Recent violence between the poor and the poorer in South Africa was the by-product of the country’s stagnation – it has achieved what it set out to do racially, but not economically or socially. The old colonial model of modernity is still the basis for power
The image of an unknown young black man being burned alive in a South African township street defined the recent xenophobic violence, mostly by black South Africans against black foreigners, many of them refugees from Zimbabwe. (Investigations by a veteran journalist, Beauregard Tromp, from the Johannesburg daily, The Star, later identified him as Ernesto Nhamuave, 35, from Mozambique.)
It reminded us of the violence that engulfed the townships in the final years of apartheid – except that it happened 14 years into South Africa’s post-apartheid democracy. The world was once again shocked, especially as this violence came soon after another racist incident that made the international headlines: a video clip of four Afrikaner students at the historically Afrikaans University of the Free State in Bloemfontein playing humiliating “practical jokes” on blacks, mostly older women, who work in their student residence.
How could this racism and xenophobia reappear in Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation which was held up as a model of reconciliation and hope for the African continent and the planet? To answer this, we have to look beyond the romantic image of post-apartheid South Africa. The image was an illusion, with its own script: that South Africa’s main historical challenge was to overcome the division between whites and blacks, which had been achieved with Mandela’s inauguration as South Africa’s first democratically elected president on 27 April 1994. And with a model liberal democratic constitution and promises of real economic growth, the country could now look to a bright, unified, non-racial future.
Race is important in South Africa. But this illusion spoke more of the prevailing Manichean world-view and its simplistic belief in good triumphing over evil, and a hopeless global epoch desperately seeking stories of hope, than about South Africa itself. To understand what is happening in South Africa we need a much longer timeline than the few decades of apartheid, namely the colonial era, which hasn’t yet ended. It was from the British colonisation of the Cape after 1806 that the main characteristics of the modern South African political economy evolved.
In the 19th century, and first half of the 20th, western Europe exported its modernity to Africa and other parts of the world via colonialism; this included the idea of a unified nation-state with a dominant national language, an industrial economy, a national schooling system and modern technology. The British imposed most of this in South Africa between the discovery of gold and diamonds in the 1860-1870s and the founding of the Union of South Africa in 1910. The founding more or less completed the unification of the territory of present-day South Africa, and firmly sealed the political alliance between its most powerful white communities, those of British descent and the Afrikaners (1).
By this time South Africa’s industrialisation was well under way, based on its huge mineral wealth. A system of railways, then of roads, was built to link the main areas of white settlement and industrial economic activity. By the middle of the 20th century the state and a few big corporations together established control over the South African media, which rarely threatened the status quo. The state was designed to keep a minority in government, and the government’s main economic function was to serve as gateway between South Africa’s wealth and the colonial motherland, later broadened to include its main trading partners (2).
Possibly the highest price paid for the establishment of the modern colonial political economy was the cultural humiliation and economic weakening of its indigenous communities. (This is not to say that the pre-colonial era was a peaceful idyll.) Indigenous norms of cultural and economic excellence were damaged to the point that the humiliated quietly accepted South Africa’s imported, colonial modernity as the norm. This was colonialism’s most significant and longest-lasting effect. And its acceptance can be seen in the behaviour of the two most successful indigenous political resistance movements once they won power, Afrikaner and African nationalism.
Afrikaner nationalism is now viewed through the prism of its dying days in the violent, racist 1970s and 1980s. People overlook the truth that Afrikaner nationalism was, in important ways, a classic, indigenous African anti-colonial movement. Such movements often assumed that salvation meant taking over the state from the colonists. This goal became so important (and was often achieved after a long armed struggle, in which few state
and economic management skills were developed) that the real challenge was only identified much
later: how to reconcile imported colonial modernity with local needs.
Vehicle of patronage
Instead, new elites used the state as a vehicle of patronage (often for their ethnic constituencies), replacing the former colonial elites as the outside world’s gateway to local riches, and changing very little in the lives of most of the citizens.
When Afrikaner nationalism’s vehicle, the National Party (NP), won the election in 1948, it quickly set about distributing patronage through the state to its ethnic constituency. Although the state and the civil service were seen as primarily in the service of the whites, the westernised Afrikaners who took over the state, using their mother-tongue, were, like post-colonial elites all over the third world, fiercely nationalist while at the same they craved western recognition (3). Afrikaner nationalists sought this recognition through further technological, economic and bureaucratic modernisation, which, in spite of many impressive achievements, failed where it mattered most: in reconciling imported colonial modernity with the needs of all the indigenous communities.
In these circumstances, when it became clear in the 1950s that the NP was not interested in serious dialogue with black political groupings, African nationalism’s main vehicle, the African National Congress (ANC), under the spirited and brave leadership of such people as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, gained momentum. Crucially for an African resistance movement, the ANC’s target was not a foreign colonial power, but a local power acting colonially, the NP. This explains why one of the key concepts of Nelson Mandela’s generation of leaders was non-racialism, through which they refused the racism of the NP; it has still has to become a reality in South Africa.
Instead of learning from the NP’s failures, the ANC repeated the anti-colonial errors of judgment: they also assumed that if only they could take over the state, there would be a truly new dispensation. The ANC, mostly under the influence of the South Africa Communist Party, also realised the need to take control of the economy, but until the fall of the Berlin Wall it was thought that nationalising key sectors would be the main way to do this.
By the time the ANC came to power in 1994, there were at least three powerful factions, belonging to two generations of leaders. These were the “Robben Islanders”, the older generation of leaders under Mandela (many were in prison with him); the “exiles”under Thabo Mbeki, a younger generation of leaders who had been in political exile from the 1960s to the early 1990s; and the “in-ziles”, also a younger generation, mostly former civil society activists who hadn’t gone into exile, with prominent names like the lawyer and now businessman Matthews Phosa, and the former trade unionist and also now businessman, Cyril Ramaphosa.
The “Robben Islanders” under Mandela first led the ANC after its unbanning in 1990, and the government from April 1994. Their guiding ideology was a non-racial nationalism and they laid strong emphasis on reconciliation. The combination of Mandela’s extraordinary unifying power, a relatively strong state and infrastructure, and the huge goodwill and trust in the future by the majority of citizens gave them a unique chance in South Africa’s history to balance imported modernity with outstanding local needs.
Laying the ground for social reform
Unfortunately they did not grasp this because of a failure to understand that even non-racial nationalism is an effect of the colonial political economy, rather than its alternative; a failure to rise to the challenges of the “Washington Consensus”, which meant South Africa, under Mbeki’s stewardship, was the first African government to “voluntarily” adopt the WC’s approach through the neo-liberal GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution) economic policy in 1996 without consulting the country or the ANC; and an adoption of race-based policies of positive labour discrimination (affirmative action) and economic empowerment of the poor (Black Economic Empowerment, BEE).
The last two factors, especially, laid the ground for the African race-nationalist exile faction led by Mbeki, who was deputy president at the time, and played the role of an executive prime minister. Their moment arrived at the ANC’s 50th national conference in December 1997 in Upington, when Mandela announced (in a speech widely believed to have been written by Mbeki) that the era of reconciliation was over, and the era of social transformation had begun, as envisioned in the Mbeki faction’s cherished project, the “National Democratic Revolution” (NDR).
The aims of the NDR have been stated bluntly by Mbeki’s senior policy aide, Joel Netshitenzhe – that the ANC as “vanguard” of the “masses of our people” should deploy its “loyal cadres” to take control of all sectors of society, including the economy, in which BEE, affirmative action and land restitution were to be key policy tools, and where the achievement of blunt racial quotas effectively became the main criterion of “success”.
The real disaster is a basic error of logic: wanting to correct the social injustices of the racist apartheid era by using race as guiding principle, instead of language or income levels, both of which overlap on the race-based social injustices of the past, but do not maintain an ugly fiction of race in the corrective policies.
What were the effects of the Mbeki approach? Its initial (now seriously threatened) achievements at first overshadowed the longer-term crisis that it has created. Through BEE and affirmative action, guided by the centralist NDR, a small black middle-class was created, of which the new black billionaires, such as Ramaphosa, are the proud symbol. But at the same time relatively little changed in the lives of the 60% poor to very poor South Africans, overwhelmingly black and living in townships or squatter camps.
State companies such as the national broadcaster, electricity provider (Eskom), telecommunications company (Telkom) and the civil service, from which more than a 100,000 skilled people (mostly white) have been lost since 1995, became vehicles of party patronage. The most important effect of this was the lack of improvement and indeed further collapse of public health, education, transport and other infrastructure; the 60% of poor, black South Africans suffer most from this.
The combination of the Department of Home Affairs’ collapse, the Zimbabwe crisis (Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” has failed spectacularly), and up to three million Zimbabwean refugees (turned into illegal immigrants by the department’s mismanagement of their status), and the poor control of borders, has caused a refugee crisis that remained unacknowledged by Mbeki, whose main tactic in a crisis is denial: even the 10 refugee camps that are being set up for more than 40,000 displaced Africans from other countries at the time of writing, are not officially called refugee camps, but temporary shelters.
In hindsight, the xenophobic violence that erupted in May was entirely predictable (and had been predicted by several intellectuals, such as Rhoda Khadalie in August 2006 in the daily Business Day, after attacks on Somali citizens in the Western Cape). Against the background of poor service delivery, crumbling infrastructure and continuing poverty in townships and squatter camps (mostly in the richest province, Gauteng, and the second richest province, the Western Cape), where many refugees live in desperate conditions, black South Africans, neglected by the government, finally turned against foreign citizens accused of taking houses and jobs. They had seldom in the 20th century displayed xenophobic behaviour but they now were perfect exemplars of the traumatised victim who demands recognition through violence against a weaker party.
Perhaps the most worrying sign for the Mbeki government is that its chief anti-poverty tool, social grants, financed by strong commodity and mineral prices, and (according to the minister of finance) currently provided to 12.4 million South Africans, did not buy the political stability that the government probably hoped for as pay-off for the devastating effects of its neo-liberal economics and state mismanagement.
In the broader colonial period of South Africa’s history, the Mbeki government has, through the threatened small black middle-class, reconfirmed the old post-colonial pattern of including a small part of its constituency in imported modernity without reforming it to address local needs. More crucially, through the erosion of the state and infrastructure (as well as its failure to stop the flood of skilled, mostly white, emigration), the Mbeki government has destroyed significant parts of the imported modernity. This is why anti-modern pathologies, which manifest in similar conditions all over the world (racism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia and fundamentalist forms of religion), are on the rise.
Does this mean that all hope is lost for South Africa? It needn’t be. Mbeki’s eviction as leader of the ANC in December 2007, and his replacement by Jacob Zuma, who connects both the exile and inzile factions, has opened up a space for serious national debate. Just as Mbeki’s eviction acted as a pressure-release valve for simmering anti-modern discontent, it also released new ideas from civil society into the public space. Whether South Africa slides further into anti-modern pathologies, or whether it re-invents itself, depends on how fast existing alternative policies, emphasising indigenous languages more, and community-orientated economics are adopted by the ANC, or by the new party the country now needs.
The trouble with the ANC is that the policy alternatives talked about by its main (and increasingly powerful) allies, the trade union federation Cosatu and the South Africa Communist Party, are still in a command-style economic vein, which will not work in the absence of an effective state, or in the presence of the country’s rich cultural diversity. Besides this, a new group of dubious characters in the Zuma camp, including convicted criminals elected in December to the ANC’s National Executive Committee, have vested interests in maintaining the illusion of a strong unified ANC as a vehicle of continued state patronage, tenders and contracts.
The main political hope for South Africa is now in its powerful civil society and rich cultural diversity. Together they have a wealth of local experience for workable policy alternatives and a record of true participation in change. But they will need help from friends all over the planet for the push beyond imported modernity and nationalism that must eventually come.