Jason Hickel
Jason Hickel

South Africa at 20: Storms behind the rainbow

April 27 marks the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections. Most of us remember those iconic images of citizens queuing up in long, snaking lines to vote Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) into power. It was an extraordinary moment, replete with hope and pregnant with expectation, enough to supply years’ worth of the jubilant narrative that many have grown accustomed to hearing about South Africa. This narrative finds its apogee in celebratory Hollywood films like Invictus, which features more than its fair share of jubilant people dancing in the streets, but it is equally prevalent at an institutional level. The World Bank and the IMF have long praised South Africa for its accomplishments since 1994, even if it only comes down to the country’s record on economic growth and friendliness toward foreign direct investment.

What is most interesting about this triumphalism is that it is so flagrantly contradicted by reality, to the point where it begins to appear almost as a form of propaganda. Many things have improved in South Africa since 1994, to be sure. State racism has ended, and the country now boasts what many describe as the most progressive constitution in the world. People have rights, and there are institutions designed to protect and uphold those rights. Still, everyday life for most South Africans remains a struggle — a struggle that is infinitely compounded by the sense of disappointment that accompanies it, given the gap between the expectations of liberation and the state of abjection that the majority continues to inhabit.

South Africa’s unemployment rate in 1994 was 13% — so bad that most were convinced it couldn’t get worse. Yet today it is double that, at more than 25%. Add all the people who have given up searching for work, and the figure is closer to 37%. The situation is particularly bad for young people. The Economist recently reported that “half of South Africans under 24 looking for work have none. Of those who have jobs, a third earn less than $2 a day”.

Besides its dismal record on employment, South Africa also boasts a reputation for being one of the most unequal countries in the world. Not only has aggregate income inequality worsened since the end of apartheid, income inequality between racial groups has worsened as well. According to the 2011 census, black households earn only 16% of that which white households earn. About 62% of all black people live below the poverty line, while in the rural areas of the former homelands this figure rises to a shocking 79%. In 2006, still 70% of South Africa’s land was under the control of whites, who constitute a mere 10% of the population. The ANC’s Black Economic Empowerment programme has succeeded in minting new black millionaires (South Africa has 7 800 of them now), but can’t seem to manage the much more basic goal of eliminating poverty.

A hijacked revolution
How could things have gone so wrong? Much of it has to do with what happened during the negotiated transition of the 1980s and early 1990s. The apartheid National Party was determined to ensure that the transition would not undermine key corporate interests in South Africa, specifically finance and mining. They were willing to bargain away political power so long as they could retain control over the economy. And so they did. The ANC was forced to retreat from its position on nationalisation, and an IMF deal signed just before the transition deregulated the financial sector and clamped down on wage increases. The central bank, left in the hands of the old apartheid bosses, was insulated from democratic politics and its mandate limited to targeting inflation instead of employment or growth.

The National Party only managed to extract these concessions because they had successfully divided the resistance movement between moderate elites, such as Thabo Mbeki, who had spent many years in exile, and the more radical activists who were at the forefront of the struggle within South Africa itself. The latter were largely unrepresented in the economic negotiations, while the former enjoyed a sort of royal treatment, including a now infamous series of secret meetings in the United Kingdom with major figures in mining and finance.

Still, when the ANC assumed power in 1994 it implemented a progressive policy initiative known as the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). The RDP was designed to promote equitable development and poverty reduction, mostly through public investment and the mass rollout of social services to connect millions of people to housing, electricity, water, and clinics. Despite its successes, this policy framework was abandoned a mere two years later. Gear (Growth, Employment, and Redistribution, even though it accomplished precious little of the latter) was implemented in 1996 despite significant resistance from within the ranks of the unions that had given such force to the anti-apartheid struggle. Known by its detractors as the “1996 class project”, Gear amounted to a sort of neoliberal shock therapy: more privatisation, lower trade barriers, and looser financial controls.

When the ANC came to power with a landslide vote in 1994, they did so on the promises of the Freedom Charter. Penned in 1955, the Freedom Charter expressed South Africans’ demands for the right to work, housing, freedom of movement, and — most radically — economic justice. “The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people,” the Charter reads. “The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole, [and] all other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the wellbeing of the people.”

Most South Africans agree that these promises have been horribly betrayed. South Africa’s mineral wealth, including some of the richest seams of gold, platinum, and coal in the world, remain in the hands of corporations such as British-owned Anglo American. The finance sector, which has ballooned to a dangerously large 21% of the country’s GDP, remains mostly monopolised by four white-owned conglomerates.

Protest nation
Given these contradictions, it’s no wonder that South Africa is ablaze with discontent, earning it the title of “protest capital of the world”. It seems that every year authorities report that the number of protests has reached the highest levels since the end of apartheid. And, indeed, the figures are staggering: early this year some 3 000 protests occurred over a 90-day period, involving more than a million people. South Africans are taking to the streets as they give up on electoral politics. This is particularly true for the young: Nearly 75% of voters aged 20-29 did not participate in the 2011 local elections.

The government’s response has been a mix of police repression — including the recent massacre of 34 striking miners at Marikana — and the continued rollout of welfare grants, which now reach more than 15 million people. The grants are a stop-gap solution to the failure of trickle-down economics, a way of papering over the contradictions of South African capitalism; everyone is aware that without them poverty and inequality would be so unbearable that the country’s already tenuous sense of social stability would come crashing to an end.

So far the protests have been focused on issues like access to housing, water, electricity, and other basic services, but it won’t be long before they coalesce into something much more powerful, as they did during the last decade of apartheid. There are already signs that this is beginning to happen. The Economic Freedom Fighters, recently founded by Julius Malema, the former leader of the ANC Youth League, is successfully mobilising discontented youth and making a strong push to nationalise the mines and the banks. On a more interesting front, Numsa, the metal workers union, recently broke ranks with the ANC in a historic turn that could open the way for a labour-based opposition to the ruling party for the first time since 1994.

It seems that the ANC’s legitimacy is beginning to unravel and consent among the governed has begun to thin. It is still too early to tell, but the death of Nelson Mandela may further widen this crack in the edifice of the ruling regime, as the ANC scrambles to shore up its symbolic connection to the liberation struggle.

In short, the situation in South Africa over the past 20 years opens up interesting questions about the meaning of democracy. What is democracy if it doesn’t allow people to determine their own economic destiny or benefit from the vast wealth of the commons? What is freedom if it serves only the capital interests of the country’s elite? The revolution that brought us the end of apartheid has accomplished a great deal, to be sure, but it has not yet reached its goal. Liberation is not yet at hand.

This article originally appeared in Al Jazeera.

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  • 15 Responses to “South Africa at 20: Storms behind the rainbow”

    1. As a point of interest, the famous I Am Prepared to Die speech from the Rivonia Trail reveals how the ANC has not believed in the Freedom Charter to the letter for a very long time – for very good reasons. At least, Mandela at the time noted his support for a market economy, so notions of SA being hijacked or strong-armed by the IMF to implemented unwanted policies are spurious.

      Nationalisation is not a panacea and the other nations that have recently tried it are slowly but surely (inevitably) being dumped into decline (Venezuela, anyone?).

      As a point of departure, let’s play a game of what if: What if the IMF is right in its assessment that South Africa’s labour force is not competitive, and this is rather the cause of unemployment here?

      I for one fail to see how nationalisation would lead to more jobs.

      March 31, 2014 at 3:41 pm
    2. Call for Honesty #

      “In 2006, still 70% of South Africa’s land was under the control of whites, who constitute a mere 10% of the population.” How can the writer make statements like this when NO careful audit has been published of who the land belongs to?

      Albert Luthuli had no hand in drafting the Freedom Charter which he viewed as containing serious flaws but he was sidelined by ideologues.

      March 31, 2014 at 4:09 pm
    3. bernpm #

      Yet again…a long lesson in 20 year SA history……and a little status quo as perceived by the writer.
      No suggestions for a way to improve the SA future.
      Thanks, think again

      March 31, 2014 at 9:39 pm
    4. Rich Brauer #

      I have to ask a few questions:

      “What is democracy if it doesn’t allow people to determine their own economic destiny…”

      What does that even mean? No one determines their own “economic destiny” — if we did, we’d all be stinking rich. So many factors come into play — some, certainly, systematic. So many others individualized or based on luck.

      Moreover, at what point did democracy become conflated with economic outcomes? The poor, free person is still, at least free. S/he is still the beneficiary of the grand social contract that underlies democracy.

      “What is freedom if it serves only the capital interests of the country’s elite?”

      Freedom has a societal and moral value completely separate from the economy. Let’s ignore, for the moment, the awful indignities inflicted on the un-free during apartheid, which removal can only be described as one of the great triumphs of the the 20th Century.

      One doesn’t have to pay the partisan of freedom — they fight because they believe that the goal itself is worthwhile. All too often, to the death, be it in the home of a battered woman, in the street against a corrupt government, or in the field against an invader.

      That’s a calculation that cannot be plotted on a graph, or balanced in a spreadsheet. It can not be captured in a statistic, or shown on PowerPoint. It’s an expression of humanity’s natural state, freedom.

      Not wealth. Not economics. Freedom.

      April 1, 2014 at 12:21 am
    5. I fail to understand why we waste our time having these debates about whether we have adopted the correct economic system. The Cold War is over and both sides lost. Both sides also won.

      We now have a global system of social capitalism in which the state runs some form of medical and “dole” for the less fortunate. The state provides some transport and infrastructure (usually quite poorly). This is where the commies won.

      The capitalists won because the free market system allows people with ambition to rise. Property and business rights were protected and economies benefited when the state stuck to it’s role as referee and stayed out of the way.

      The freedom charter has proven to be a document of the 1950s and is as outdated as the Magna Carta. Some elements are timeless but the economic stuff is totally out of date and should be discarded.

      We should stop wasting time and energy debating the stuff which will not help anyone and lets move forward with the realities.

      April 1, 2014 at 3:21 pm
    6. bernpm #

      ……………..”and lets move forward with the realities”.

      One reality I know is: there are many “poor people”.

      The other reality is: the bible (yes as long ago as that) tells us that “the poor will always be with us”.

      So? Shall we move forward with these realities and stop bothering about the poor??

      April 1, 2014 at 5:27 pm
    7. Cam Cameron #

      “What is democracy if it doesn’t allow people to determine their own economic destiny…”

      What does that even mean? No one determines their own “economic destiny” — if we did, we’d all be stinking rich.”

      April 2, 2014 at 2:31 am
    8. aim for the culprits #

      Thanks again, love your work.

      The big irony is that the average salary earning, essentially honest, Joe Blo who supports the capitalist right wing has little real capital beyond a modest house/pension savings themselves. In the USA they con them with flag-waving, military pariotism and the National Rifle Association allegiances. In South Africa it is fear. The real criminals who stole and continue to steal the gold from the end o the rainbow, go to the fancy schools, are found in boardroooms and in the fancy golf clubs. They are mostly white. The whole Zuma thing is a distracting godsend from the big picture exploitation of people.

      April 3, 2014 at 10:15 am
    9. @aim for the culprits:
      In South Africa, we can only dream of having a situation where it’s average for us to own a modest means of capital. Most of us don’t even own modest savings and we’re forced to go into debt just to make ends meet.

      It’s rather the overall purpose, of both the right wing folk and the left wing folk, for each person merely to have modest means at their disposal – and to be in control of your own person. The right wing folk tend to add your own property to that basic, modest means, while the left wing folk tend to think you shouldn’t have to earn your own keep up to a certain level either.

      When you speak of ‘mostly white’, recall that you’re talking about most of our tax payers and a rather small minority group. It’s spurious to compare us with the US because Joe Sixpack there lives better than both our average whiteys and our overall average person who struggles to find gainful employment.

      April 3, 2014 at 1:20 pm
    10. Politically correct or not?

      This blog reasonable mirrors the social dilemma; it diagnoses, but offers no practical solutions. As long as each one has enough & can utilize “that available freedom” to construct their own destiny according to their abilities- that would be a good start!

      Expressing endless pity is not a social solution. The following article touches on the roots of evolving human (in) equality: “Thank your ancestors for your fate”- politically unacceptable?

      http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/21/your-fate-thank-your-ancestors/

      Unlike e.g. in structural engineering which is based on math’s & science- social engineering is based on varieties of weird, unpractical & extreme ideas- where, in its varied processes- lots of scarce resources are wasted, people suffer & perish.

      What about contemplating conscription once more to improve our complex youth/general social problems, assisting in: character building, ethnic & moral rejuvenation, discipline & respect, reducing unemployment, skills training, cultural assimilation, re orientate outdated tribal customs like bush circumcisions & the resultant fake cry of “I am a man”! Such wish can become reality during the draft, to produce “real modern man” through “real nation building”…….. No?

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscription

      April 3, 2014 at 5:10 pm
    11. @proactive: Conscription? Really? After SA has lost its own potential billionaires to more economically and politically free countries precisely because of conscription?

      Imagine of they were keen on staying in SA, how many jobs would they have created here?

      Of course that doesn’t solve the income equality red herring, but the whole debate around income equality is just that.

      April 4, 2014 at 11:22 am
    12. @Garg

      Accepted,- you & many others might have reservations- that’s ok! Just a remote option to consider in SA’s “unique” situation to unite teenagers before they hang around unemployed, unemployable & disillusioned at every street corner & become criminals.

      Even those budding handful “would be billionaires” @ 18- 22 years of age would do such a national experience- for say 9 month- more good than harm. Any better ideas as when to start with nation building? Or is it left for all the billionaires to do so?

      April 4, 2014 at 3:41 pm
    13. Economist #

      You mention many figures to show that the SA ‘liberation myth’ is just that – pure propaganda. In 1976 SA was the 18th biggest economy in the world. Today after 20 years of state capitalism, plunder and rent seeking , it is less than 30th and falling fast. Nigeria will soon overtake SA as the leading African economy. Unless people realise that SA is not as ‘liberated country’ but more of an occupied state and kick out these parasites, the complete destruction of the SA economy awaits.

      April 5, 2014 at 11:03 am
    14. @proactive:
      I’m afraid I vehemently disagree with the idea that more cookie cutter methods on exceptional people would be effective. In fact, it is those people who drop out of the system because it doesn’t do much for them.

      I have some very rudimentary ideas on nation building: Start with the obvious things like education. Vocational training being the primary focus, because you can roll out skilled people within 6 months to year and put them in a position where they can provide for their families. Next, reinstate the old apartheid idea of clinics in townships that provide primarily immunisation and family planning services because having children we can’t care for properly is the root culprit of virtually all our social ills.

      After this, a flat tax whereby EVERYBODY pays the same rate of tax would help to make people realise that they can’t get something for nothing they have to contribute to their own communities. They can’t just force others to ‘give back to the community’ when they aren’t putting themselves in a position to take care of themselves.

      And then perhaps a labour environment that lends itself to adapting to changing market conditions. There’s no point in artificially keeping industries alive besides winning votes. In the long run, it perpetuates a poverty trap.

      April 5, 2014 at 11:41 am
    15. aim for the culprits #

      @Garg
      That is exactly my point. The average skilled worker pays the taxes and would be needed and thrive in any economic structure. Yet he/she becomes the praise singers for the very greedy rent seekers who dominate capital and increasingly plundering more and more while paying less and less taxes themselves. it is in their interests for the Zumas and Malemas to not have credibility. A Mahatma Gandhi type leader would present a real threat to their PR efforts.

      April 5, 2014 at 1:24 pm

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