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Seven tragic days in July: Trying to make (some) sense of South Africa by hearing old themes with new(er) clarity

Seven tragic days in July: Trying to make (some) sense of South Africa by hearing old themes with new(er) clarity

Jeff Rudin | DailyMaverick |  20 July 2021

The untold tragedies of our days in July 2021 urge us to continue dreaming. This is how we change ourselves and the world that creates us as we, reciprocally, create, sustain and pass it on to everyone else. For us as South Africans, we can begin realising Martin Luther King’s dream by moving way beyond the chimeral securities of race and its racial thinking.

Jeff Rudin works at the Alternative Information & Development Centre.

“First, there is the good news. The storm will subside. We will reset as if nothing happened. That is the bad news. We will move on and not deal with the underlying causes of this massive stress test of our democratic state. Until it happens again, we anguish, and then we forget, again… We are in an intense search to make meaning out of the explosion of community violence and wholesale looting… The explanations given are breathtaking in their range – tribalism, terrorism, poverty, inequality, unemployment, pandemic stress and more.”

Jonathan Jansen (14/07/21)

Unlike the early contributions – including those in Daily Maverick’s “Age of Anarchy” series of 15 July 2021 – I, with the luxury of thinking time, might be able to suggest layers of complexity difficult to reach by the demands of instant comment.

Underlining these commentaries is the need for introspection, distilled into two fundamental questions: how did we get here and what is to be done? The single dominant answer to both is various forms of the failure of Transformation. This is well captured by Andrew Gasnolar:

“The lived experience of the vast majority continues to be shaped by an exclusionary system that has been far too slow to change.”

Poverty, unemployment and inequality shape this lived experience, all agree. (The missing psychological experiences are covered by Wahbie Long).

Are these features exceptional to South Africa?

The first complexity is to ask whether this syndrome is specific to South Africa. If it isn’t, these shared disorders need to be better understood so that we may be best placed to tackle the undoubted South African specificities in which they confront us.

A globally acknowledged lesson of Covid-19 has not been so much a reminder of worldwide poverty, but an enforced recognition of the inequality imprinted in all countries across the globe, from the richest to the poorest. Poverty and wealth are not only global but have been with us since the beginning of what historians call “the age of plenty”, marked by the world’s First Industrial Revolution in mid-18th-century Britain. 

Against the backdrop of the new industrial wealth, Charles Dickens helped popularise the squalor, child labour and horrendous working conditions of mid-19th-century Britain. Writing about this period, Friedrich Engels described the conditions he studied as “social murder”.

“When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results… we call [t]his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of [people] in such a position that they inevitably meet an unnatural death…; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live… and yet permits these conditions to remain, [this] deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual.”

It would be hard to argue that some of the conditions of even pre Covid-19 South Africa are not akin to the English social murder of 174 years ago.

The “exclusionary system” of racialised poverty is what makes global inequality (almost) exclusive to South Africa. This is the likely response of most South Africans to the mayhem of looting. But it would be mistaken. A second level of complexity (with four more coming) should show why.

How and why did post-apartheid South Africa become racialised?

If the very question is so obvious that it surprises, this is a measure of how quickly we’ve forgotten our short history of the “new” South Africa.

The re-telling of this period must begin with a reminder: race written into human DNA is scientific nonsense. There are no specifically racial determinations or predispositions to anything. Yet even a ready agreement that race is entirely a social construct and even a further agreement that race was a construction co-terminus with the mainly 16th-century introduction of European slavery and, still further, that it was extended – ultimately by apartheid – to justify the dehumanisation of Africans, is evidently forgotten in our lived experience. Thus, we are now entirely comfortable with what were once the reviled apartheid categories: the four racial inventions of African, coloured, Indian and white.

We have, additionally, quickly managed to forget the disquiet that initially made even the word “race” a taboo; a word too painful to use, with “demographics” being among the favourite euphemisms. Similarly, non-racialism – a founding principle of South Africa’s Constitution – was soon relegated to being only “aspirational”. “Race” had to be reconstructed, with President Thabo Mbeki as the principal architect; a role his key objective of creating what he called the “black bourgeoisie” unexpectedly forced on him.

Along with the freedom given to all of us by 1994, was the entirely new political power now (unequally) exercised by black leaders acutely aware of having no commensurate economic power. The would-be capitalists of the new, non-racial South Africa faced the dilemma of how to become capitalists without capital. Affirmative action, preferential state procurement and BEE soon followed, as the legal products of political power, with corruption being the illegal bedfellow. Wealth began flowing into black hands, whether or not legally.

But there was an unexpected obstacle: how to reconcile this new wealth with their former revolutionary commitments to the black majority who remained locked in their poverty?

Mbeki, developing his concerns from 1998, addressed this problem in 1999, when speaking about black guilt. The wealth of the new black elite created black inequalities disquietingly reminiscent of the (still fresh in mind) racialised apartheid inequalities.

This, he said, “frightens and embarrasses all those of us who are black and might be part of the new rich. Accordingly, we walk as far and as fast as we can from the notion that the struggle against racism in our country must include the objective of creating a black bourgeoisie”.

Mbeki hastened to reassure his audience that these fears were unfounded. “We… [must] abandon our embarrassment about the possibility of the emergence of successful and therefore prosperous black owners… and think and act in a manner consistent with a realistic response to the real world.”

Mbeki’s correct “real world” approach was to turn the creation of black wealth into the good of a constitutional imperative. Saying that the Constitution prescribed the creation of “a non-racial society… [by] the deracialisation of… ownership”, and, moreover, that they should be at ease with their wealth for it was integral to the ANC’s “central task” of “the defeat and elimination of racism”, failed to strike the intended chord. Championing race, to achieve non-racialism, didn’t resonate well; not least, for some, because the ANC had recently abandoned the non-racial transformation provided by the Reconstruction and Development Programme.

Five years later, in November 2004, ANC leader Smuts Ngonyama tried a less tortured approach. Defending his involvement in a BEE deal – a R6.6-billion stake in Telkom, with a likely profit of over R150-million – he spoke plainly: “I didn’t join the Struggle to be poor.”

Unfortunately for him (and all the others), telling the truth merely made his words notorious. Acknowledging class self-interests was clearly not the way to go.

Mbeki’s black bourgeoisie had to wait until 2016 before they stumbled on a sure winner: make race, not class or non-racialism, the focus. Welcome to White Monopoly Capital (WMC) – Note: not capitalism but just the colour of the capital.

The racialised appeal was immediate. It fed directly into the requirement for growing Blackness to have its competing identity, the necessary Other. With “race always being a relational construct” – as Deborah Posel points out – the meaning of Blackness both implies and depends on Whiteness (both capitalised to denote their politically infused identities). Whiteness made redundant the need to explain the decidedly obscure term, WMC. Whiteness alone suffices to turn it into Enemy Number One, into White Supremacy, into the need for decolonisation. At a stroke, Whiteness meets all that is required of an instantly recognised and powerfully evocative Other – the perfect antagonist.

There are also contingent bonuses, including:

  • Despite the monopoly capital part of the concept, it is sufficiently race-fixated to metamorphise some black people white. Thus, even some self-identified Marxists like Irvin Jim, Numsa’s General Secretary, argue it is not the Guptas‚ but – to spell out and update his meaning – the Mandelas, Ramaphosas and other sell-outs, including the Constitutional Court and the current NPA, who stand indicted in the “institutionalised corruption of the whole white monopoly capitalist system… [as] the people who have captured the state” (Sowetan 21/3/16);
  • WMC legitimises endless pressure for still more affirmative action, BEE and the exorbitant salaries enjoyed by both private and public executives, including MPs; and
  • WMC obscures black wealth. Being the perfect class camouflage is possibly the most important of these additional dividends.

Racialising wealth, courtesy of the White Other, enriches black wealth in yet another major way. This brings us to the next of the levels of complexity on offer.

Poverty’s black face guaranteed in perpetuity

Wealth is only one face of the inequality disfiguring South Africa. Black poverty is the other. However, because Africans are 80% of our population and workers, the unemployed and the otherwise Xcluded constitute most South Africans, these demographics alone ensure its permanency.

Moreover, no searchlight is needed to enhance the visibility of poor Africans. And it is specifically Africans that count. It is they – “our people” – who are heavily prioritised in the formula standardised in its use way beyond formal ANC circles: blacks in general, Africans in particular.

Enabling this description to be conflated into an in-your-face racialisation with pretensions to scientific analysis requires the Employment Equity Act (EEA). But not the parliamentary one passed in 1998, nor any of its subsequent amendments. All statistics having anything to do with demography, employment, and equality, that is, all the statistics using the apartheid categories of African, coloured and Indian are impostors: not only are they not to be found in the Employment Equity Acts, but they were expressly rejected by the parliamentary labour portfolio committee whose recommendations were endorsed by Parliament in 1998. 

The only colours to be found in the EEA are black and white. This further means the colouring of the category of women into African, coloured, Indian and white is similarly not to be found in the statute in whose name they continue being collected.

As recently as this year, Parliament has never questioned this continued recycling of apartheid’s hated “races”. Very few of the rest of us ever do. This is why the idea of racialised poverty remains – as intended – as unquestioned as white wealth.

This story has been told many times elsewhere.

Racialised poverty – poverty with its black face – hides not only the enormous wealth of the black bourgeoisie, but the power of the “black” government to alleviate it.

Racial capitalism – turned upside down

That the racialised inequality we too readily take to be a South African exclusive is – or, at least, might be – manufactured out of the White Other, that it does so with further buttressing by doctored official statistics offered as (implicitly) analytic proof, returns us to the global ubiquity of inequality; a defining characteristic of capitalism that is as old as capitalism itself. This already argued worldwide feature is not without its South African particularities. They are the penultimate level on offer to a different way of understanding the traumas of the seven days that shook South Africa.

Classical racial capitalism – the period from the discovery of diamonds and gold to the terminal days of apartheid – perfectly encapsulates the dehumanisation of African labour that enriched not only the formal capitalists but the whole of white society (including those usually seen to be workers) built on and around the otherwise unconscionable exploitation racism made respectable.

In today’s inverted form, a now politically liberated African elite use racism against the former whites to force open the Treasury vault to which white monopoly held the apartheid-bequeathed key. White guilt and fear help to make this possible.

Capitalism, the constant in both the original and current forms of racial capitalism, ensured the production and reproduction of inequality.

Jaco Barnard-Naudé, another Daily Maverick contributor to your introspective series, offers this bleak conclusion: “The depressing thing from the perspective of the left (if there is still such a thing) is the total absence… of any positive Utopian alternative.”

I think he’s mistaken. My final cogitative level of complexity explains why.

Martin Luther King’s dream

For Marx, the simultaneous production of poverty and wealth constituted “the absolute general law of capital accumulation”. However, this does not mean that nothing can be done until capitalism miraculously implodes on its own. Reforms are not only desirable, but an essential part of the struggle now seemingly so far distant as to be derided as Utopian. The looting and destruction of property that so challenged and frightened many of us demands a whole range of urgent interventions. All of them are a direct challenge to the government’s austerity policies and the broader neoliberalism they represent.

The call, however, is for reform – not revolution. This imposes major restrictions on what is even feasible. Yet the limits of reform in the face of what is now being recognised still needs adequate exploration by its own proponents. What are the status quo limits to what can be done about poverty, unemployment and inequality?

The limits to reform still allow a deeper challenge involving all of us, which makes it much more personal, as part of the invited radical ethical revolution. It begins with us having to change ourselves, with or without broader systemic change.

Adopting the words of Andrew Gasnolar, another Daily Maverick contributor, there must be “No Othering. We cannot other this crisis.” Race is an abomination. If only it were the only abhorrence confronting us! Alas, this is far from the case – even though South Africans think race is the only Identity soaked in the blood of centuries. It’s not even the first one in the annals of human history. 

Just consider class, religion and language, and the universality of clans and then tribes, so that early European explorers had a name for the social organisations they found elsewhere. Country and national Identity soon followed. And then add gender and sexual orientations that grow so rapidly that the alphabet soup of letters now used ends with a + sign in case anyone is left out. This is not to demean the varieties of sexuality. They, like the others, reflect the deep importance of the very personalised Identities we give ourselves.

They all reflect our lived experience in the most profound of ways. What we don’t seem to recognise is the thread common to all our experiences: we live in a world reflective of the antagonistic competition naturalised by inequality and the insecurities it engenders; a world in which belonging to the haves in contrast to the survival and socially demeaning existence of the Xcluded have-nots is an absolute imperative; this is the world of winners and losers into which we place ourselves and others. In a word, our experience is the alienated embodiment of “them” and “us”. This is what gives power to Identity; diversity is not the same as, but better than.

And, yet, like with race, our Identities are individual pseudo-protections cloaked in the life-force of social constructions. For there are no Others, only a universal Us, which we are so negligent seeing (as I have argued elsewhere). In big-picture terms, this means: away with all competing – and therefore antagonistic and divisive – Identities. This includes the economic systems built on and sustained by them.

Today, this is Utopian.

But we can – I would say must – make a beginning. We celebrate Martin Luther King but forget his dream, which was to move beyond racial Identities. Perhaps this is one reason why he was assassinated.

But there are other dreamers. Like John Lennon.

“Imagine there’s no heaven… Imagine there’s no countries… Nothing to kill or die for And no religion, too. Imagine no possessions… No need for greed or hunger. A brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people, Sharing all the world. You may say I’m a dreamer, But I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, And the world will live as one.”

He, too, was assassinated.

The untold tragedies of our days in July 2021 urge us to continue dreaming. This is how we change ourselves and the world that creates us as we, reciprocally, create, sustain and pass it on to everyone else.

For us as South Africans, we can begin realising Martin Luther King’s dream by moving way beyond the chimeral securities of race and its racial thinking. But this would be just the beginning. Arriving, after a long road, at John Lennon’s destination of his Imaginings would mark the end of what Marx called human prehistory. The ultimate death of class – the universal division – would at once herald the birth of the full flowering of human diversity in celebration of ourselves as recognised social individuals free from the burdens of the masks we used to hide behind in order to give ourselves meaning, importance and security.  

There are dreams and songs of hope in the seven-day cries of death, desperation, anger and fear. Will we hear them? Will we heed them?

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