An economics lesson from the cotton-bud man

In a country desperate for teachers, a teacher can only exist by protecting cars from people denied work
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The Independent Online

I've never really understood economics, but it's been a big help to spend a week in the city of Johannesburg. To start with, the industry the area is now most famous for is crime. You feel the tourist industry could make more of this, and advertise trips such as "The car-jacking experience" with brochures saying: "Spend a day you'll never forget as your ignition keys are expertly snatched by some of the world's leading crack addicts."

I've never really understood economics, but it's been a big help to spend a week in the city of Johannesburg. To start with, the industry the area is now most famous for is crime. You feel the tourist industry could make more of this, and advertise trips such as "The car-jacking experience" with brochures saying: "Spend a day you'll never forget as your ignition keys are expertly snatched by some of the world's leading crack addicts."

Whenever you visit a house in the suburbs, your host says: "I hope you don't believe the stories – the crime's nothing like as bad as they say." Then they clang a huge green iron gate behind you, bolt the door in seven places and carefully press a series of alarm buttons that makes it look as if they're launching a space shuttle, and you expect them to say: "I'd like you to meet David, he's our sniper. And if you go to the toilet, take this surface-to-air missile. You might not need it, but there's been a spate of toilet robberies lately. They hold you on the pan at knifepoint and take the cistern and the Domestos."

So why should this be? Might it possibly be connected to the fact that over half the city is unemployed, or that tens of thousands of people live in hostels with 12 to a room? Or that across the country, the recently privatised electricity companies have cut off 200,000 people? A debate on the radio asked: "How can we ensure privatisation doesn't hurt the poor?" But the whole point of private companies is to make a profit, which can't be done by serving people who can't pay. You might as well introduce a policy of smashing people on the head with a hammer and ask: "How can we ensure this is done without giving people a headache?"

Most of the poor respond to their plight by setting up stalls, often trying to sell the most pathetic objects, such as individual mints. I wonder if, before launching this business, they go on a salesman's course where they learn to close a deal on a client who's wavering, and secure a sale before the customer changes his mind and goes next door for a jelly baby. My favourite is one that sells superglue and cotton buds. What line of thought led to combining those two objects as a business project? Maybe the idea is to lure people in with the essential cotton buds, then hope the customer thinks: "While I'm here, I'll treat myself to some superglue."

Among these beacons of enterprise are one-man tents, set up on the pavement, operating as barber's shops. Because they have a roof, I suppose they qualify as big business, and their share prices are probably quoted on the radio business report. It would certainly be interesting to see the reaction if you went in and asked for a tapered blow-wave with a full rinse, condition and course of gel.

Given their circumstances, most of these traders are remarkably friendly. A Rastafarian banana seller gave me an amicable lecture on why God was black. Which is a brilliant way of winding people up, especially if he goes further and claims that God was a Rasta, and on the seventh day said, "Me exhausted, now me grant I a raasclat day off." And at one point, as I strolled through the middle of a heaving market, a woman tapped me on the shoulder and yelled the magnificent phrase "How are you today Mister white man?" before bursting out laughing.

Even more full of life was the union meeting I spoke at, which began with the entire room powerfully singing their anthem, the title of which translates as "I am a Communist". Which is something of a contrast to the usual start to a union meeting in Britain. Membership of the GMBATU would shoot up if their meetings began with a chorus of "We'll start with the treasurer's report, then move on to any other business" in Zulu.

Slightly less joyously, the government, like governments around the world, has decided the only way anything can be run is through encouraging big business and the free market. One man who might not agree is Patrice. He came from Congo to teach maths, but six weeks after he started, the agency that employed him went bust, and now he scrapes a living by standing on the street offering to protect your car from thieves for five rands an hour.

So, in a country desperate for qualified teachers, a qualified teacher can only exist by protecting cars from people who are denied the chance to work and so rob cars. That is economics. Or to put it another way, imagine if the world discovered $80bn worth of spare resources. Imagine the homes, the water, the employment that could be provided, or the effect it could have on the 20 per cent of this country with Aids.

But not if you understand economics. Then you'll know that the correct approach is to transport half a million people across the world to bomb another bunch of people even poorer than the ones in Johannesburg. It would make more sense to place the world economy under the control of the man with the superglue and cotton buds.

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