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OPINION | Tembeka Ngcukaitobi’s keynote address ignores some facts

Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi delivers his keynote address at Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans event. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

By Jeff Rudin

I would go further than Mail & Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Ron Derby. He invited recipients of M&G Mornings (26 June) to read what he described as Tembeka Ngcukaitobi’s “honest dissertation of the South African story”. 

More than being “honest”, I would describe his dissertation presented as the keynote address at the Mail & Guardian’s Young 200 gala event, as an important contribution. I also think it is wanting in a number of important aspects. With a specific focus on South Africa, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi makes four main points covering: inequality, apartheid, the ANC and optimism. All of them come with their own particular buts. The theme of his address is captured by the heading: “Why so few South Africans have so much and so many, so little.”

Inequality

He uses a structuralist framework for all the types of South African inequality he covers.  For him: “We live in structural inequality, structural poverty and structural violence. … [S]tructural violence occurs where some social structure or social institution harms people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. …. Structuralism … focuses on structures that constrain social actions so that individuals are not completely free to make their own rational choices. Individuals are embedded in relational structures that shape their identities, interests and interactions. The structures are institutional …. Because of their political and economic influence, they can disable us from fulfilling our individual desires. 

The first of the “buts” is that all three of these structural features are common to all class divided societies everywhere throughout history. French economist Thomas Piketty’s celebrated book, Capital in The Twenty First Century, is not so much about inequality as the modern growth of inequality throughout the world.  

What then might be the specificities of Ngcukaitobi’s South African inequality?

(Blaming) Apartheid 

This, the second of his four points, is about history, evoked to explain the social and economic structures in which we live. Or, in the words of Derby’s brief introduction to Ngcukaitobi’s address: “The historical imbalances in our society that were purposefully designed to benefit a minority.”

Using the enduring legacy of apartheid, Ngcukaitobi concludes: “We inherited a concentrated economy from apartheid; concentrated by race, geography and social stratification.”

Showing that the economy is producing “winners and losers”, he identifies the losers as the working class. As for the winners, he states: “The development of the white race was achieved at the expense of the black race.”

With this black and white analysis, he is understandingly angered by the injustice of structural violence.  He tells his audience: “There are enough resources for all of us. Yet so few have so much and so many, so little. Structuralism as a method of analysis shows that this is not a design by God. God did not allocate resources in the world. We made the choices of who gets what and how much.” 

But he is largely silent about a significant group of beneficiaries privileged by the choices leaving so few with so much. This is especially surprising given that he lists Thungela as a standout company doing very well for its shareholders. Thungela is the largest South African coal exporter. Exxaro and Seriti supply 80% of Eskom’s coal. All three are black owned. Successful and dominant black-owned coal companies are among the black elite sharing the now enlarged and multi-racial bed made for the rich. This is an uncomfortable truth for those who, like Ngcukaitobi, attribute why “so many have so little” to the endurance of apartheid’s racialised poverty. Black privilege doesn’t fit easily into the supposed apartheid-bequeathed dualism in which only white wealth and black poverty is allowed. Although the black rich are relatively small in number and the black poor encompass much of South Africa’s population, both are fundamental to understanding South Africa’s political-economy.

It thus bears retelling that Thabo Mbeki, the chief architect of what he called the “black bourgeoisie”, had to cox them — “those of us who are black and … part of the new rich” — out of being “frightened and embarrassed” by their wealth. This happened while delivering his keynote address at the annual general meeting of the Black Management Forum in 1999. But his entreaties about rich black people being central to the struggle of creating a non-racial South Africa had to wait until the 2016 discovery of “White Monopoly Capital” (WMC). WMC provided Blackness with its needed competing identity, the White Other. Whiteness made redundant the need to explain the meaning of the decidedly obscure Marxian term “monopoly capital”. Whiteness, the hostile Other, became the instant embodiment of apartheid racism, the personalisation of a racialised enemy standing between them and the black riches that would be theirs were it not for the injustices of apartheid. 

This is racial capitalism — a term Ngcukaitobi uses — turned upside down by post-apartheid South Africa. In this racial capitalism, Mbeki’s black bourgeoisie, the former victims of white racism, use racism against their erstwhile oppressors to promote their exclusive interest in the sharing — albeit still not equally — of the wealth capitalism producers for the few, while simultaneously consigning the excluded many to various forms of poverty. 

For more on South African racial capitalism, “Racial Capitalism: Understanding South Africa before, during and after apartheid”, New Agenda, 2022, Issue 85, pp19-23 may be of interest; so, too, is “Cecil John Rhodes the racist is not guilty when it comes to today’s racial capitalism” in the Daily Maverick.

Even though Ngcukaitobi doesn’t directly address the co-existence of black wealth alongside black poverty, he tries using the ANC in an attempt to do so.

(Blaming) the ANC

“What was the point of the vote in 1994?” Ngcukaitobi asked his audience provocatively.  Saying that the Zondo state capture commission report “painted a picture of a failed revolution”, Ngcukaitobi continues: “Chief Justice Rayomond Zondo points to an ANC that is an enabler of capture, indifferent to capture and a beneficiary of capture. It’s come out of the pages of the … report as a dithering class, unable to make the crucial interventions when needed … Surely, a political crisis of governance is upon us.”

Few would question the reality of the “political crisis of governance”. But the inadequacy of this diagnosis of our ills — particularly when offered by Ngcukaitobi — obliges us to say:  More, please. Much more.

This must begin with the acknowledgement of our black bourgeoisie being among the essential winners in South Africa’s post-apartheid political economy. Also to be acknowledged is that the winners produced by our political economy go well beyond the ANC and its politically appointed cadres. Inequality, Ngcukaitobi told his audience, is caused by much more than corruption. He suggested it might indeed be an “inevitable by-product” of inequality. His elaborations of this inequality are important.  

Earlier in his address, he says it would have been “naïve adventurism” if the incoming ANC government of 1994 had ignored “the global system of capitalism”. He further acknowledges that the capitalism embraced by the ANC was in the form of “neoliberalism and market fundamentalism”. The winners and losers he speaks about are not the 29-year reproductions of apartheid but much more fundamentally the global productions of the neoliberal form of the capitalism he recognises. Race has little place in these outcomes. Despite the noise that sometimes comes from parliament and notwithstanding differences over details, no parliamentary party challenges the political economy that leaves their MPs among the privileged winners of a system that simultaneously produces a majority of losers.  

This is why parliament turns a blind eye to the extra-parliamentary manipulations of their own legislation supposedly introduced to promote post-apartheid transformation.  The Employment Equity Act (EEA) is an egregious example. The once hated apartheid-manufactured “races” are still ubiquitous in measuring the success — or failure — of transformation. Yet African, coloured, Indian are categories expressly excluded from the Act and all its many subsequent amendments. The Act is designed to benefit only one race — a generic black one. Section 27 of the Act of 1998 deals with income differentials.  It still remains in the 2023 iteration of the Act passed by parliament. Yet it still awaits proper implementation. The ANC, along with parliament, have long since abandoned the non-racial and egalitarian intentions of the original Act. Without these manipulations, the Act would hinder the advancement of the black bourgeoisie, more especially its African component. Labour federation Cosatu, having made the inclusion of addressing income differentials a condition of their support for the Act, has gone along with parliament in pretending it doesn’t exist. The inverted racial capitalism of post-apartheid South Africa — the use of race to privilege a black elite among the beneficiaries of capitalism — is the reason I offer for the persisting dominance of “race” in constitutionally non-racial South Africa.  

If only the ANC’s governance failures were the reasons South Africa is now the most unequal country in the world and why that inequality is most marked among Africans.

Optimism

Ngcukaitobi concluded his address on this optimistic note: “We don’t need to know the future. We don’t need to be free of doubt. We don’t need to be sure that we are supported by others, only that we believe in the idea.”

Yes, indeed. But there is a proviso. It all depends on the specificity of the idea. His idea is doomed by the political economy that unavoidably leaves so many with so little to ensure that so few have so much. We already know this future. Things will get only worse for the losers, while the winners will protect — and, indeed, seek to enhance — their privileges.  South Africa’s enduring embrace of the so-called “free trade” now unilaterally dumped by its former chief champions — the United States and European Union — will, among others, ensue further de-industrialisation along with increasing unemployment, poverty and inequality. The just announced 3% salary increase to senior public officials — beginning with the cabinet, MPs and judges — will make the black rich ever richer. The treasury’s insistence that no additional money will be made for this 3% increase and that the money must come from the existing budgets of the various departments guarantees the consequences of still further “austerity” for everyone else.

What happens with the knowledge that inequality between the rich and poor will survive and grow even more marked is full of unknowns. But the knowledge will at least be free of the magic otherwise required to reduce the inequality. A non-racial working class will eventually liberate itself. But it won’t do so without a better understanding of their oppression. This includes why apartheid’s manufactured racial divisions are used by the black rich to justify their wealth in a political economy that condemns most black people to poverty. I’d like to think that Tembeka Ngcukaitobi would agree with me here, despite possible differences over many details.  

Jeff Rudin is with the Alternative Information Development Centre in Cape Town. He writes in his personal capacity.

*This Opinion Piece was first published by the Mail & Guardian

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