South Africa does not fall into the conventional model of a colony established by an imperial power. But South Africa is colonial nonetheless.
It has taken me a long time and much reflection to come to a simple conclusion. South Africa remains a colonial country despite appearances of modernity and advancement.
In the 1960s the liberation movement developed the concept of “colonialism of a special type”, or internal colonialism, and this became the central focus of the struggle against apartheid. Little did we realise that the essential character of the system would remain long after the victory in 1994.
True, South Africa does not fall into the conventional model of a colony established by an imperial power, as was the case in the rest of Africa, Latin America and Asia, where political power was ultimately handed over to an independence movement. But South Africa is colonial nonetheless. Race, as well as class, are the ultimate criteria of status and lifestyle.
There are several factors that confuse us. The governing party consists of the colonised, thereby giving the impression that “foreign” control has been displaced by indigenous people. But this “foreign” element has been a domestic factor for a long time, so its displacement is to some extent a mirage.
Also, two of the essential elements of typical colonial rule are now absent – political control and legally enforced coercion.
Another factor is that unlike most colonies South Africa has a developed capitalist economy. This creates an impression of modernity as found in many developed countries. This leads to many theorists classifying South Africa as a capitalist country with some minor racial aberrations.
For those with a liberal bent what matters most is that there are rich black people who live in affluent suburbs with no obvious race discrimination against them. Their offices are in “white” business districts, their children go to mixed race schools and universities. So all will be well in due course.
Yet the system remains colonial in essence. Of course, the origins lie in apartheid-style colonialism, but the democratic government has not changed the broad parameters and structures of society despite well-intentioned proclamations.
Part of our confusion lies in how we read the Freedom Charter. It states quite boldly that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white. This is a declaration of principle, an aspiration, rather like the UN Convention on Human Rights. It is not a statement of fact.
We now know that at least 72% of land is owned by white people while 13% is controlled by traditional leaders and these are the poorest and least development areas in South Africa.
Confusion is also created by statements like those of Mmusi Maimane that his party is non-racial and seeks to represent the interests of all our people. This is mere rhetoric and does not reflect their reality.
We all know that the principle of non-racialism cannot be realised in a country where colonial social and economic relations remain a daily reality. Even as a long-standing member of the ANC, who struggled for equality for decades, I live in a white “group area” while the man who works for me lives in a backyard shack in an all-African township. No matter how cordial our relationship may be, his lifestyle is that of a colonised person while mine is that of a coloniser.
What makes it even more difficult to unravel our condition is that in Europe the working class used political rights to create social democratic political parties and trade unions which did a great deal to lessen inequalities. But in South Africa, despite strenuous efforts and good intentions on the part of the ANC, government, and the unions, inequality of wealth and income has increased under democracy.
The recent World Bank study An Incomplete Transition finds that “inequality has risen since 1994-and in some cases, policies adopted by the government have inadvertently helped entrench it further.” (piii)
The report also gives much prominence to the problem of economic exclusion. It says:
“A group of firms that appear to be highly integrated into inputs, offtake, and distribution networks may further restrict entry by raising the risk that new entrants are unable to access inputs or supply channels. (p52)
And: “Many South Africans are still excluded from the productive economy and the proceeds of wealth creation.” (p 7)
It is difficult to explain this phenomenon other than by the sense that inequality is an accepted norm, that apartheid racial categories are seen to be insurmountable, and that “the poor will always be with us”.
How else does one explain the pathetic state of our small businesses, especially those which are black-owned. Government at all levels has been remarkably dilatory in removing apartheid restrictions on informal trading and many other administrative hurdles. Additionally, large white-controlled monopolies in the food chain and other industries have deliberately blocked new entrants as the World Bank study showed.
In a country rich in fruit and vegetables, which in many countries are sold by street traders, this is rare in South Africa. In our rich suburbs these products are only available in the supermarkets. Are the police in collusion with these stores to maintain their monopolies? Yet in most African countries the informal sector constitutes a major factor in employment creation and providing incomes for the poor.
It seems that the only way this could change is by a national accord that all, I repeat all, discriminatory practices based on racial categories be removed and that affirmative action be reinforced.
This has nothing to do with anti-whiteism or reverse colour bars.
It is about building a fair and egalitarian society and burying our apartheid legacy for ever. The compromises reached in 1994 have long passed their sell- by date and we desperately need a genuine new beginning. DM
Ben Turok is Director of the Institute for African Alternatives (IFAA).
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