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18 November 2017 19:45 (South Africa)
Opinionista Oscar van Heerden

What does Capitalism Version 2.0 look like – and why are the poor embracing voluntary subjugation?

  • Oscar van Heerden
    Oscar-van-Heerden.jpg
    Oscar van Heerden

    Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is an active fellow of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflections (MISTRA) and is a trustee for the Kgalema Mothlante Foundation

Why is it that a demand such as a basic income grant has not spread like wildfire throughout South Africa? Our people would rather voluntary subjugate themselves than stand in a queue for handouts.

Thomas Piketty in his treatise ‘Capital’ reminds us that,

Modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge have made it possible to avoid the Marxist apocalypse but have not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality – or in any case not as much as one might have imagined in the optimistic decades following WW II.”

He says,

When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, as it did in the 19th century and seems quite likely to do again in the 21st, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.”

He goes further to say,

There are nevertheless ways democracy can regain control over capitalism and ensure that the general interest takes precedence over private interests, while preserving economic openness and avoiding protectionist and nationalist reactions.”

This latter trajectory of protectionism and nationalist sentiment are the option the Trump administration in the US opted for. The revolt of Britons towards the European Union and hence the vote for Brexit and the concomitant attitudes towards immigration are a further indication that we have a problem. And the problem is the form and content of the current system of capitalism.

I’m sure you will all agree as we look to the needs of our people today that we must also consider policies that make us resilient to an unknown future.

The commencement of the fourth industrial revolution and its accompanying challenges for Mzansi is a further complication if not embraced by us all.

The ‘Amazon.com’ effect for example results in the closing down of small and micro enterprises in all parts of the globe, by virtue of the introduction of a massive digital alternative. It would state that we can deliver to your front door in a short space of time, just with a click of a button. It reminds me of the time Pick n Pay supermarket first came on the scene in South Africa. It directly resulted in the closure of small corner shops because of the new systems it brought to the consumer market. Imagine now, Pick n Pay having to close down because of a massive digital alternative such as MassMart.

Fears exist currently in the trucking business of driverless trucks by 2020 in the US. Tesla will be releasing the first electric truck in August of this year.

With the rate of automation and capital concentration we are potentially facing catastrophic job losses, the net effect of which is yet unknown.

Joseph Schumpeter coined “creative destruction”, refering to the incessant product and process innovation mechanism by which new production units replace outdated ones. He considered this to be “the essential fact of capitalism”.

These are global dynamic forces that will hit our shores soonest; already we can observe some of these trends in the US and other parts of the globe.

The desperate calls and demands for radical economic transformation and more equity with the mining rights in SA are consequences of this failing system. The Occupy Wall Street movement and the protests at the G8 and G20 gatherings all over the world are further indications that the system is wrought with shortcomings.

We need a new version of this system called capitalism. Already we observe that the youth of today, who never experienced the failings of socialism and communism, again show affinity towards such old outdated ideologies, simply because they are desperate for alternatives that will solve their plights of inequality, poverty and unemployment.

So why is it that our people are anti some form of a solution to their most dire plight in South Africa, a basic income grant?

I’m reminded of my time at Cambridge University when this very matter was under scrutiny from the anthropology department – an interrogation of why it is that the basic income grant did not appeal to the poor in South Africa, given its history was being interrogated by scholars.

What ignited this interest from the department was the fact that one of their staff members visited South Africa as a collaborative effort with a Johannesburg based university for a few months. Needless to say, upon his return, many a dinner party was being hosted so as to get the lowdown from his experiences in the country of Nelson Mandela and its many challenges.

As many of the party guests hung on his lips, fascinated by the stories of close encounters with wildlife and the beautiful escarpments of that country, some were struck by one story in particular. The visiting fellow indicated that every morning while leaving his temporary accommodation in one of the nearby suburbs, he would inevitably be confronted by a lone man (a different person most of the time), requesting any menial work in and around the house. “Any garden work, sir; may I wash your car please sir. I can paint or do general repair work around your house.”

To which the visiting fellow had to say no almost every morning. The pleas would continue until he would get into his car and literally drive off, at which point he would feel some measure of relief and feel terrible for having to continuously say no. This, he indicated, was the most uncomfortable experience of the whole time that he was in South Africa. The fact that men and women were begging for employment of some sort or the other, from a white male, 20 years into the country’s democracy. Literally, begging for work and agreeing to voluntary subjugation by the white man.

The discussion at Cambridge went on to analyse and attempt to understand this phenomenon. Eventually, looking at the history of southern Africa, and in particular the Mfecane wars (Zulu for “the crushing”), it provides a rather instructive possible answer in this regard.

You would recall how these Zulu and other Nguni wars spread throughout the southern, central and parts of the eastern regions of Africa, and how societies either were decimated and/or their women and children assimilated into the new tribe and the men killed.

A curious phenomenon, however, also happened at times which were that certain societies simply did not want to fight and die and so they would send emissaries ahead before the Mfecane could reach their homesteads – and agree to voluntary subjugation.

In other words, instead of fighting and dying while your women and children are subjected to the harshest of conditions, you volunteer your services to the dominant army generals. Of course, you would have to start at the bottom of the barrel so to speak even if you might have been some leader in your society. And would have to observe and accept the continuous abuse of your women and children.

This was during the second and third decades of the 19th century. If one fast-forwards to the period of the discovery of gold, one finds a similar phenomenon, in the sense that migrant labour was the order of the day. Although it was commonly known that the exploitative and harsh working conditions existed in these white-owned mines, men from all over the subregion would come from far to voluntary subjugate themselves to such inhumane working conditions.

And so when the lone stranger every morning confronts his white counterpart, he knows full well what it is he is requesting and that he will most probably work an eight-hour day for a mere pittance, but he is okay with that.

So why is it that a demand such as a basic income grant has not spread like wildfire throughout South Africa? The opposition parties have called for such and yet they simply do not muster the support from the poor on this manifesto point. The trade union federation has shown its support for the same initiative and still no one from the poor bites. Most curious, wouldn’t you say. Our people would rather voluntary subjugate themselves than stand in a queue for handouts.

What they are saying, it seems to me, is that they want their dignity back and so they want decent jobs so they can hold their heads up high and provide for their families. Receiving handouts is not addressing the fundamental flaws of our capitalist system; it rather perpetuates its most salient features.

And so if we indeed agree that capitalism is in this crisis, unable to provide us with a clear and equitable way forward, the question is then what is to be done about it.

We can also safely assume that we are still streaks behind the already unfolding fourth industrial revolution and its impending major trends. We are simply not ready for these catalytic changes still to come.

We have the poor telling us that they prefer their dignity in place and hence wants decent jobs on the one hand and the neoliberals informing us that we must prepare for the fourth industrial revolution lest we get left behind in this digital revolution.

Our choice for a social democracy with Mzansi characteristics seems not to offer the kind of resolution we require.

One fact is certain, the capitalist version 2.0 being sold to us all remains yet another reinvention.

How do we indeed restore our people’s dignity and protect our fragile democracy at the same time? DM

  • Oscar van Heerden
    Oscar-van-Heerden.jpg
    Oscar van Heerden

    Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is an active fellow of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflections (MISTRA) and is a trustee for the Kgalema Mothlante Foundation

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