How the flaws in the post-apartheid political settlement have shaped the current anti-immigrant sentiments
Last week, “popular” anger in South Africa exploded into a new wave
of violence. Youths wielding machetes and looking like Rwanda’s
interahamwe in 1994 roamed the streets burning and/or slashing their
victims without pity. The violence was both saddening and illuminating.
It was saddening because it reinforced the stereotypes about Africans as
being of barbaric disposition. It was illuminating because it
demonstrated the fundamental flaw in the political settlement in
post-apartheid South Africa.
A lot has been written about how Nelson Mandela crafted South Africa
into a democratic society whose cornerstone was respect for diversity –
hence the term “rainbow nation”. And there is a lot of truth in this
narrative. For example tensions between whites and blacks have been held
at bay in spite of high levels of inequality. However, the drive to
elevate Mandela to super human, almost godly, status tended to
over-simplify South Africa’s reality, exaggerate the results of his
work, and push under the carpet glaring pitfalls in the political system
that replaced apartheid.
Mandela is rightly credited for helping craft a democratic
constitution for South Africa. But the discourse that has been sung
loudly by Western leaders, mass media, scholarship, and regurgitated by
many African elites has always focused on the rituals of democracy even
when these did not serve any democratic function. For example, in
negotiating the end of apartheid, Mandela allowed white South Africa to
retain (almost intact) the economic structure of apartheid.
Apartheid was essentially an economic system. Its aim was to keep the
“native” Africans poor so that they can provide cheap labour to the
white industrial aristocracy that owned the commanding heights of the
economy – finance, mines, manufacturing, etc. The “democratic”
constitution of South Africa entrenched a regime of “rights” to protect
privileges that were accumulated through racial oppression. It paid only
lip service to the demands for social justice and equity that had
animated the struggle for independence.
The challenge facing post-apartheid South Africa whether the country
could retain an economic system that reinforces white privilege but
sustain a system that gives political power to the black majority? The
answer seemed yes. South Africa’s whites have a hostage in form of its
private economy. If the black majority attempted to use its political
power to economically dispossess the white minority, whites could
retaliate using the international system and their economic power. By
sending their capital abroad, whites can precipitate an economic crisis.
Economic crises can precipitate political collapse, something that
would undermine the ability of the ANC to sustain the welfare handouts
to its black voters. (By 2010 the number of people, largely black, who
depended on state welfare grants for daily survival, was 13 million with
the possibility of an additional 7 million).
Hence the ANC has been careful not to attempt anything revolutionary.
This is perhaps because they appreciate the ability of the economically
wealthy to punish the politically powerful. In neighbouring Zimbabwe,
President Robert Mugabe sought to alter this equilibrium. He has used
political power to dispossess the economically powerful. Using their
economic power at home and their cultural and business ties with the
West, they were able to retaliate with economic sanctions and diplomatic
isolation, precipitating economic collapse in Zimbabwe. However, this
failed to bring about regime collapse. It is possible that the West
punished Mugabe harshly in order to send a clear message to South Africa
about the evil that would be visited on its economy and on ANC leaders
if they attempted any radical reordering of property rights.
Without ability to reform the structures of the economy in a radical
fashion to serve their large black constituency, the ANC retreated to
piecemeal policies like the black empowerment program. However, these
programs turned into a treasure trove for ANC big wigs. The top
leadership of the ANC became super-millionaires by using their political
connections to get lucrative government contracts. These joined the
white business class, thus creating a common class interest. It is also
true that a sizeable black middleclass made up of professionals and
small to medium size enterprise owners has consolidated. However, these
constitute about 18% of the black population. The real challenge for
South Africa is the fate of 33 million poor blacks.
For lack of 2011-15 figures, let me use statistics of 2010 in South
Africa. With a population of about 50 million people, blacks constituted
80 percent i.e. 40 million. By then 48% of blacks were unemployed; 33
million lived in poverty of whom 15 million were “very poor” (and
earning just 7% of national income) and 18 million were chronically
poor” (living off only 5% of national income). Average life expectancy
at birth for blacks had fallen from 62 years in 1990 to 49 years in
2007. (Compare this with poor Rwanda whose average life expectancy has
increased from 25 years in 2000 to 63 years in 2013). And 60% of blacks
in South Africa were worse off than they were under apartheid while 24%
of adults were illiterate. South Africa has overtaken Brazil as the most
unequal society in the world. The income gap between whites and blacks
is now worse than under apartheid.
With such a record, how would the ANC and other black leaders in
South Africa retain their legitimacy? It was inevitable that xenophobia
would be the answer. The ruling elite need to divert the attention of
the impoverished black voters from the corruption and incompetence of
the system – by inventing an external enemy, the immigrant from other
African countries. It is a smart albeit callous way of dealing with the
explosive situation. Of course the rich black South African elite are
not united in this cause.
Thus, as the ANC fails to make a fundamental change in the economic
situation of the black majority, its leaders will directly or indirectly
resort to xenophobia. But xenophobia will not solve the failures
inherent in the way the ANC is mismanaging South Africa. It will only
postpone them. Once immigrants are gone, a new enemy will be invented
and I suspect it will be the rich white man. Then South Africa will
embark on the road to Zimbabwe with its tragic consequences. But this
will be a short term fix that will not resolve the underlying problem:
how do you organise the economy to serve the interests of all citizens?
When these imaginary enemies are done with, the ANC will have no excuses
but to address this fundamental question.