Saviours of society?

Numerous cases of corruption, especially within state-owned enterprises, should force us to pose serious questions about the capability and viability of the black middle class to transform society. This is more so because the “emergent black middle class”, conventional wisdom holds, is the saviour of the new South Africa.

To mention that corrupt members of this group are a minority is trite. Most of them are honest, hard-working people who shun corruption in all forms, otherwise nothing would be working in this country.
But there is a definite and visible trend in which a significant segment of this class regards state assets as personal fiefdoms. This is where the problem lies, and we should take stock of just where this trend is taking us.

A stark example is a comment by a Transnet spokesperson who, in response to a query about fraud charges against a senior executive, arrogantly stated that the alleged corruption problems within that organisation “are an internal matter”. This points to an incipient and serious danger that needs to be confronted.

The usual justification for the government’s current economic policy is that the cultivation of a black middle class will expand the economy, lead to the creation of jobs and contribute to the development of the country. Despite the merits of these arguments — which are in reality untested — it is prudent to caution against the uncritical view that somehow this class will miraculously work for the benefit of society as a whole. This is misleading, as frequent instances of errant and corrupt behaviour show.

There is nothing in itself wrong with growing a black middle class. Given the history of this country, policies need to ensure that black people are represented at all levels of society. What is difficult to understand is why this class is accorded primacy and centrality as the agent of societal change to the exclusion, subordination and disregard of other agents of development and transformation.

A democratically elected government has the duty, obligation and right to pursue a path of social transformation. Given that development is a multifaceted activity that requires multiple fulcrums, depending overly on one section of society for this enormous task is limiting and compromising. The danger is that, as in most countries on this continent and elsewhere, the middle class has been accorded primacy well out of proportion to its ability, inclination and capability to act on behalf of the broader society.

Although the black middle class possesses valuable skills and enjoys access to economic and political power, we should not subordinate the overall well-being of society to the assumed benign motives of this section of the population.

It is surely time we faced the truth that post-colonial societies and those undergoing democratic transition are characterised by different segments of society that have objectively different and competing interests. We have to revisit the argument that, after liberation, unity of political purpose remains as strong as under conditions of oppression. The pursuit and thrust of politics where there is a clearly defined enemy differ substantially once that enemy has been defeated.

But most Africans have bought into a monolithic and linear argument that all should move in the same direction for the sake of the “revolution” in political and economic terms. Anything advocated to the contrary has been labelled treachery. Competitive politics have been crushed and largely subordinated to this view, ostensibly in the interests of all. The reality, however, is different: far from there being unity of purpose, different classes of people have real and material differences of interest.

The parting of ways of former allies under changed political and economic circumstances is a plus not a minus for a vibrant democratic society. It avoids the often common style of politics in post-liberation African societies, where the real contests for power are made opaque and muddied in the interests of a totalising concept that rejects reality. We just have to look to Zimbabwe to see that most of the problems President Robert Mugabe has are because he tunnel-visioned Zimbabweans politically and economically. He created a façade: all had to be repressed for the “common good” — a view which, when it unravelled, created enormous problems for that country.

South Africa, it has been argued, is different. In some qualitative ways it is. It is nonsense, for example, to argue that the African National Congress has sold out, just as it is fallacious to label opponents of its policies as the “ultra-left” or even the “left”. Despite pretensions to the contrary, there is no such coherent, visible and viable entity called the left that has systematically provided alternative policy challenges to those in power. To label some people and organisations in this way is really being over-charitable.

However, disturbingly, in advocating transformation policies, there is this frighteningly over-optimistic view that somehow in South Africa the black middle class is without fail overwhelmingly patriotic and cannot just go wrong — the idea that they are “patriotic bourgeoisie/ radical nationalists”.

Without detracting from the genuine transformation efforts of the government, it is crucial to understand that the interests of the black middle class do not and will not intersect with those of the working and poor classes in perpetuity. The implicit development envisaged under this class, if and when it comes about, is that the economy will have grown and be owned by this very class and the majority of South Africans will still remain workers for this class.

The objective reality is that no matter how patriotic or radical members of this class are (there are many of this stratum across Africa who have messed up the continent), their material interests — especially as the class grows and expands — will (and is already starting to) diverge from those of the working class and the poor. This has been the lesson to draw throughout Africa and in other continents.

Having accepted this reality, it is therefore imperative that those who remain outside the loop of the middle class should be accorded space and opportunity to define their position in society, independent of the middle class, and not be strung along in the grand scheme of things for an illusory common future.

It is true that most members of the middle class have a genuine interest in the plight of the majority of people. But let there be space for alternative voices that adopt a critical distance from the mainstream view of how society should be transformed. If our current transformation plans fail, South Africans should not be stunned, as happened in post-communist Europe and other parts of the world where it was always assumed that there was one path to development.

When this path failed, people’s creativity had been stunted to levels where they could not think of alternative ways to solve their problems. They then resorted to crude and misguided solutions, just like Mugabe is trying to do in Zimbabwe with horrendous results.

It is therefore very romantic and misguided to think that “we are different, it cannot happen here”. Yes, it cannot happen here in the sense that Afro-pessimists mean when they argue “Africa is doomed”. But, at the same time, we should not lull ourselves and be so desensitised to the point where we think that South Africa is immune and invulnerable to problems that have occurred elsewhere, nor to the imminent dangers that can be fatal if we are not careful. Our optimism should not turn into a double-edged sword which may swing towards us all.

Thabisi Hoeane is a lecturer in the department of political studies and international studies unit at Rhodes University

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