Intellectuals & South Africa’s Quest for Economic Transformation
January 7, 2014
James N. Kariuki*
South African politicians are always challenging their ‘thinkers’ to start discussing issues of national interest while they are still hot on the table. It is said that intellectuals wait until wrong decisions are made and then bounce on them to criticize and condemn. Who has been in default: intellectuals for speaking out after the fact or political leaders for not hearing objections?
Regarding economic aspirations for post-apartheid SA, the discussion is not new. Indeed it was triggered in May 1998 by the then country’s Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki, when he stated before Parliament that SA was not a nation; it was two nations rolled into one.
A small portion of SA was composed of a handful segment of affluent society that happened to be white. At the other extreme of the spectrum millions of the country’s citizens were locked in abject poverty with no way out. They happened to be black. The statement came to be known as Mbeki’s famous ‘Two Nations Speech,’ a concise indictment of racial-economic inequality that was heard around the world.
According to Mbeki, It would take a long time for this divide, a 350 years’ legacy of ‘inequality,’ to be obliterated and allow SA to evolve the requisite psychological cement to form a bona fide nation. Until then, talk of a rainbow nation was a dream deferred. And a dream deferred simmers into explosive rage which, ultimately, explodes. Had Mbeki foreseen the 2012 Marikana Massacre where 34 miners were gunned down by police in broad daylight?
Mbeki’s Two-Nations Speech did not delve into systematic details on how SA should proceed to change the status quo other than appeal to the privileged but unresponsive whites to accept the burden of uplifting the disinherited fellow citizens. However, it inspired younger generation of thinkers to start articulating their views on how to move the country forward economically toward a more just and equitable SA. Thus far, the youth are speaking out without fear or favor. After all, they have had minimal stake in the economic status quo.
One perspective was articulated in South Africa’s black national newspaper, the Sunday Independent, of September 16, 2012. A young man noted that the country’s economy is a product of two nationalisms: British and Afrikaner. But contemporary SA is composed of three nationalisms. Economically, African nationalism is not reflected among the economic forces that have shaped the country. As a group, Black South Africans, the majority, are still sidelined as economic actors. They are an economically marginalized underclass in their own country.
According to the author of that article, South Africa’s socio-economic lopsidedness has resulted from the country’s history. In a nutshell, the British molded the SA economy through their colonialism. Next, the Afrikaners used apartheid in conjunction with their “aggressive affirmative action program for Afrikaners” to entrench their presence in the country’s economy. Yet, after two decades of political independence, Black Africans are still waiting in the wings for their turn to have an economic impact.
In SA, British imperial appetite was whetted by the discovery of minerals with which the country is generously endowed. Britain had much to gain from precious metals; they were highly lucrative in the global economy of that era. Accordingly, the British constructed a sophisticated infrastructure to ensure a smooth flow of those exports to the motherland. Indeed since the days of Cecil Rhodes, South Africa has had a comparatively more solid economic infrastructure than the rest of the continent.
But SA also inherited another damning legacy from the British imperial order. Proclamation 14 of August 1875 reduced indigenous Africans to a source of cheap labor supply while excluding them from ownership in the mining industry. For the first time, the Proclamation introduced institutional racism into the SA political-economy. Was Marikana Massacre of August 2012 an ugly reflection of the British legacy in the country’s economy?
On the other hand, the 1835 Great Trek and eventual establishment of the Transvaal consolidated the formation of the Afrikaner nationalism. The Afrikaners quickly realized that there was no ‘External Angel’ to bail them out; ‘they were in it alone’ and embraced a laager mentality of self-reliance. To this end, they built an industrial complex to address the issue of unemployment among their poor whites. Here too, blacks fitted neatly into a scheme of cheap labor source in Afrikaner-led industry and agriculture.
The logic continues that implementation of apartheid in 1948 and after was merely an intensification and general implementation of what the Afrikaner had learned, perhaps too well, from Cecil Rhodes and his associates in the British mining industry. In addition to intensification, apartheid extended the scope of the racial policies, policies that virtually marginalized black folk from the mainstream of the money economy altogether. And, with all its appalling dimensions, apartheid was not oppression by a foreign intruder in the colonial sense. It was a home-grown Afrikaner scheme, and the Afrikaner considered himself an African beyond the indigenous African. To African nationalism of the ANC orientation, the Afrikaner was a permanent challenge because he was born in SA; he was there to stay.
In sum, British nationalism historically ‘hogged’ mining in SA as their turf; Afrikaner nationalism arrogated itself other industries and agriculture. The commanding heights of the SA economy were thus partitioned among the whites in such a manner that they thrived on unconscionable exploitation of black folk.
In 1994, Black Nationalism finally forced democracy into the SA body politic, affirming the claim that “all men are created equal.” But abolition of political apartheid was not accompanied by demolition of economic apartheid. Yet, alas, does political power alone bestow equality among ‘men’? By all indications, Black Nationalism required penetration into the economic domain to realize full equality. And it should not be an insurmountable undertaking to fulfill Nkrumah’s dictum of ‘Seek ye the political kingdom first and the rest shall be added unto it.’ After all, in the post-1994 era, blacks have had the strength to make decisions favorable to themselves derived from a combination of numbers and associated political muscle.
The question is then raised: what decisions have been made to transform the SA economy by successive black ANC governments to consolidate the 1994 political achievement of Black Nationalism? To the current black intellectuals who have spoken out, no new industrial enterprises have emerged under black stewardship since attainment of black political supremacy. In this sense, the post-1994 black governments have failed by neglecting to position their black constituency as a major economic force that it should be.
Instead of pursuing the line of greater economic production, it is said, SA has engaged in a superficial scheme of capitalistic massage. White-owned businesses have co-opted a handful of politically well-connected Blacks to become integral part of their business establishments. These ‘inductees’ have become loyal political fronts, protectors of the old businesses from contemporary threats. That is Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) personified. On the other hand, the Government utilizes social grants to placate the huge marginalized underclass of blacks in an environment where unemployment is estimated to be between 25 and 45 percent. Social grants do not generate jobs and they do not make social services.
Political economist, Moeletsi Mbeki views BEE as nothing less than legalized bribery. He is also convinced that SA is de-industrializing and increasingly sliding towards becoming a welfare state. In his view, the country needs to diversify its economy (from mining), encourage growth of black productive class of entrepreneurs, and advance knowledge in “sciences, math, engineering and management education.” “Without that…, we are going nowhere.”
What do these and other contemporary thinkers have in common? Overall, they accept that Blacks are responsible for the country’s sluggish economic growth. In terms of action, they are driven by an ambition to face squarely SA overriding problems of poverty, crime, inequality and unemployment. Overall, they agree that SA must embark on an economic transformation in which a black industrial class figures prominently. In sum their views are that the SA economy, and corresponding political stability, must be anchored on blacks engaging in creation of wealth.
**James N. Kariuki is Professor of International Relations (Emeritus) and an independent writer. He is based in South Africa. Views expressed in the blog Global Africa are his.
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