I knew before we moved here that South Africa consistently ranked near the top in terms of the world’s most unequal countries. I also knew about the history of racial segregation in South Africa and a little about the legacy of apartheid. Like many activists growing up in the US in the 1980s and 1990s, the anti-apartheid movement was a cause dear to my heart. I remember the boycotts of Coca Cola and other companies, the denunciation of the Reagan administration’s unapologetic support for the Botha regime, and the placement of activists like Nelson Mandela on the State Department’s terrorist list.
But all of this knowledge did not prepare me for the unique nature of inequality in South Africa and the extent to which a racist regime that ended over two decades ago still defines inequality.
Coming to South Africa as a foreigner can be an enlightening experience. Were I to speak with a South African accent, chances are I would fit into one of the dozens of racial categories and sub-categories created by the apartheid regime. But when you talk like a foreigner, it’s less easy to fit into a box and perhaps easier to talk with a wide range of people about what it means to be South African.
After dozens of such conversations, I am tempted to conclude that there is no South Africa at all, or perhaps that there are 2 or three South Africa’s, each a more bizarre version of the other. In one South Africa, I am not supposed to trust people from Zimbabwe for example (apparently they may steal from you); in another I am only supposed to trust people from Zimbabwe (because apparently South African workers are lazy). In one South Africa, any visit to a township will end with me losing all my possessions and in tears at the police station. Do you know what happens to people who go to Soweto at night? Are you crazy? In another if I go to the township I will get a proper meal in a proper home with a proper family (not like in those malls children go to nowadays).
No matter where I am or who I am talking to, I must be wary of “those people,” invariably a community that lives in close proximity with whoever it is that I’m talking to, but that hardly has interaction with that person. Where there are such interactions they are often highly regulated and echo master/servant relationships (or consumer/service-provider relationships, if you prefer the PC version).
One interesting thing about these dynamics is that they seem so normal, no one really notices them. When racism does come up in the public discourse, it’s because someone said something idiotic on Twitter and then had to apologize for it. But the occasional flare-ups of visible racism are a symptom of something deeper
Whether or not there are multiple South Africa’s, there are undoubtedly multiple South African economies. There is one economy that collectively accounts for about 70-80% of GDP (estimates vary) which I like to think of as the European economy, and another economy that accounts for the remaining 20-30% that can be described as an African economy. The African economy is largely about raw materials, mining and agriculture.
The European economy is largely about services – financial services in a huge way with South Africa effectively acting like an appendage of the European banking system, but also tourism, retail and so on.
But the African economy is not a black economy and the European economy is not a white economy. There are whites and blacks in both economies, though whites as you might expect are still disproportionately high in number in the places of power in both economies. The ANC’s Black Economic Empowerment programme (BEE for short) is in some ways addressing the lack of black leadership at the higher levels of both of these economies.
But what BEE is not doing is addressing the underlying structural problems. Remember that together these two economies are employing only two of every three of South Africans in the workforce. That’s a huge indictment of the whole system.
Of the conversations I have had in recent weeks, there is one that stands out. Japie is a friend of a friend who is helping to manage a community initiative in the Free State, near the Lesotho border. If you talk with Japie for more than a few minutes he will begin to tell you stories about his experiences working in a mine during the apartheid regime. The details are awful and they may be familiar but bear repeating.
Japie worked in some of the higher positions for a black person in mining from 1979 until 1999. Those higher positions often meant that he usually wasn’t one of the poor souls who actually had to go down the mine (though he did that too). Often he would prepare the tea and help dress the junior white miners (an official title and one of seven or eight layers of hierarchy in the mine). Thus began a series of strange interactions, with Japie as one of the senior (and more qualified blacks) assisting one of the junior and less qualified whites. The nature of assistance ranged from making tea and coffee to teaching his seniors how to sign their own names.
For lunch, black workers were given a powder that had to be mixed with water. No one knew what it was made of but it was near impossible to digest and so stayed in the stomach for hours, keeping the workers full.
Most humiliating for Japie was payday, when in order to collect what were often meager wages one had to stand shirtless in a line and be injected in the chest with a syringe containing an unknown “medicine”. If workers tried to avoid this, they would be brought back and whipped or (later, as unions protested against such treatment) sent to prison. “They would prick you with the needle as if it were a stamp and you were the paper,” recalls Japie.
Though his life has no doubt improved since that day, as he says these words I know that Japie has not recovered from the trauma of working in the mines, even 22 years into the post-apartheid era.
It’s also fairly certain that those who were Japie’s imprisoners torturers don’t see themselves as bad people. They would probably be somewhat surprised to hear of Japie’s trauma. They almost certainly were never held accountable for their actions (though someone from the company might have spoken at the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings). They are also almost certain to have access to more resources than do Japie and the community he works with.
Those whose wealth is built on some form of slavery are still wealthy. Those who were slaves are slaves no longer, but are struggling to build something from nothing. And both former slave driver and former slave are meant to be equal parts of this “rainbow nation”.
The missing middle and the national interest
In many countries, there is talk about the “missing middle”. This is the idea that as populations grow, the number of very rich grow and the number of poor also grows, largely as people are pushed out of salaried or unionized work into less regulated forms of work. To varying extents, the “missing middle” is a helpful tool to understand inequality in the USA, India, Britain, and a host of other countries.
In South Africa one gets the feeling that there is a missing middle, but, unlike in many other countries, one gets the feeling that it never existed. Rather, the apartheid system created this two-tier economy and ensured that Blacks would never be owners or senior managers in either one. When apartheid ended, blacks were able to occupy senior positions but the underlying principles remain.
What are those underlying principles? To some extent they are no different from those that other countries operate under, especially developed countries. In the US, for example, when newsreaders talk about the “national interest”, it is understood that they don’t mean the interest of a poor woman in Flint, Michigan. They usually mean the interests of big US companies, who define their interest in terms of short-term profits.
So what do South Africans mean by “the national interest”? Do they mean policies that would benefit the European economy or the African economy? Within the European economy, do they mean those who work at Pick n Pay or those who work at ABSA or those who own those institutions?
The crisis of identity
Under the implied and explicit terms of the handover that happened in 1994, the answer to the above question is clear. What’s good for South Africa is what’s good for its big businesses, especially those that are tied to the international financial system. The ANC should feel free to change the colour of the faces of those controlling the economy, but it will be the same economic system.
Given these conditions, what would you do to try to undo the legacy of apartheid? I suspect many would do exactly what the ANC is doing, namely to “Africanize” the face of the economy and especially the public sector, while more or less leaving in place the trappings of the apartheid economy. Invite some African faces to the positions generally held by Europeans, without questioning a two-tiered economy that relies on two classes of people.
That may be understandable, but it is unacceptable. The slogan that I learned from my South African comrades was “Amandla Awethu: Power to the People!” It wasn’t “Diversify the Elites!”
Reimagining the Rainbow
If ending extreme inequalities is difficult, in South Africa it is doubly difficult. In countries like India, there is a shared narrative of what it means to be an Indian. In the case of Indian, that national identity is closely linked to the anti-colonial struggle, and to the non-violence and coming together across religious lines that were fundamental components of that struggle.
But what is the South African equivalent? In another of my conversations, a park ranger was bemoaning the current state of the South African military, especially the lack of sophisticated aircraft. It took me a few minutes to understand that the South Africa that she was romanticising, the South Africa which was a global military power and was respected, was the South Africa of the apartheid regime. So how can this person’s vision of South Africa – one in which it is as “strong as it was 25 years ago” – be reconciled with the new South Africa, with the “rainbow nation” that measures progress in human rights and human dignity, not just in GDP? And how will this new South Africa actually achieve what it set out to achieve in its radical constitution without fundamentally restructuring its economy to focus on job creation, rather than on how much money elites are making?
The answer to these questions is clear if unpleasant. These visions are fundamentally at odds with one another and they cannot be reconciled. If the ANC wants to finish its project of ending racial inequality, it must also work to end the economic inequalities.
If this means renegotiating some of the terms of the 1994 agreements, so be it. At that time, soon after the fall of the Berlin wall, global elites were firm on their slogan “There Is No Alternative” to the extreme inequalities bred by global hyper capitalism. But we are now at a stage when even the IMF agrees that we must create more equal and just societies through taxing the rich, strengthening the welfare state and creating more and better jobs. South Africans have a choice: either they can take the lead in this much-needed process of global transformation, or they can continue to let the inequalities of the past fester while resting on the laurels of defeating the previous racist regime. The latter course is by far the easier in the short term. Whether South Africans have the bravery to take the former course is a decision that will ultimately be made by the South African public, not by elites. DM