10 Sep 2021
By Roger Southall
It IS likely that historians will conclude that there was no reason why the recent riots and looting of supermarkets, shops and warehouses in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, South Africa’s two largest provinces. more important economically, have caught up with so many generally law-abiding citizens in their wake. There were apparently many dynamics at play, from the absolute poverty of many black citizens to the social media manipulation by supporters of former President Jacob Zuma, angered by his arrest.
However, one explanation that has been touted in various quarters has been that the upheaval was the result of the “racial capitalism” to which South Africa has been subjected over the centuries.
Such an explanation goes back to the racialized politics of the past and how they paired the political ideologies of segregation and apartheid promoted by white governments in South Africa prior to the democratic transition in 1994.
This view argues that the inequalities of the present, which continue to have a strong racial dimension, as well as the brutal treatment inflicted on the black poor – for example, by the 2012 Marikana police in the North West Province, when the police shot dead 35 protesting minors – are a product of the history of racial capitalism in South Africa.
It is hard not to agree with the thrust of much of the analysis that is presented in this vein. It is widely believed that the democratic transition of 1994 was the result of an “elite pact” that transformed the country’s politics but did little to undermine the foundations of white economic power.
It is continuity as much as change that characterizes the post-apartheid political economy. Nonetheless, South Africans must be careful to attribute all current crises to “racial capitalism”. Blaming racial capitalism for all the ills of the country can easily become a way to deflect responsibility from the country’s current politicians – and South Africans themselves.
The past as present
The colonial conquest took place in tandem with the development of capitalism. Both projects demand that non-whites, especially Africans, become instruments of service to others. Africans have been stripped of their land and property and have become the tools of their oppressors. This process was not stopped by the arrival of democracy.
When Lonmin miners in Marikana, in the platinum-rich Northwest Province, demanded a reasonable increase in their wages, the state colluded with foreign capital to crush their dissent. Inequality feeds this objectification of the human being, leading to greater exploitation of the poor, who are predominantly black.
The problem with the solution that is often provided – that the whole system of “racial capitalism” should be overturned – is that it is so remarkably bland. So it’s worth trying to deconstruct it.
So what should be done?
Does this imply that racism and capitalism are inseparable? If so, should the additional implication that capitalism itself be overthrown? Which might be a great idea, but first, is it practical and likely? Who should do the reversal? At what human and other cost (because it is unlikely that capital and the state will give up without a fight)? And what would be put in the place of capitalism? Is this a new socialist order, and if so, will South Africa follow historical examples (which on the whole have not been very successful) or chart it its own way?
Or is it the implication that capitalism can be deracialized? This is exactly what, in theory, the African National Congress (ANC), which has governed the country since 1994, has pledged to do through employment equity legislation. and economic empowerment of blacks.
Although the profile of the company, in terms of ownership and management personnel, has seen significant changes, most would agree that the achievements of ANC policies have been remarkably modest.
However, there remains a subject of considerable debate as to whether this is due to corporate resistance, social factors (such as the insufficient supply of suitably trained black personnel) and / or the incompetence of the workforce. ‘State.
Leaving aside the whole question of whether a deracialized capitalism would be less exploitative than a racialized capitalism, and if it would be less patriarchal, the most fundamental question is how South Africa can achieve this if current strategies – which most would agree are well-intentioned – prove insufficient to achieve their goals.
Should black employment equity and economic empowerment be enhanced, when the dominant cry of the business establishment is that increased regulation is a major obstacle to the influx of much-needed foreign investment? ? Will this increase or discourage a much needed increase in employment? Or should current strategies be rethought?
Often left out in such an analysis is the question of what kind of state will be needed to bring about the transformation into the more humane society that South Africans seek. The current disillusionment with the post-1994 order highlights the limits of South African democracy and how ANC domination has eroded it. Lately, a lot of attention has been focused on the ANC’s deployment strategy, how this has led to the substitution of political loyalty to the party for the ability to do the job, how deployment has led to corruption, how he destroyed crown corporations, how he undermined the effectiveness of government, and how he brought down local government.
The answer that is generally given is that it is necessary to undo the merger of party and state and to consolidate the independence of the state to allow expertise to flourish and ensure the rise of meritocracy. But then we end up with the conundrum of whether the ANC is capable of bringing about such a transformation, or if the ANC itself should be removed from power.
This, in turn, requires not only that he loses an election, but that he graciously acknowledges his loss if he does. Perhaps the two dimensions of that last sentence are improbable.
No easy answers
So where does all this lead in South Africa? Frankly I do not know. But I know that the answers to South Africa’s many problems are far from easy.
This doesn’t mean South Africans can’t come up with solutions their own way, and unless they give up, they have to believe they can. But, this is going to be extremely hard work. South Africans will have to talk to each other, listen to each other and negotiate hard with each other to find their way.
But one thing South Africans must take away from such complexity is that no realistic and achievable response will be obtained by taking postures. Alas, there are no easy answers. – The conversation.
- Southall is Professor of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand