We are accustomed to hearing that South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world, but what exactly does that mean? In other words, a) what does this mean in practical terms, and b) what should we do about it?

Consider this.

The Economist has a series of podcasts about doing business in various cities. The podcasts offer basic, essential information about the local environment and customs of various world cities, to equip a business traveller to function, navigate culturally, and avoid causing offense.

I listened to the ‘Doing business in Paris’ podcast recently, enjoying the narrator’s matter of fact explanation of the ins and outs of Paris, when she said something particularly interesting:

“As a whole, on the business trip to Paris, you should be prepared for the rudeness of Parisians generally. Don’t expect any deference from people in the service industry, for instance. It’s really wise to say ‘Bonjour madame’, or ‘Bonjour mosseiur’, before requesting anything, or demanding any kind of service. And the reason for that is, people don’t define themselves by their job, and their level of employment has nothing to do with the way they see themselves. So you can easily provoke some quite angry reactions if you don’t behave in a very polite, exaggeratedly polite fashion. I think this is important, just because it can put you in a really bad mood for a meeting, if you’ve just been in a battle with a waiter or someone on the metro.”

This is interesting for a number of reasons, both for what it says about the target audience- primarily British, American, and other English-speaking business travelers presumably- and for what it says about the French.

The Economist, while warning its target audience about the rudeness of the French, ironically assumes that its listeners are unaccustomed to greeting people before requesting things and demanding service. That’s worthy of a whole article on its own.

The French, according to the podcast, don’t define themselves by the type and level of their employment, unlike presumably, in the assumed culture of the listener. How wonderfully egalitarian of the French, whose national motto is ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité,’ (Liberty, equality, fraternity).

This got me thinking about social mobility, an essential component of the type of free, equal, prosperous society we all would like to live in.

You see, I went to university in the United States, and as such, have had the opportunity to eat at several restaurants there. What strikes me about the difference between eating at a restaurant in the US or any other developed nation for that matter, and eating at a restaurant in South Africa, is the waiters.

You see, when I look at a waiter at a restaurant in the US, I don’t see anyone radically different to myself. When I look at a waiter at a restaurant in South Africa, by and large, I do. In my own country, when I look at a waiter, I generally see a have-not.

In South Africa, the service sector is dominated by the unskilled. In other words, people who cannot get a better job, because they don’t have the education or skills to be hired to perform anything other than the simplest task. Like carrying a tray of food from a kitchen to a table, and bringing back payment in return.

In developed nations, unskilled people do work as waiters, but they work alongside high school kids looking to earn some extra cash, students varying from first-year to doctoral, actors and artists of various kinds, free spirits, teachers looking to supplement their salaries, retrenched former professionals in transition, all kinds of people.

In South Africa, more often than not, a waiter is someone who may never do anything else.

Which is what got me thinking about social mobility. A society is socially mobile when its people have the opportunity to change their circumstances. Where and to whom you are born does not determine where you end up. We are a long way from being that society.

It is widely accepted among people who think deeply about these things, that education is by far the most powerful tool in enabling social mobility.

Education is what allows the child of municipal workers, in the case of Michelle Obama, to go to Harvard University, and become a successful attorney at a prestigious Chicago law firm, who would mentor her firm’s new recruit, a young Barack Obama, before he asked her out on a date. It was the quality education she received in the Illinois school system, which allowed her to succeed at Harvard, and opened up career and lifestyle choices which were not available to her parents before her. Lest we forget, she earned more than her famous husband for most of their married life.

Educated people can find decent employment, or create it for themselves and others by using their skills to start businesses. Educated people are productive people. Uneducated people struggle to find employment, are more likely to be unhealthy, are more likely to commit crimes of desperation, all of these things cost society in myriad ways which outweigh the cost incurred had society invested in their education.

For all the problems developed nations face, a child born anywhere in France, is guaranteed an education of reasonably quality by national and global standards. That is part of the reason why she doesn’t have to take shit from a businessman who earns many times his or her salary. S/he is a waiter because s/he feels like doing that particular work at a particular point in time, not because s/he is a permanent member of an underclass.

Unfortunately, a child born anywhere in South Africa is not guaranteed an education of reasonable quality by national and global standards. Quite the opposite. And as such, where and to whom you are born in our country, has far too large a bearing on where you might end up in life. This is one of the most tragic ways that our society’s inequality manifests.

But there is good news.

At least, we know what we need to do. We need to make sure all South African children have access not just to education, but to quality education. Sure, it’s easier said than done. The devil is in the details, and we have some smart and committed educators who have studied the details, and developed clear strategies and plans to accomplish our objectives.

The problem isn’t that we don’t know what to do, it’s that we have not demonstrated the will and commitment to doing it.

We have failed children by taking 16 years to realize that teachers being ‘in class, on time, teaching’ is non-negotiable.

We failed children by creating a culture where educators found it acceptable to go on strike, en masse, for a month when students should have been preparing for their end of year exams.

Voters fail children by not putting performance on education at the center of their voting decisions.

The government has failed children – in addition to ill-considered policy decisions – by allowing the interests of teachers to be privileged over the interests of children, because of the political power of the teachers unions whose support it relies on for elections.

A society where a large portion of the population is denied the opportunity to change their circumstances because they do not have access to quality education, is unjust and unsustainable.