For as long as there’s capitalism in South Africa, the working class will always be overwhelmingly black because the population is overwhelmingly black. So, too, will the unemployed be permanently black. Poverty will appear to be black; a colour-coding of capitalism’s universal class contradictions that guarantees the perpetuation of black poverty and inequality. This perfectly suits the black members of the new ruling class.
With antagonism between black and white South Africans becoming more extreme — now even including direct attacks on Afrikaans — it becomes all the more urgent to have a better understanding of class.
This means asking why class is so overwhelmingly subordinate to race, even among students and others actively struggling to understand the present in order to change it.
Why should consciousness of the lived reality of colour-based exploitation and discrimination crowd out any effective consciousness of class-based exploitation and discrimination? Why, indeed, is it that a South Africa premised on white supremacy seems to be at the centre of struggles 22 years after the birth of our new nonracial country?
A recent definition of decolonisation further highlights the problem. According to this FeesMustFall definition:
Decolonisation is the removal of all unjust systems: such as patriarchy, racism and capitalism in society and the restructuring of society to reflect African systems.
Apart from noting the order in which these oppressive systems are listed and the big question of what alternate “African systems” might be, this definition strongly suggests class is orphaned as a method of analysis of modern South Africa, as well as its apartheid and colonial pasts.
Marx, the father of the most influential and enduring critiques of capitalism, provides the best brief outline of a class-based analysis of society; an analysis that offers a deep insight into the dynamic between class and race as it has unfolded in South Africa and continues to shape our capitalist present:
The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of the direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community, which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its political form. It is always the direct relationship between the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers…. which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state. (Capital, Vol.3)
The “innermost secret” of all societies in which the level of production allows for a surplus (to begin with, more food than each person can eat) is the complex of ways in which that surplus is transferred to a small group within whatever constitutes the broader society. This “pumping out” or appropriation is the universal “hidden basis” of all class societies worldwide since the very beginning of surplus production, several thousand years ago.
Capitalism is merely the latest form of this surplus appropriation — this “specific economic form in which surplus is pumped out of the producers”. It is the specificities of the capitalist form of appropriation that, moreover, simultaneously determines the “relationship between rulers and ruled”. The surplus — especially under the conditions of modern capitalism — is sufficiently big to privilege large and diverse groups of people over and above the owners and managers of the means of production.
The handsome salaries enjoyed by the complex of nonproducers, who are nonetheless part of the social division of labour, comes from this surplus. These people — the politicians, spiritual leaders, traditional leaders, judges, lawyers, generals, senior civil servants, doctors, accountants, academics etc — are all direct beneficiaries of the surplus appropriation and, thus, along with the actual owners of capital, are organic members of the ruling class within each capitalist society.
At the other end of the specifically capitalist form of surplus “pumping out” is the automatic production of poverty, inequality and unemployment. The degree and nature of each of these three universal characteristics of capitalism vary from country to country and over time in each country.
“Race”, as a distinct social category, has its origins in the slave trade that began in the 16th century. The accidental difference in superficial skin colour between the slave owners and slaves, along with the equally accidental geographical origin of both groups, gave rise to the idea of superior and inferior races. Race legitimised the slave form of surplus appropriation by denying the humanity of black Africans. Treating Africans as beasts of burden allowed for the maximised appropriation of the surplus. There is nothing inherent in being “white” or “European” that made one a slave owner or, subsequently, a colonialist. Christianity and the gun were sufficient basis for the sense of superiority required for perceived black inferiority.
Over time, apartheid built on an elaboration of this racism. The architecture of apartheid was a form of surplus appropriation that legally colour-coded the rulers and ruled: white workers were thus not workers but an integral (though junior) part of the rulers, in the same way that the law ensured that nonwhites were permanently excluded from the rulers (with the partial exception of chiefs).
This racialised class division between rulers and ruled ended in 1994 — and not just legally, despite this being an increasingly popular claim. Real — and, in some cases, immediate — changes took place within the new ruling class. Beginning in May 1994, with the first democratic Parliament, politicians are overwhelmingly black and handsomely paid out of the surplus appropriated by a capitalism shorn of its apartheid cloak. Moreover, the law, which used to exclude blacks from membership of ruling class, is now increasingly being used to promote the inclusion of blacks, and to do so at huge public expense. This use of state power to “deracialise” the ruling class takes the form of affirmative action and BEE.
The ruled — the working class — has also changed, but to a considerably lesser extent and far less obviously. White workers are now workers. They have no legal privileges either, giving them nonworking-class political rights and social status or protecting them from the normal hardships of capitalist appropriation such as threats to their pay and conditions of work, or special protections against retrenchment and unemployment.
Nonetheless, even though now just workers, as skilled workers which most of them are, white workers are still relatively privileged within the inequalities that globally characterise the working class itself. Skilled workers everywhere are less badly paid and less badly housed and educated than unskilled workers, to say nothing of the unemployed. But the surplus they produce is still appropriated along with other workers.
Indeed, the surplus “pumped out” of the workers in post-apartheid South Africa has been so successful that South Africa has become one of the most unequal countries on Earth.
However, apartheid’s structural inequalities were so stark, so in your face, that it continues to serve as a most effective camouflage of the South African expression of the universal inequalities and inequities of capitalism. There can be no capitalism of any sort anywhere without workers (people who own little to nothing and therefore have only their labour power to sell as a means of their livelihood). Moreover, to ensure sufficient surplus appropriation by the capitalists, there must also be a large under-class of the unemployed. What this means is that, for as long as there’s capitalism in South Africa, the working class will always be overwhelmingly black because the population is overwhelmingly black. So, too, will the unemployed be permanently black.
In a word, poverty will appear to be black; a colour-coding of capitalism’s universal class contradictions that guarantees the perpetuation of black poverty and inequality.
This perfectly suits the black members of the new ruling class. They have an immediately sympathetic black audience when they complain about the lack of “transformation” even though the new black elite mean an insufficient “transfer” of the worker-created surplus to themselves. People wanting to own, or benefit from, even more of the country’s wealth wouldn’t turn to workers for support — unless the would-be even richer people were black and wealth was seen to be white.
Perpetuating, or at least not challenging, the idea of untransformed “white” wealth amidst “black” poverty plays another essential role: it separates wealth and poverty from capitalism. In the same way that English-speaking whites were delighted to have Afrikaans as the symbol of white supremacy during apartheid, having white supremacy as the current understanding of black inequality suits both white and black capital and privilege. The confusions of colour ensure that capitalism escapes close examination.
Capitalism’s survival in South Africa is guaranteed for as long as the black majority continue to attribute their impoverishments to “whites” while remaining blind to the “black” members of the new ruling class eager to keep capitalist surplus appropriation “the innermost secret” of their good fortune.
There is also an international dimension to why domestic ruling classes are eager to keep secret the nature of their surplus appropriation: the crisis of global capitalism that, if anything, is getting worse. It is far better for them, if the multiple victims of this crisis — the ruled — fight among themselves under the banner of race, religion or language. A growing global response by the ruled of blaming foreigners for their economic hardships or government imposed “austerity” is part of this same process.
The various forms of surplus appropriation throughout human history are all consequences of economies based on antagonistic, class-based forms of social production and social living. The ultimate importance of class analysis is the logic of its conclusion: the abolition of all classes. DM
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Jeff Rudin works at the Alternative Information & Development Centre (AIDC), having returned home in 1994 after spending the previous 28 years in England. His other paid work since my return has been as a Parliamentary researcher for the ANC and as the National Research Officer for the South African Municipal Workers Union.
There are more skin cancer cases related to tanning beds than there are lung cancer cases to smoking.