/ 25 September 2014

Class, race and the new native

Former defence minister Mosioua Lekota.
Former defence minister Mosioua Lekota.

The single most important transformation brought about by the end of apartheid was an acceleration in turning South African society from a society of control into a society of consumption. This shift has been the main post-apartheid event. More than any other, it underpins South Africa’s contemporary dynamics of class, race, gender and ethnicity.

It is the conflation of the form and substance of democracy and citizenship with the rule of consumption that has mistakenly been given the name of a transition to democracy.

The shift from a society of control to a society of consumption is happening in a context of acute privation for the majority of people. Although race is still a crucial marker of privilege, the forms of social polarisation, inequality and exclusion are becoming increasingly complex.

On the surface, the main economic divide is between those with access to formal sector jobs and other income-earning opportunities and those who, unable to sell their labour and having become structurally unemployable, now form a truly disadvantaged underclass.

But such a characterisation is largely deceptive. It relies on a myopic understanding of the complex links between a highly stylised formal economy and a sprawling informal economy. It has led its proponents to argue that there is an opposition of interests between the unemployed underclass and unionised, formal sector employees. The former supposedly support the creation of a precarious low-wage job market while the latter support wage increases.

In fact, recent studies on inter- and intra-household redistribution show the extent to which formal sector wages have been circulating in the informal economy. Transfers from formal sector workers are a crucial means of survival for many of South Africa’s poor. For their livelihood, most families and households nowadays combine both formal and informal sources of income, strategies and resources.

Post-apartheid society is not only racked by growing unemployment. It is also witnessing growing household fragmentation in an overall context in which the majority of citizens are propertyless.

Furthermore, for those who do own something, it is not certain that whatever they may own will belong to them permanently or won’t be taken away from them at any given time. Among the so-called black middle class, rates of repossession of cars, houses and other newly acquired signs of status are on the rise. This sense of precarious ownership explains, for instance, certain sectors of the black middle class’s receptivity to the discourse of nationalisation.

The shift from a society of control to a society of consumption has exacerbated the old contradiction at the heart of South Africa’s history. At least since the wars of dispossession of the 19th century, citizenship and rights of personhood have been constructed in relation to a particular regime of ownership. Whites owned property and blacks sold their labour at a cheap price on a captive market.

The end of apartheid has not meant a repudiation of this axiom. Today, the construction of self still depends upon the possession of a certain quantum of property. If anything, democracy seems to have exacerbated the confusion between the rule of the people, the rule of law and the rule of property.

Rural areas are not immune to this process: ownership of communal land has been transferred from the state to communities and traditional councils generally headed by chiefs, whose role in customary law is recognised by the Constitution. Indeed, new laws have tended to entrench apartheid versions of chiefly power – and might end up carving out a realm of parallel sovereign authority for traditional councils.

By unilaterally determining the content of customary law, chiefs and traditional leaders are in a position to capture, for their own benefit, the profits from land sales, mining deals, development projects, restitution claims, and tourism and heritage ventures. Chiefs’ ability to extend their governing and taxation powers has been enhanced. As some provinces show, they are now in a position to demand the multiple levies of the apartheid years in exchange for issuing letters to people showing proof of residence.

South Africa has, therefore, entered a new period of its history, one in which processes of accumulation are happening, once again, through dispossession – except that this time round dispossession is conducted by an increasingly predatory black ruling class in alliance with private capital, in the name of custom and tradition.

Meanwhile, South African capitalism still relies for its operations on racial subsidies in the form of low skills levels, inadequate nutrition, poor health, bad housing, social instability and an increasingly authoritarian ruling elite. The exploitation of cheap black labour is still a crude fact of daily life, especially on farms and mines, where migrant wage-seekers face quasi-permanent adverse economic contingencies as they try to leverage their way out of poverty and insecurity.

But workers’ struggles are only one among the many forms social conflict can now take.

The new subaltern population includes those whose everyday life is radically precarious and whose myriad styles of mobilisation take the form of litigation, violent protests or, as is more and more the case, riots. Instead of exercising their voice as citizens in a democracy, these are protagonists who have to scream during violent protests to be heard.

Yet racial antagonism no longer simply opposes the two generic blocs of blacks and whites. In ways hardly experienced before, it now cuts through both categories and in between. The expansion of a black middle class goes hand in hand with the crystallisation, at the margins of black society, of a mounting army of those who, having been expelled from formal work, are condemned to a wageless life.

A crucial factor is the persistence and entrenchment of the deep historical patterns of accumulation that were grounded on the social and cultural structures of racial segregation. These have not been fundamentally reversed. To a large extent, South African capitalism still depends on the institution of migrant labour, a highly unequal and racialised partition of land and a thoroughly extractive economy.

As in the past, it structurally joins the interests of mining capital, energy and the parastatals, and still straddles the public and private divide.

Political rights for the black majority have been secured. But the failure to break with historical patterns of capitalist accumulation that depended heavily on a racial wage for their sustainability partly explains why South African society is still racked by high levels of black poverty.

Another structural dimension in the reshaping of class and race is the denationalisation of capital. To a certain extent, the transition from apartheid to democracy was the result of the disentanglement of the interests of the conglomerates and those of the securitocracy. In the 1980s, conglomerates began to understand that because of changes in the global economy they needed to internationalise.

Instead of profits generated internally being confined to accumulation within the local economy, they now needed to be transferred and invested abroad as part of the strategy of corporate globalisation. The ANC allowed them to denationalise. And it captured the remnants of the old security apparatus, which it has been attempting to reshape in its own image ever since.

As a result of the logic of denationalisation, South African conglomerates were no longer required to mobilise appropriate funding for domestic investment. Rather, South African capitalism has, since 1994, been driven by increased financialisation of the economy, a combination of expanded domestic consumption financed by rising levels of household debt and export of primary resources.

An over-reliance on the extraction and export of natural capital has gone hand in hand with a decline in manufacturing. Import tariffs have been, for the most part, lowered. Capital markets have been relatively liberalised. Ecologically unfriendly farming methods have been overused and the country today faces a mounting waste and toxicity problem.

The old mining industry is unstable and its future clouded by uncertainty. The past decade of stagnation in the mining sector is set to continue as the country’s gold and platinum sectors face diminishing margins and industrial strife. Rising cash costs and falling margins will mean that mining companies will be unable to meet workers’ demands, resulting in further strikes.

Ongoing calls for “nationalisation without compensation” are a direct response to the policy of denationalisation underwritten by the ANC in the 1990s. “To whom does the wealth of the country belong?” has become once again the dominant political question. After years of unsuccessful black economic empowerment initiatives, the ANC is crafting a neoVerwoerdian strategy it hopes will enable it to fend off left attempts to puncture the 1994 dispensation. It is now trying to further entrench chiefly powers in government policy and also aims to consolidate patriarchy in rural areas and extend economic powers to traditional leaders.

Indeed, with few exceptions, communities have only minimally benefited from mining activities on land they own or that is contiguous to mining operations. Where payments of royalties, profits from various investments, joint ventures and share transactions have been the rule, new kinds of contestations and rivalries have emerged. Most centre on land ownership, traditional leadership and control, and sub-ethnic forms of reassertion.

If anything, the melding of the corporate and the cultural under the sign of capital only highlights, in an ever more dramatic way, questions of how and with whom South Africa’s mineral wealth will be shared.

Achille Mbembe is with Wiser, the Wits Institute for Social and Political Research