/ 3 May 2023

South Africa: A state for the few, not the many

State Of Few
Peterloo Massacre, Manchester, 16 August 1819. 15th Hussars charging unarmed crowd gathered near St Peter's Church to hear speeches supporting Reform of Parliament and repeal of Corn Laws. 6 killed, about 70 wounded treated in local infirmaries. Wood engraving. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

In 2019 Jeremy Corbyn, running for the highest office in the UK from the left of the Labour Party, used the compelling slogan, “For the many, not the few”.

The phrase, which pithily encapsulates the essential ethic of the left, was coined by the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in his great poem The Masque of Anarchy. Shelly wrote the poem shortly after the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester on 16 August 1819. Sixty thousand people had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation after years of chronic depression and widespread immiseration. The crowd was attacked by soldiers leaving several dead and several hundred injured.

The Peterloo Massacre was part of a much wider process for popular ferment and repression across Europe after the French Revolution of 1789. At the same time, European colonialism was encountering militant resistance abroad. The elites who massacred the newly created English working class in Peterloo were also at war in what is now South Africa where militant resistance led by Makhanda Nxele in Grahamstown, on the frontier of the Cape Colony, was crushed.

Although capital was consolidating its power over land, labour and life via the state, and its military, Shelley had a sense that the 60 000 gathered in Peterloo were an intimation of a new and more democratic — democratic in the expansive sense of the term — future. He wrote: 

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number,

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you —

Ye are many — they are few.

Many episodes and sequences of popular resistance came after Peterloo, in England and the English colonies, but capital steadily accumulated power and, as states formed and fell, they largely did so in the service of capitalism.

South Africa was no different. While the working poor of Europe were being forced into paid labour under deeply oppressive and exploitative conditions, imperial expansion across southern Africa continued through the 19th century, eventually culminating in the near-complete subjugation of the African population in what later became South Africa. 

The first outpost of European imperialism in what is now South Africa was in what is now Cape Town, where the Dutch built a refuelling station for European ships en route to India. Later on, the English seized control of the area and, with the formation of the Cape Colony in 1795, laid the groundwork for the type of state that would eventually develop in southern Africa. 

That state has always functioned in service of a form of extractive capital that makes alliances with different elites to create a society that serves the few and not the many, with, of course, the few and the many both being originally formed in terms of racially designated categories.

By the time the Union of South Africa was declared in 1910, uniting English and Afrikaner settler colonialism, the new state of South Africa stretched across southern Africa from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. It’s component states — the Cape, Natal, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal — had all been created and run with the specific purpose of subordinating Africans to vicious forms of racial capitalism rooted in dispossession, which ranged from gold mining with migrant African labour, to sugar plantations with indentured Indian labour, and vast farms with workers living and working in conditions of neo-slavery. 

This historical experience is built into the deep structure of our society in numerous ways that are often simply seen as “normal”. It is, for instance, often taken for granted that urban spaces should be sites of modern democracy and the former “homelands” subordinated to “traditional authority”. South Africa’s grant system operates through a biometric system that was first developed as a tool to monitor African migrant labourers entering the mines. 

The fundamental logic of the form of racial capitalism developed in South Africa was that of cheap migrant African labour sustained by the unpaid work of African women in rural areas. Although this continues — for instance on the Marikana platinum mines where striking workers were massacred in 2012 — South Africa is now an overwhelmingly urban society devastated by mass structural unemployment, especially among the youth. Most young people have never worked in a formal job. Millions of people are considered to be dispensable and subjected to what American geographer Ruthie Wilson Gilmore calls “organised abandonment”. 

As the South African state has degenerated under the utterly inept leadership of President Cyril Ramaphosa, the middle classes of all races are sinking into financial crises. But the millions who are abandoned are almost entirely black, most often African. As a result, capitalism, which still depends on African labour, remains deeply racial. 

The transition from apartheid in 1994, was a breakthrough for most of us in society. For the first time we had a state that was not defined by and for the minority and, at least politically, was being developed for the many and not the few. The end of apartheid ensured all sorts of new possibilities for the many and it was truly a novel moment in not just our history, but globally. 

It was a moment when the many were able to shape their lives within emancipatory politics. However, due to the nature of the transition, and the various compromises that were made along the way, a new deal emerged. A deal between white and black elites to continue the capitalist system while renegotiating the racial distribution of its spoils. A state that was always for the few expanded its circle of who could be part of that few, but continued to treat the many with utter contempt, either exploiting them or abandoning them.

The contemporary state has both a kleptocratic and a neoliberal element with the former, in much the way described by Frantz Fanon, using the state to appropriate public wealth for its own enrichment. The latter ruthlessly imposes a programme of austerity and privatisation in the interests of domestic and global capital. Both, in different ways, protect the privilege of the few against the claims for justice on the part of the many. 

This intersection between the kleptocrats and the neoliberals means that nothing is sacred, and everything is for sale. At every point, the social interest is subordinated to private profit of some kind. Education, public services, land, housing and healthcare are all opportunities for private accumulation, accumulation that reproduces and entrenches the impoverishment of the majority of black people. 

This will never change unless the fundamental character of the state changes and the state will never be, to borrow a phrase from Karl Marx, subordinated to society unless the poor and the working class organise and build their power to the point where they can turn the state into an instrument for a social project. The many must rise from their slumber and displace the few as the controlling force in society. 

Dr. Vashna Jagarnath is the director of Pan Africa Today. She is also deputy general secretary of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party and a senior research associate at the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg.