Opinionista Jeff Rudin 13 November 2015

The shadow of liberation: Representivity and the commodification of race

The fact that many among the most active of the student leaders seem unaware of the possibility that it is not colour that determines the way police, or management, behave, but their role in the social division of labour in class-structured societies, is the measure of the Left’s failure.

Those of us who see ourselves as being part of the Left have let ourselves down. Badly. The current student uprising, rather than being an affirmation of our theoretical and practical contributions, signals our failure. “Left” here denotes the broad spectrum of critiques of capitalism, in which class figures as a significant component over and above being anti-racist.

Before developing this argument, a brief reminder of ANC history is apposite, in order to grasp the full enormity of why the student conflagrations are being presented here as a Left failure. Arguably the most important ANC document, prior to its unbanning in 1990, is its Morogoro Conference’s Strategy & Tactics adopted in 1969. Sections of this document articulate such an essential Left position, that it speaks for a much broader left than just that within the ANC, and its trade union, and South African Communist Party (SACP) allies.

It is telling, first, to move forward to November 5th 2015, to the Cabinet’s decision to promote the development of black industrialists. Announcing this “bold: policy, Jeff Radebe, Minister in the Presidency, explained:

“The intention is to contribute to shifting the demographic composition of South Africa’s industrial sector, and engage black industrialists who are regarded as under used….”

So, what did the ANC commit itself to in 1969? Our nationalism must not be confused with chauvinism or narrow nationalism…. It must not be confused with the classical drive by an elitist group among the oppressed people to gain ascendancy, so that they can replace the oppressor in the exploitation of the mass.

In our country – more than in any other part of the oppressed world – it is inconceivable for liberation to have meaning, without a return of the wealth of the land to the people as a whole. It is, therefore, a fundamental feature of our strategy that victory must embrace more than formal political democracy. To allow the existing economic forces to retain their interests, intact, is to feed the root of racial supremacy, and does not represent even the shadow of liberation.

Our drive towards national emancipation is, therefore, in a very real way, bound up with economic emancipation. … [O]ne thing is certain – in our land this cannot be effectively tackled unless the basic wealth, and the basic resources are at the disposal of the people, as a whole, and are not manipulated by sections or individuals be they white or black. This perspective of a speedy progression from formal liberation to genuine and lasting emancipation, is made more real by the existence in our country of a large and growing working class whose class consciousness complements national consciousness. Its militancy and political consciousness as a revolutionary class will play no small part in our victory, and in the construction of a real people’s South Africa.

South Africa in 2015 could not be further removed from the ANC’s vision of 1969. The “speedy progression” has been backwards to all that Morogoro opposed. The student uprising bears witness to this backward gallop. Saying this in no way detracts from the stirring heroism, solidarity, militancy, innovation and extraordinary non-sectarian leadership of the students. The criticism is not of them, but of us, the post-1994 Left; the Left that has allowed the all, but total disappearance of the class consciousness that was at the heart of the Morogoro Strategy & Tactics. This is not to deny the Left influences as, for instance, the joint student-worker successes against outsourcing.) Jeff Radebe’s announcement affirms the triumphant position of precisely the “elitist” black “chauvinism or narrow nationalism” that was to be avoided.

Preceding the revolt against university fees, and continuing to run in parallel with that revolt, has been the whole issue of “transformation” of both academic staff, and curricula. What we in South Africa unthinkingly still refer to as “race”, has been central to both the demanded transformations. At the same time that the Democratic Alliance felt compelled to demonstrate its anti-racism by expelling a leading member for praising apartheid – she shared a posting that education, health, and the police were better under apartheid – the decidedly apartheid logic of “race”-based representivity goes unchallenged.

In common with the rest of the world, South Africa celebrates Martin Luther Kings’ dream of people being valued for the content of their characters rather than the colour of their skin. Yet the Left, for fear of being called racist, or of alienating student support, either say nothing or actively endorse the inherently, and profoundly racist call by black students to be taught by black teachers. The apartheid takeover of contemporary South Africa, however, makes the black stereotype even more problematic. The institutionalisation of all the apartheid-invented races, despite repeal of the hated Population Registration Act that so defined apartheid, means that blacks still (mainly) see themselves as either African, coloured or Indian. While the Left sporadically continues with formal incantations about the importance of class, representivity, on the basis of apartheid-classified races, becomes increasingly normalised.

Race is similarly central to the students’ demand for transformation of the curriculum. Their complaint is that curriculum is supposedly infused with a global “whiteness” or the “western world”, along with what is seen as associated fabrications, such as, for example, that the Egyptians built the pyramids rather than black Africans. These fabrications, according to no less an opinion and policy-maker than Dr Mathole Motshekga, the former Premier of Gauteng, ANC parliamentary Chief Whip, current ANC MP and husband of the Minister of Basic Education, who seeks to deny that (black) Africa is the world’s oldest civilization, and that (black) humanity existed before the universe was formed.

With intensely racialised self-identities, this demand for “decolonising” the curriculum is hardly surprising. But, again, the Left, if not actively supporting the clamour to change the curriculum to reflect black identities and achievements, is largely silent.

Yet, the Left is able to offer a very different understanding of colonialism and, more generally, of the world, of people, and people’s place in world. Just consider some of the following issues besetting the world:

  • The world economy remains in the 2008 meltdown. Indeed, as I write this, even economists are in a panic over what is now happening.
  • Thomas Piketty is a world-celebrity for telling everyone that the capitalist economy produces huge poverty as a condition of its production of obscene wealth.
  • The rich and poor alike forlornly seek refuge from this alienated and alienating world in drugs, drink and “social media”, to say nothing of anti-depressants, even more consumerism, and the multi-billion industry that parades as sport.
  • Unstopped climate change threatens the survival of humankind and, in the course of this long suicide, is already causing havoc to millions of people around the world.
  • World leaders accept what science says about the causes of climate change, but do nothing, other than annually pose about doing something, as they are currently doing in the run-up to their meeting in Paris at the end of this month.
  • Climate change highlights the desperate need for the people of the world to democratise democracy

Yet, a coherent and comprehensive critique of this mad world is singularly absent from university curricula, which, instead, faithfully reproduce the status quo, along with the self-serving incantation of: “There is no Alternative”.

If the Left does not invite radicalised students to consider a radically alternative – and relevant – curriculum, who will? More, pertinently, if the Left does not invite students to consider class analysis as another way of understanding what is going on, who will? We, the Left, claim that struggle is the best university for exploring political realities. Three of the many realities students are now grappling with underscore the Left’s failure in this regard.

Solidarity. Confronted by some black students refusing to participate in the protests because they do not experience fees as a problem, the only understanding available for many students is the need to promote black consciousness. Implicit in this idea is that only blacks can support blacks and, when this doesn’t happen, it can only be because blacks are not sufficiently aware of their blackness.

Sell-outs. Confronted by black-led Student Representative Councils (SRCs) that – despite representivity! – are not supportive of the student struggles, and, even more strikingly, black university managers who, notwithstanding their representivity, summon the police or private security, the standard response to these blacks-not-behaving-according-to-preconceived-expectations is to accuse them of being traitors or coconuts.

Police. Nothing equals apartheid’s iconic image of white police beating up black protestors. This is the stereotyped “boere” in action. Students have now been viciously assaulted by police who exceed the demands of black representivity. Their silence about this experience suggests confusion.

The fact that many among the most active of the student leaders seem unaware of the possibility that it is not colour that determines the way police, or management, behave, but their role in the social division of labour in class structured societies, is the measure of the Left’s failure. The same applies to the role of class, when attempting to make sense of the complexities involved in solidarity. Moreover, despite Left publications and campaigns, a large number of students are: (a) unaware that running universities as money-making businesses, is of recent origin; (b) that, as a consequence of the commodification of education, the government has given increasingly less public money to universities that are expected to run as private enterprises; (c) even less public money is now available as a result of government’s cuts, and (d) that all of this is part of neoliberalism, the currently dominant form of capitalism designed to make the maximisation of profit as easy as possible for the world’s super-rich investors.

The ultimate failure of the Left, however, has been our manifest failure to expose the naked class interests driving the whole issue of representivity, and, moreover, for representivity – presented as ‘transformation’ – to go unchallenged. We have simply allowed the commodification of race to promote particular class interests, while leaving the class structure, itself, entirely untouched. Class society is, by definition, unequal and unfair. These are universal features of all class societies, everywhere. For the upwardly mobile, breaking through the myriad of obstacles is always fraught. This is all the more so for the young, who have to contend with others occupying positions to which they aspire. What could be more beneficial, in these circumstances, than a state-backed requirement that all positions privileged by the particular form of class structure in a particular country, be representative of a particular “race”?

Class societies naturally reproduce themselves in all the particularities of form. In South Africa, our demographics along, with our apartheid legacy, guarantees that the disadvantaged – whether workers, the unemployed or otherwise marginalised – will remain overwhelmingly black, for as long as the class structure remains. A similar guarantee applies to whites. Although an increasing minority, they will always be highly concentrated amongst the privileged. This allows for the easy equation between black and poverty/white and privilege. This colour-coding is particularly advantageous for the upwardly mobile in societies marked by extreme inequality.

The permanence of black disadvantage means that the black bourgeoisie, or black middle class, will always be able to use black poverty as the excuse for their own exclusive advantage amongst the ranks of the rich. The Left is party to this racial manipulation by continuously attacking, not capital, but specifically “white capital”. How easy we make it for people like Cyril Ramaphosa or Patrice Motsepe among the black capitalists!

Worse still, is how easy we have made it for capital, regardless of colour. We, the Left, have allowed the ANC, its successive governments, and the black bourgeoisie it promotes, to get away with a verbal trick. Having fought for the liberation of South Africa from apartheid, the people overwhelmingly voted for a government committed to transforming the new South Africa. In the name of this transformation, we now have a South Africa unequivocally committed to interfering with the normal reproduction of our inherited class structure, to ensure no more than the mere transfer of class-defined benefits to the government, its leading cadres, black business and black professionals.

This transfer leaves entirely untransformed the class structure that the Morogoro Declaration was committed to dismantling. What the “negotiated settlement” left us with is the modernisation of the apartheid class structure, by multi-racialising capital and privilege at the expense of everyone else. White and Black capitalists are as one when it comes to protecting capital and ensuring the reproduction of its societal forms, which mean a black and badly paid working class, along with a permanent, huge army of the unemployed. Their success marks the march backwards from Morogoro to “the shadow of liberation”.

The Left might not have been able to stop this retreat from Morogoro. What we cannot say, however, is that ours has been a glorious defeat. “A real people’s South Africa” of Morogoro vision still needs to be won. Jacob Zuma provides a right up-to-date reminder of the long road ahead for a people’s liberation. He is to get a R4billion luxury VIP aircraft, complete with a private bedroom suite and bathroom, despite the poverty of the people he claims to represent. The cost of this single plane dwarfs the R2.6 billion shortfall our universities will have this year because of the no-fee increase for more than 800,000 students. The last laugh, however, is on us: We still obligingly swallow the hypocrisies of “representivity”. DM

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