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COLOUR OF MONEY OP-ED: Cecil John Rhodes the racist is not guilty when it comes to today’s racial capitalism

By Jeff Rudin  | Daily Maverick | 11 Apr 2023 

Applying Rhodes’s racial capitalism to post-1994 South Africa obfuscates the entire matter of what former president Thabo Mbeki called the ‘black bourgeoisie’ whose creation, consolidation and expansion has been one of the only successes of the democratic era.

Oh, how I wish I could agree with Yvonne Phyllis’s recent Daily Maverick article“Cecil John Rhodes’ vision is alive on white-owned farms in South Africa”! There are many reasons why I can’t.

Rhodes was a ruthless racist, but it is far too easy to attribute the racism saturated into today’s South Africa to him, as Phyllis seeks to do. Rhodes indeed took measures to provide the capitalism he was eager to bring to South Africa with the working class without whom there can be no capitalism.

The racism inherent in these measures also ensured that the forcibly created African working class simultaneously provided the desired inhumanly cheap, plentiful and mainly undemanding labour.

The capitalism Rhodes birthed in the late 19th century is alive and well in the South Africa of 2023. But is it the racial capitalism Phyllis says it is? I think not.

Daily Maverick has published several articles on racial capitalism over the years (here, here and here). These – and similar – articles maintain there’s a good reason for the almost certain South African origin of the now global concept of racial capitalism.

The original concept begins with the discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1886) in what were then the Boer Republics of the Orange Free State and Transvaal respectively, and concludes with apartheid’s consolidation of the customs, laws and comprehensive state machinery reproducing white supremacy.

Built on the racialised legitimation of the super-exploitation of African labour, racial capitalism offers a gold-standard two-word analysis and description of how the use of race – prescribing access to the class privileges of capitalism – came to shape all aspects of South African life for well more than a century.

Race-thinking is dominant, not just in South Africa but in those former centres of 19th-century colonialism – including, as an exception, the US – that now have significant “non-white” populations. This thinking has made racial capitalism de rigueur in academia. Much of this racial capitalism is, in my view, fools’ gold, at best.

Phyllis’s attempt to squeeze today’s South Africa into the original racial capitalism mould is anachronistic. We need to look below the appearances of the black and white of yesteryear, for it obfuscates her stated aim of replacing capitalism. Nevertheless, as I shall seek to show, a very different racial capitalism from the original one does indeed facilitate our understanding of modern South Africa.

A more critical look at Phyllis’s paper serves also to highlight why I think much of the current use of racial capitalism provides capitalism with unintended support. I would not have written this article were it not for her paper’s exemplification of these wider issues.

For convenience, I have grouped the main arguments of her article under three broad headings.

1 Rhodes: The supposed architect of modern South Africa

In the words of her article:

“All these years after Rhodes laid the foundation for… South Africa, commercial farms continue to function in terms of the logic of racial capitalism. … [A]t the centre is the insistence on the ‘cheap labour’ system and the racialised forms of labour that govern this system.”

Apart from capitalism needing cheap labour everywhere, not just in South Africa, the article merely asserts the racialised form of labour. Currently farm labour is indeed overwhelmingly black in appearance. But to claim more than this appearance, to present it as a predetermined outcome of “race” in a South Africa that has repealed all the discriminatory legislation and abandoned the state institutions enforcing and defending those essentials of apartheid, necessitates some detailed demonstration.

With today’s South Africa – according to Phyllis’s article – exemplifying “Rhodes’ vision” that

“Black people should be subjected to manual/physical labour, to landlessness, to a racially unequal society”

what is required is nothing less than an explanation of how – or even the extent to which – the gold-standard racial capitalism created by Rhodes applies to the supposed racialised poverty of today.

Land ownership is indeed heavily concentrated. But this is hardly unique to South Africa, contrary to the impression created by racial capitalism’s anachronistic racialisation of the ownership.

Rhodes was able to introduce his now notorious Glen Grey Act of 1894 because he was prime minister of the Cape Colony. It also helped that he was first among the enormously wealthy Randlords, having formed, in 1888, what was then a near worldwide diamond monopoly, the still strong De Beers.

Cyril Ramaphosa has been president of South Africa since 2018 and vice-president since 2014. Also, like Rhodes, he was a highly successful businessperson before, in his case, his re-entry into parliamentary politics. Indeed, he reportedly drew heavily on his wealth to ensure his election as ANC president in 2017.

Again, like Rhodes, he, along with all his democratically elected – and all-African (in context, more accurate than black) – predecessors, used his political position to promote and protect his class position. This includes all the members of his class, beginning, more specifically, with the African rich. There is nothing remotely unusual in this, whether in South Africa or any other capitalist country.

What is unusual – indeed, highly noteworthy – is that none of this is addressed in any direct and elaborated manner by those using racial capitalism to explain today’s purportedly racialised poverty.

Indeed, the silence deafens when it comes to African wealth. The silence allows, in this instance, for Phyllis to hold Rhodes accountable, as we have seen, for the subjugation of black people to a state of manual labour, landlessness and the poverty – only the poverty! – of a racially unequal society.

Applying Rhodes’s racial capitalism to post-1994 South Africa obfuscates – rather than just leaving unaddressed – the entire matter of what former president Thabo Mbeki called the “black bourgeoisie” whose creation, consolidation and expansion has been one of the only successes of the democratic era. Besides the business success of people like billionaire Patrice Motsepe (and Ramaphosa), the African rich predominate in government, Parliament, the senior levels of the civil service, state-owned enterprises and other state agencies.

2 The confusions of colonialism

The broader public discovery of decolonisation is a legacy of the student rebellion of 2015-16. Politicians and other public figures suddenly began recognising the importance of the colonial period. Indeed, colonialism often replaces even apartheid in the horrors of our pre-1994 history.

But it’s a colonialism of a special type. Not the special type as used by the South African Communist Party, but rather the racialised one, the one that, largely by implication, is exclusive to white colonisers, as perpetrators, and black colonised, as victims.

Yvonne Phyllis’s paper repeats this exclusively white-on-black understanding of colonialism. For her, today’s South Africa displays the

“racial, paternalistic and abusive worker-employer relationships… characteristic of colonialism [in which]… both ownership [“private [property”] and the wage relations are fundamentally mediated by race.”

The Native Land Acts of 1913 and 1936 were, accordingly,

“very clear about who should benefit from colonialism and who must suffer from it. The suffering was systemic by design and remains systemic today.”

Excluded from this racialised understanding of colonialism is the long history of empires, regardless of size, place or time. All empires – with Sumeria being the first about 5,000 years ago – began by expanding into the territory of their immediate neighbour/s. This, for example, is as true of the expanded Zulu Kingdom under Shaka or England’s conquest of Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

Given that the word “colony” comes from the Latin “colonia”, meaning a Roman settlement in a conquered territory, the only difference between the multiple expansions-by-conquest and what became known as various European colonies is that what we now call “races” didn’t exist. They had to wait until developments in seafaring made possible the European Voyages of Discovery. This is to say, the “colour” of the conquered people is of relatively recent consequence.

But empathy – a defining characteristic of our species and a feature shared by most people – is of huge consequence. Seeing ourselves in others requires rationalisations when the treatment of others is inhuman. When exploitation is involved – regardless of period or place – different languages, religions or customs are invoked to dehumanise the Other, thereby making their treatment morally tolerable.

In the absence of any counter-research, white racism has little to do with the egregious scale of black poverty.

Thus, for instance, responding to a reporter’s question about intolerable wages and conditions during a strike in the US in 1902, a leading businessman, George Baer, said of the “white” Polish, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Romanian workers: “They don’t suffer; they don’t even speak English.”

“Race” was also invoked to justify the much larger scale suffering of workers – including women and children – immortalised by Charles Dickens in his novels of the people whose labour produced England’s Industrial Revolution.

But colour, similarly to the US example, was not part of this “race”. As Kenan Malik reminds us, such were the stark class differences between England’s genteel classes and its workers that they were considered to be entirely different races, despite their shared whiteness.

The same thinking applies to the top end of the class pyramid – those who were successful in business and the professions. Race is central to Francis Galton’s eugenics, which he defined in 1883 to mean well-born or “good in stock”. Thus, white judges, commanders, poets and scientists were among those he said constituted different races. He was knighted for his contribution to psychology and statistics in 1909. 

Among those privileged by capitalism and, as the final instance of what I’ve called the colonial confusions I’ll be addressing here, is agricultural land ownership. Having earlier told us about the Native Land Acts, and their clarity as to who should benefit from colonialism, Phyllis’s paper brings racial capitalism to modern South Africa.

We are told “white people still” own land “in abundance” – evidently no less than 72% of privately owned farms and agricultural holdings by individual landowners, according to the 2017 Land Audit.

Land ownership is indeed heavily concentrated. But this is hardly unique to South Africa, contrary to the impression created by racial capitalism’s anachronistic racialisation of the ownership. Skewed land ownership is a key characteristic of all class societies both before and after colonialism. Only its legitimation changes over time.

A 2020 report by the International Land Coalition and Oxfam, “Uneven Ground: Land Inequality at the Heart of Unequal Societies”, reveals that the largest 1% of farms use more than 70% of the world’s farmland. It further finds that the wealthiest 10% of rural populations own 60% of the land by value, while the poorest 50% have only 3% of the land value.

Saying that levels of land inequality are high everywhere and rising and that the inequality is particularly high in Latin America, the US and parts of Europe, the report offers Britain as “a stark example”. And so it is, for half the land is owned by 1% of the people.

Yet after 1994 South Africa’s undoubtedly skewed land ownership is (typically) attributed to colonialism, with its white perpetrators and white beneficiaries!

All the above is my attempt to show why the normalised practice of colour coding of everything in today’s South Africa is a red herring. Nevertheless, no one can deny the dominance of “race” in the thinking of the new South Africa. That our Constitution prominently proclaims us to be a nonracial society is an inconvenience to be ignored.

Attempting to make sense of this seeming paradox invites the question, not of why, but rather who benefits from the racialisation so ubiquitous as to guarantee making the founders of apartheid proud?

3 Racial capitalism turned on its head

Having already written on this subject over the years, I offer a brief summary.

The people Thabo Mbeki called the black bourgeoisie have been using the white supremacy of South Africa pre-1994 as an expressly racist battering ram to force open the enormous wealth of South Africa, but only for their own exclusive benefit. This use of race against the former oppressors to promote their class interests within the stark inequalities of an unchallenged – and still unchanged – capitalism is what I mean by today’s South Africa being a modern – ironic and largely unrecognised – form of racial capitalism.

South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy left the African population with negotiated political power but without any of the commensurate economic power, other than as a huge unrealised expectation. The evidence suggests that the ANC, having first looked after the economic well-being of its own leaders and principal other supporters, turned its attention to the unchallenged task of creating the black bourgeoisie. This wasn’t easy. The problem was how to create capitalists without capital, for apartheid had left the African population impoverished.

It took many years before the ANC found a way of turning capitalism’s perpetual production of inequality – of both poverty and wealth – to the assured advantage of their upwardly mobile supporters and would-be capitalists. Besides other things, this means more than just abandoning their commitment to non-racialism. It means creating the White Other as the cause of African poverty. Black wealth uses white supremacy as a convenient cover in which to hide itself. It means the colour coding of the mysterious thing called “monopoly capital”. The White Other additionally helps assuage the guilt of the black bourgeoisie for their seemingly shameless role in contributing to South Africa being the most unequal country in the world. 

In this regard, it is well worth reminding ourselves of what Mbeki said in his Fourth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture Address. No less significant than what he said is that he spoke in what would now be considered the innocent days of 2006. After accusing world capitalism of effectively stealing the human “soul” – of morality and solidarity – he continued:

“Everyday and during every hour… the demons embedded in our society… seem always to beckon each one of us…. With every passing second, they advise, with rhythmic and hypnotic regularity – get rich! get rich! get rich!…

“In these circumstances personal wealth and the public communication of the message that we are people of wealth, becomes… the message that we are worthy citizens… the very exemplars of what defines the product of a liberated South Africa.”

Given upside-down racial capitalism’s need to bedevil the White Other, it is not unimportant that Mbeki attributes the “get rich” injunction in South Africa not to capitalism, but to a specifically white capitalism. Thus:

“Because the white minority was the dominant social force in our country, it entrenched in our society as a whole, including among the oppressed, the deep-seated understanding that personal wealth constituted the only true measure of individual and social success.”

This soothing of guilt is a largely unrecognised virtue of the White Other. A vicious cycle is thus created: the White Other assuaging the guilt that energises the need for the White Other, and so on.  

System change

Whether because of unemployment, poverty, inequality, climate change, alienation, justice or just a longing for Utopia, many people have many reasons for seeking system change. Many of these people name capitalism as the system in need of change.

For those who (like me) seek that specific change, capitalism is taking an unconscionable time passing on. Disarray within the Left doesn’t help. Theoretical differences are fine but avoidable confusions are a luxury. Racism has still to be buried in South Africa and, while still kicking, it does make life more difficult for some of the upwardly mobile Africans, notwithstanding the imperatives of affirmative action. But, in the absence of any counter-research, white racism has little to do with the egregious scale of black poverty.

Recognition of the essential need for creating and sustaining a hostile and all-powerful White Other is central to the class interests of the African rich, within the inequalities unavoidably produced by capitalism. Blaming racism for these inequalities benefits all capitalists, regardless of colour.

Concurring with this analysis of racial capitalism-standing-on-its-head is hopefully a constructive contribution to a far better, more just and less unequal South Africa. DM

*This Opinion Piece was first published by the Daily Maverick

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