/ 23 September 2009

The new currency

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the renowned German sociologist Max Weber makes an observation too profound to be ignored by post-apartheid South Africa: ”National — minorities which are in a position of sub­ordination to a group of rulers are likely, through their voluntary or involuntary exclusion from the positions of political influence, to be driven with peculiar force into economic activity.

Their ablest members seek to satisfy the desire for recognition of their abilities in this field, since there is no opportunity in the service of the state.”

Indeed, as blacks consolidated their political power after 1994, whites fortified their position in the economic sector, to make up for their general lack of ”opportunity in the service of the state”.

A scratch on the glossy façade of BEE co-optees will reveal that it is whites who benefit the most from the dividends of democracy. Behind most major economic developments in our new society there is a white entrepreneur, white engineer or white scientist.

You need not peruse JSE records to confirm the racial stagnancy of ownership patterns in our economy. The black middle class live in swanky townhouses, thanks to white-owned construction companies.

On the other side, a search for truth seems certain to lead blacks to a mirror of discomfort: BEE co-optees are whiter than whites!

They have been admitted into apartheid’s demarcated areas for the affluent; they are more than comfortable in white hedonistic culture; and some of them regard whites as better employees than their own fellow black people.

These champions of black success even claim better knowledge of Scotch whisky than whites.

But when all the outer layers are peeled off, we remain with a South Africa where the majority of blacks languish in penury, alongside a proportionate majority of whites who wallow in material comfort.

To the vast majority of blacks, ascendency to political power is nothing more than opium. How could they claim self-worth while they lived in shacks?

Political associations such as AfriForum deliberately fuel a chimerical sense of black power. How could the majority of whites — who are well off — be victims of blacks who are engrossed in the daily struggle for survival?

We again find ourselves facing the very question that rattled our boat in the beginning: will race ever lose its position as a blemish on our nation’s collective face?

Judging by the success achieved in co-opting a few blacks into the cushy lifestyle of whites, a symbiotic elite pact between well-off blacks and whites is not a figment of the imagination.

But this does not imply an absence of suppressed racial attitudes in such a pact; the English and Afrikaners have lived with suppressed tribal attitudes for more than a century — since the Anglo-Boer War.

The paradox lies in the role of the state in cementing the marriage of convenience between affluent whites and blacks.

Most blacks who join the corridors of the rich do so thanks to the visible hand of the state.

As white and black elites share in their coterminous economic privileges, the wall of apartheid social engineering refuses to collapse between poor whites and destitute blacks.

Apartheid psychology continues to whisper in the collective ear of poor whites that they are superior to poor blacks. Thus the imagination battles to grasp a future of integration between the two.

But it will not be long before poor blacks see through the marriage between black and white elites. This is likely to manifest itself politically through intermittent violence against the black political and business strata.

In response to revolt by poor blacks — which might coincide with general anxiety among whites because of such social ills as crime — some within the black elite will make reckless statements publicly to pacify poor blacks who feel betrayed by their own leadership.

Should the gap between the rich and the poor continue to yawn, an elite pact between whites and blacks will fail to diminish social disorder or neutralise racial tensions.

Unfortunately, social dynamics currently point to a future reproduction of a coin of folly, on whose sides appear incarnations of Brandon Huntley and Julius Malema.

This is likely to happen in a theatre of white economic success and the opium of black political power, as if to corroborate Weber.

Prince Mashele is head of the crime, justice and politics programme at the Institute for Security Studies