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PABLO ESCOBAR WAS A NOTORIOUS COLOMBIAN drug lord in the 70s, 80s till his death in 1993. Then, he was a king of cocaine trafficking. His cartels supplied cocaine to many parts of the world. He became a millionaire and one of the most powerful people on earth – a very adorable man to most of the Colombian poor. He managed to sustain his cartels partly because Colombia was so corrupt that some of the government officials worked with him, so it was easy for him to get away with anything. One thing is for sure though; he used his wealth cleverly; especially when it comes to gathering support from the poor.

Pablo became a fugitive, wanted by his government, for his cruel crimes and cocaine trafficking. And for him to get away with anything meant he had to craft a good relationship with the poor. He did exactly that. He went to destitute communities; built them schools, hospitals, stadiums, even churches. They (the poor) began to like him, as they saw in him a very kind person willing to make sacrifices for their misery. They could do anything for him including, most importantly, lying to their own government about any information pertaining to Pablo’s cartels or his whereabouts. He had won the hearts and minds of the poor, which was a significant accomplishment for him.

Escobar was just a fat cat who used the vulnerable, the poor, to accumulate wealth through his drug cartels. And it worked for him. He once said the essence of the cocaine business was “Simple—you bribe someone here, you bribe someone there, and you pay a friendly banker to help you bring the money back.” Wasn’t what he was doing to the poor bribery? To me it does seem like bribery.

Pablo is just one case, there are many other cases out there; in politics, sports etc. – where money buys everything. Even here in our land, Africa, there are many of these cases. My best example is Colonel Muammar Gaddaffi, who led Libya for more than forty years; from 1969 until his death in 2011. When he was killed by the rebels, many Africans cried rivers. I know many of my friends who had a similar feeling towards his death. According to them the West was behind his death. But that’s another debate. For now there’s one thing I can say about his dictatorship: in his country and the African continent at large, he used his wealth intelligently to suppress dissent. Unfortunately his style of leadership didn’t last longer than forty-one years.

Libya is rich with oil, so Gaddaffi had the money. In his country, he rolled out free (although not really free according to Milton Friedman) education, free health care, built infrastructure etc. His country was ranked among the top in Africa on many vital economic indicators: GDP per capita and human development index, among them; before the Arab Spring Revolution that eventually toppled him.

He had aspirations of being the most powerful man in Africa – and would achieve this through a similar process. So he financed revolutions, rebellions, infrastructure development across many African countries. He became an icon to the poor, especially in countries like Rwanda and others, where he had contributed to their infrastructure development. In South Africa, he was a stern supporter of the anti-apartheid movement helmed by Nelson Mandela – the African National Congress.

When he was given an opportunity to chair the African Union between 2009 and 2010, he pushed for his proposal of one Africa with one currency, which would surely be under his leadership. But he seemed forceful about it. And that force riled other African leaders. Gaddaffi’s objective was to attain as much power as possible, and his wealth played a significant role in his attempts to achieve that. But dissent under his rule, you’re in trouble. His strategy worked for him till 2011, when his citizens said “No! Just because you give us free health care doesn’t mean we should not vote”.

The two figures I’ve spoken about above were very different people and played very distinct roles in their lifetime. But they both had objectives; both, had amassed enormous wealth in their respective roles. They used their wealth to gather support from the poor; to reach the high echelons of power. They did achieve much of what they wanted to achieve. It is my opinion that poverty is one of the worst things that could happen in anyone’s life. If you’re poor, not only can’t you afford to put bread on the table, the wealthy felons will buy you in order to get away with their sordid acts. Politicians will buy you a grocery worth R1000 in times of elections; past elections, they build you an open toilet. It hurts me, almost every day. It is this reason that I’m starting to get involved in education, as I believe it is the only critical tool to uplift the poor; open doors for the talented and less fortunate teenagers. But of course that is not enough. Much improvement is needed on socioeconomic policies. It is my dream that I also take part in those matters of public policy. Not for my benefit, but for the benefit of the less fortunate. I will stay true to my course. PM

To God be the Glory.

Ø Youth Coordinator at Free Market Foundation South Africa

Views expressed here are my own; they have nothing to do with Free Market Foundation South Africa


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