Opinionista Phillip Dexter 3 May 2018

Solidarity vs Solipsism: The challenge of the political economy of post-apartheid South Africa

Last week saw Saftu call a general strike over the national minimum wage. Cosatu and Fedusa opposed the strike. It is not clear where Nactu and Consawu or other independent unions stood. It is clear though that all agree that R3,500 is not a living wage.

May Day saw different activities by Cosatu with its alliance partners the ANC and SACP, Saftu and the EFF. Such divided working-class organisations are clearly not able to gain the most for their constituency and they cannot lead society.

At the same time, communities are demonstrating across the country, burning, looting and vandalising property. What is clear is that the fault lines in our country – on land, incomes, services, crime, violence and many other issues – are stark, clear and present a real danger to our common future. The political divisions and even personal ones feed into these contradictions. As we come to the end of 25 years of democracy, we are challenged by and with the political economy of post-apartheid South Africa.

The President has correctly stated that to end all this instability, we must defeat poverty. The question is: how?

Our country has always been a frontier society. From the time of the first migrations of homo sapiens to the migrations of people today, from colonialism to apartheid and now in our democracy, this southernmost tip of the African continent has been a liminal place and a sought-after destination.

Frontiers are places of alienation, contestation and violence. But they are also the place of innovation, energy, mobilisation and renewal. Our current political frontier is one of both change and continuity. If we are to overcome the challenges of this period, we must analyse it correctly and build on the positive aspects of it and defeat the negative.

While we should not overstate the challenges and define our current crisis as insurmountable, we must recognise its deep roots in the past and the continuity from that past to the present. To define a different, better, common, shared and more just future, we must also not understate the case and pretend that “business as usual”, or the status quo, can bring anything but the defeat of our democratic project and the attendant chaos that will follow.

Recent releases of key economic indicators show that while our democracy is a healthy and robust one, the political economy of our country is to all intents and purposes a neocolonial one, albeit of a special type, with political power in the hands of the majority and economic power in the hands of the minority of South Africans.

Poverty, inequality, unemployment, ownership of wealth, land, salaries and other aspects of life in our country are still racially determined as they were under colonialism and apartheid. They are also gender determined, as well as age and disability determined, which must always be emphasised. The ways in which and where we walk, talk, eat, sleep, work, live and play are all, with a few exceptions, the same as they were under apartheid. This is the political economy of our post-apartheid existence.

Who owns, who controls, who gets what share is very similar to what it was under apartheid and colonialism. In common language, it’s still down to the haves and the have-nots. This is our most significant frontier and it is poverty that most significantly divides us as a nation, even if this poverty is still determined by race, gender and disability. How we deal with building a more just order on this frontier will determine what trajectory our country will follow.

What are the forces that are contesting the direction of our country? There are neoconservative and reactionary forces that seek to preserve the status quo in terms of property and wealth. These are represented by dominant elements in the DA and the white far-right. There are populist forces that seek to disrupt the status quo in order to take advantage of it for gaining political power and which, mainly for personal interests, includes looting. These include some elements of the EFF, BLF, Transform RSA and the like.

There are even elements of this tendency in the ANC and the DA. These are rampant, aggressive petit bourgeois forces that seek to dress up their personal interests as those of the general population to create a cover for their accumulation.

The progressive or revolutionary democratic and socialist forces that are supposed to lead and direct transformation and ensure that the people as a whole benefit from real, meaningful change are quite dissipated. These are in the ANC and alliance, but also Saftu, EFF and various smaller political parties such as the UDM and similar.

There are even social democrats in the DA, although they are an endangered species, as Patricia de Lille is fast learning.

While the NDR must include the accumulation of wealth by those historically denied such an opportunity under apartheid and colonialism, this accumulation should not be at the expense of the poor, through keeping the status quo with a few black capitalist collaborators, or by looting.

In the course of this struggle for the direction and nature of our country’s development, various arguments are being put forward aggressively. The most spurious are those that seek to blame the Constitution for the lack of transformation and/or to blame the negotiated transition for the same. It needs to be repeated over and over again – nothing in the Constitution or that was negotiated in the transition stops land reform, the redistribution of wealth, creating a large black middle class, promoting black business, increasing wages of workers, or anything else that will transform our political economy.

Claims that Cyril Ramaphosa or Nelson Mandela or anyone else sold out during the negotiations is a big, fat lie. We need to debunk this dangerous myth. We can change the Constitution and allow for expropriation of land without compensation, something most governments can do. But this measure will not speed up land reform or create wealth.

Some seek to blame global capitalism. While it is true that this has been a brake on our development, we need only look at countries such as China, Singapore, Vietnam and others to see that there are alternatives to our current development path. It is our common responsibility – the leadership of government, business, labour and civil society generally – to ensure the success of transformation.

We must accept shared responsibility for our slow pace of transformation. Our failure to negotiate a social compact to transform the political economy of apartheid by changing the patterns of the ownership, control, management, distribution and exchange of the wealth we produce as a country is what has led to the continued socio-economic hell of the majority, the stagnation of our economy and the halting progress of change.

It is a toxic combination of the structure of the post-apartheid economy and global capitalist system that reproduces the political economy of apartheid. But it is a lack of political will and a lack of capacity in government that has limited change.

Remembering the past, managing the present better and negotiating a common, fair, just and prosperous future is the departure point for a new socio-economic deal. Within this agenda, the priority of improving government capacity to ensure better delivery of services and overall management of the state and society is key.

The most rapid and far-reaching change since 1994 has been through government delivery thus far. But without the support of the private sector, this change will continue to be limited, as we have seen. A strong and vibrant partnership between government, business, labour and civil society to promote maximum investment, growth, sustainability to end poverty and lower unemployment is the only way forward from the social instability and economic stagnation that is feeding our political crisis.

For those of us who are socialists of whatever hue, we also need to rethink how we consider the ways in which capitalism must be managed and what socialism is. The world of work is constantly changing, driven by technology. It presents an exciting opportunity to rethink what work is, what socialism can be and how we achieve it. But repeating mantras about nationalisation or refusing to consider the possible sale of stakes in ailing State-owned Enterprises will not make the transformation of society a reality. It will also not bring socialism any closer to realisation. There needs to be real, critical reflection by all who claim to have a map to an alternative to capitalism.

In the language of the movement, unity of the revolutionary democratic and socialist forces is fundamental to the success of our country. The political leadership must attend to what caused the UDM, COPE, EFF, Saftu and other splits, heal these divisions and reunite the progressive forces under the leadership of a renewed, refocused and healthy ANC. These forces must focus on mobilising our society as a whole, by ensuring everybody has a stake in it.

Mobilising through populism or on racial grounds will not help our situation at all. Equally important is that we must defeat the narrow, neoliberal agenda that says the winner takes all. Such a view sees the individual as the be-all and society as a myth. Such political solipsism is a selfish existence and one that will, in the end, be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Solidarity with the poor, the unemployed, the elderly, women, children and the vulnerable by those South Africans who make up “the haves” is the only way forward out of this neocolonialism of a special type. We must all contribute to this debate on transforming the lives of our people. We did it in 1994 and 1996 with the political compact that is our Constitution. We need to do it again with a socio-economic compact. If anyone knows this, it is President Cyril Ramaphosa and, since he played a leading role in the political compact, all eyes are on him to lead on the socio-economic one, sooner rather than later. DM

Dr Phillip Dexter is a member of the ANC. He writes in his personal capacity.

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