We in South Africa, especially in the black community, have, for a very long time, pretended to live and die in a classless society. As a result, we have never critically examined the role and impact of class difference in the fragmentation of our elusive unity. We have never been a homogeneous group and thus have always differed in how we see things.
The black rich and poor, for instance, have always been among us. In fact, much as South Africa is the most unequal society on earth, the widest gap is in the African community between black and black. It is easier for us to talk about inequality between blacks and whites than admit that there is a big class difference among us.
Much as some of us want to, we can longer ignore class in the wake of the Marikana tragedy. When we look into the early years of the ANC, especially before 1940 for instance, it’s easy to see that the agenda and perspective of the oldest liberation movement was set by the black bourgeoisie: patriarchal black elites educated in western universities. But this does not mean that they were indifferent to the plight of the poor working class and rural unemployed.
Over the last 20 years since its unbanning, the values shaping our former liberation heroes were bourgeoisie, that is, integrating into the existing supremacist capitalist structure without any fundamental transformation of the economy. Even though the call of our world-renowned Constitution was for economic justice and social equality, former president Thabo Mbeki placed more emphasis on gaining access to resources to create the black middle class or bourgeoisie. It is this desire to become part of the elite or bourgeoisie that has seen not just the former liberation movement but its leaders and top government officials disconnect with the grassroots communities they come from. The desire for upward mobility — which included moving out of the townships, sending kids to multiracial schools, speaking English and only visiting disadvantaged communities to display how some individuals have “made it” – has recreated and re-emphasised the class difference that always existed among blacks.
The aftermath in Marikana has regenerated heated discussions about how leaders who benefit from capitalist interests have forgotten about their responsibility to the poor working class, unemployed and marginalised. Even former freedom fighters who are low-ranking soldiers in the army complain about being abandoned by their alleged fat-cat leaders in the upper echelons.
The miners are deemed as being illiterate, inarticulate, poor, angry and violent. They are a threat to the interests of the bourgeoisie. On the other hand Lonmin executives and other well-dressed and English-speaking shareholders are more acceptable because not only are they talking the language of a “peace accord” but are intelligible and accommodating.
But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognise the self-sacrificing courage of the mine workers as part of the centuries-long struggle for economic justice and social equality. These workers are not the first or the catalyst, but are a living symbol of the continuing straggle to make South Africa a country that belongs to all who live in it. It’s a well-known secret that without economic justice there can be no peace in this country. It’s only because this agenda is now seized by people who come from the wrong class that they are being condemned. It’s only when this struggle is under the control of lawyers, pastors, university-trained government officials, executives and other articulate individuals that it becomes acceptable. This is just an example of how class position and perspective has become a great determinant of who owns and sets the agenda for the struggle.
Temporarily, at least, the workers struggle was allowed to take centre stage in the early 1980s, for instance. A powerful but forgotten aspect of this struggle was that it was led by a young black lawyer named Cyril Ramaphosa. He was perceived as not only intelligent but intelligible because he was also a reasonable and accommodating man.
Almost 30 years later, the black bourgeoisie has conveniently forgotten that an important dimension of this struggle has always been a profound critique of the capitalist system. It was well understood in the 1980s – leading up to the formation of the United Democratic Front – that the prevailing economic and social order does not promote justice and equality and thus is untenable. But now that many of the former leaders of the struggle have become bourgeoisie and part of the system they fought against – Ramaphosa, for instance, is a shareholder in Lonmin – the critique of selfishness, greed and individualism of capitalism is virtually absent in the discourse around Marikana. Even those political leaders who appreciate the threat posed by economic inequality and injustice to social cohesion do not publicly condemn capitalist greed and self-enrichment. But we need to talk about the plight of the working poor, unemployed and marginalised in Marikana and their right to conduct their own struggles in the way they deem fit. None but the poor will liberate themselves.
We need leaders to come forward to provide a concrete vision for social and economic change that speaks to ameliorating the deplorable conditions under which the poor working class lives in Marikana and other flashpoints of the country. We cannot allow inhumane conditions — a breeding ground for a revolution — to perpetuate.
There is no doubt that the working class are not only highlighting class divisions but inviting us to critique the consequences of economic inequality. At the recent Social Cohesion Summit in Kliptown, delegates made it very clear that economic inequality and the monopolisation of the wealth of the country by a few leads to poverty, unemployment and marginalisation. They called upon government, business, labour, the church and other relevant stakeholders to work towards closing the gap between the poor and rich in the black community. Above all, they echoed the Freedom Charter when they declared that South Africa and its wealth belongs to all who live in it.
Tragically, this ideal of a caring and proud society glued by economic justice and social equality has diminished simply because a not-so-large number of blacks have entered the ranks of the economically privileged. That in itself is not bad. But it’s time we not only let the poor speak up for themselves but also listened to what they had to say about wage disparities.