Race and capitalism: no easy answers, but posturing will get South Africa nowhere

Solutions can be found.
Looters make off with supplies during the unrest that hit parts of two provinces in South Africa in July. EFE-EPA/Stringer

It is likely that historians will conclude that there was no one reason why the recent riots and looting of supermarkets, shops and warehouses in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, South Africa’s two most economically important provinces, caught up so many generally law-abiding citizens in their slipstream. There were seemingly numerous dynamics at play, from the sheer poverty of numerous black citizens through to the manipulations of social media by supporters of former President Jacob Zuma, angered by his arrest.

However, one explanation which has been touted in various quarters has been that the upheaval was the outcome of ‘the racial capitalism’ to which South Africa has been subjected over the centuries. Such an explanation hearkens back to the racialised policies of the past, and how they twinned the political ideologies of segregation and apartheid promoted by South Africa’s white governments before democratic transition in 1994.

This view holds that the inequalities of the present, which continue to have a strong racial dimension, along with the brutal treatment handed out to poor black people – for instance, by the police at Marikana in 2012, in the North West Province, when police shot dead 35 protesting miners – are a product of the history of racial capitalism in South Africa.

It is difficult to disagree with the major thrust of much of the analysis which is put forward in this vein. It is widely accepted that the democratic transition in 1994 was the result of an ‘elite pact’ which transformed the country’s politics but did little to undermine the foundations of white economic power.

It is continuity as much as change which characterises the post-apartheid political economy. Nonetheless, South Africans need to take care in ascribing all the present crises to ‘racial capitalism’. Blaming racial capitalism for all the country’s ills can easily become a way of deflecting responsibility away from the country’s present politicians – and from South Africans themselves.

The past as present

Colonial conquest happened in tandem with the development of capitalism. Both projects requiring non-white people, notably Africans, to become instruments for the purposes of others. Africans were stripped of their land and their possessions and became the tools of their oppressors. This process was not stopped by the arrival of democracy.

When miners of Lonmin in Marikana, in the platinum-rich North West Province demanded a reasonable increase in their wages, the state colluded with foreign capital to crush their dissent. Inequality nurtures this objectification of humans, leading to greater exploitation of the poor, who are overwhelmingly black.

The problem with the solution that is often provided – that the entire system of ‘racial capitalism’ should be overthrown – is that it is so remarkably bland. So, it is worth attempting to deconstruct it.

So, what is to be done?

Is the implication that racism and capitalism are inseparable? If that is so, is the further implication that capitalism itself should be overthrown? Which is perhaps a very nice idea, but first, is this practical and likely? Who is to do the overthrowing? At what human and other cost (as its unlikely that capital and the state would give up without a fight)? And what would be put in capitalism’s place? Is this to be a new socialist order, and if so, will South Africa be following historical examples (which, on the whole, have not been very successful) or will it be charting its own way forward?

Or is the implication that capitalism can be deracialised? This is very much what, in theory, the African National Congress (ANC), which has governed the country since 1994, has set out to do through equity employment and black economic empowerment legislation. Although the corporate profile, in terms of ownership and management personnel has registered not insignificant change, most would agree that the achievements of ANC policies have been remarkably modest.

However, it remains a matter of considerable debate whether this is because of corporate resistance, social factors (such as inadequate supplies of suitably trained black personnel) and or the incompetence of the state.

Leaving aside the entire question of whether a de-racialised capitalism would be less exploitative than a racialised one, and whether it would be less patriarchal, the more fundamental issue is how can South Africa achieve it if current strategies – which most would agree are well intentioned – are proving inadequate in realising their goals.

Should equity employment and black economic empowerment be ratcheted up, when the prevailing cry from the business establishment is that more regulation serves as major barrier to the inflow of much needed foreign investment? Will this increase or deter a rise in much needed employment? Or is it that current strategies should be re-engineered?

Often left out of such analysis is the question of what sort of state will be required to bring about the transformation to the more humane society South Africans are looking for. Present disillusion with the post-1994 order highlights the limits of South Africa’s democracy, and the ways in which ANC dominance has eroded it.

Much attention lately has been focused on the ANC’s strategy of deployment, how this has led to the substitution of political loyalty to the party for the capacity to do the job, how deployment has led to corruption, how it has destroyed state-owned corporations , how it has undermined the efficiency of government, and how it has collapsed local government.

The answer that is usually given is that it is necessary to undo the merger of party and state and entrench the independence of the state to allow for expertise to flourish, and to ensure the rise of meritocracy. But then we are left with the conundrum whether the ANC is capable of bringing such a transformation about, or whether the ANC itself needs to be removed from power.

That, in turn, demands not only that it must lose an election, but that it will gracefully concede its loss if it did so. Perhaps both dimensions of that last sentence are unlikely.

No easy answers

So where does all this lead South Africa? Quite frankly, I don’t know. But I do know that the answers to South Africa’s numerous problems are far from easy. This does not mean that South Africans cannot work their way to finding the solutions, and unless they are just going to give up, they have to believe that they can. But, it is going to be extremely hard work. South Africans will have to talk to, listen to, and bargain hard with each other to find their way.

But one thing South Africans must draw from such complexity is that any realistic and workable answers will not be arrived at by posturing. Alas, there are no easy answers.The Conversation

Roger Southall, Professor of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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I disagree. The answer my friend is blowing in the wind (Dylan). What makes a successful country? What defines successful? “It’s about the economy, stupid” said James Carville. What are the characteristics of successful societies? Let us list them: Low unemployment, low taxation, low risk, incentivising investment before consumption, no corruption, no nepotism, no racism, few impediments such as BEE, minimum wage laws, labour laws, low crime, security of tenure, immigration of skilled folks, top class education and low stable market related interest rates.

One would note that this is almost but not completely opposite of the society that the ANC has created. This is simply the manifestation of the average mindset of the voter. They have, though the ballot box, demanded a whole new world of socialist pain under the guise of freedom and continue to receive just that.

First off Dylans painfully over rated, but let me not digress. The reality is at the end of apartheid big business got away with slavery. Generation of abuse and morally corrupt wages, and at the end all they had to do was make Tokyo and Cyril billionaires and continue mistreating the works, that’s how we land up here. No middle class. No consumers. A couple disconnected billionaires. And millions of angry and hungry people. This has never ended well in human history for the rich.

Don’t conflate apartheid with capitalism and big business. Apartheid was always the antithesis of the free market. Exploitation of labour SA during Apartheid was due to government intervention and social engineering, not dissimilar to current ANC policies.The truth is South Africa has always been a socialist country. It is the reason why, its residents are dirt poor.

You are not very clever, are you?

ghost, you ma se epos is over-rated

Which countries in Africa do not blame colonialism for their failure -All.
Which other countries in the world blame their failures on colonialism – None.

Its definitely colonialism. South america blames it even France liberated themselves. Everywhere india Afghanistan China Cuba

Oops – never drop facts against the hive mind of victimhood here.

I eagerly await your breakdown of how 400 plus years of slavery and abuse has had zero negative consequences! This will make great reading. Also do some basic reading on world history before flauting your ignorance and inbred racism for the world to see.

Get over it. Whites wee also sold as slaves in America. And today they are prospering. You need to do some reading. Or get someone to read for you.

South Korea was colonized by Japan from 1910 to 1945, yet the country has emerged in a manner of twenty years as a first world power house. Why? This didn’t happen by accident. It was directly a result of their decision to lean its economy toward the free market. If South Africa had chosen a similar path back in 1994, then our economy would be more than double the size it is now.

Promises and looting — 2 outstanding ANC supporter characteristics !!

Dear Professor Roger, their is a major difference between Equality of Outcome and Equality of Equality of Opportunity, the first being short term and extremely dangerous where as the second ensures that the results are long term and allows new fabric to be woven in so to speak.

Equality of Opportunity starts at the very bringing of every child’s life, every teenagers high school subject choice and tertiary education followed by job opportunities.

First thing is that we require family planning to be integrated into the livelihoods of every person, so that they do not just have as many kids as possible but rather practice constraint and use contraception.

After Family Planning, education for young children and teenagers has to be prioritised, SA has 40% drop out rate from those who start grade 1 and finish matric. There is no incentive to complete ones education when you know that their is a shortage of jobs, so even if you did what your heart desired you would only be fooling yourself.

Thirdly, Jobs! Government cannot create jobs no matter the amount of social engineering and interference, AA & BEE & EE all result in Equality of Outcome, nothing here creates jobs but rather takes from those who are the most capable and gives to those less qualified but on criteria of Social Grouping rather than that of Individual.

Jobs are created by those who are willing to risk their acquired value to increase it, the risk which they take will be proportional to there perceived reward of the business enviroment. Government controls the business enviroment with its regulations, the more regulation the less attractive the enviroment is.
A single job costs R620,000 as per BUSA whilst in the US a single job costs R420,000. This means that if you wish to start a coffee shop for example, you can calculate the size of your investment based on the number of employees, 1 cleaner + 1 waiter + 1 cashier/chef + 1 cashier/manager = 4 employees at R620,000 = R2,480,000

Bottom line is that when we focus on changing the end result thats all we will be able to manipulate for the last 27 years, had we focused on the starting position then we would have rewoven new fabric into society. Poverty is not a “black” thing, nor is crime and nor is being naive, these are people problems, people of South Africa who are suffering and expect the elected to improve their lives not make it worse.

Sociology – another one of those useless sciences that never have an answer to anything. Not that is is a science.

The same racial capitalism pays almost all the taxes though! The same racial capitalism finances the social grants, free water and electricity, and free medical services. It certainly is no privilege being a capitalist in this socialist country! Your own government discriminates against you if you are born with white skin. There is no equality before the law and there is no social justice for white people.

There is another, more likely reason for the looting and destruction. Maybe this is simply an extension of what people see happening at the government level. They see the evidence at the Zondo Commission and they see the super-wealthy members of the Tripartite Alliamnce and they wonder to themselves “only yesterday, these people were poor like me. Where did they get their instant wealth from now?” They see their president giving away the assets of the nation, assets that belong to them, to the Gupta family.

They see the nouveau riche who benefit from legalized plunder through BEE deals. All these wealthy people, the current president included, used the legislative process as a tool to take property that did not belong to them. Their majority in parliament incentivized them to benefit personally from the making of laws. Now they expect the masses not to follow incentives?

South Africa is a nation of entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurial spirit follows incentives, and this government and the inefficiency of the criminal justice system incentivizes plunder. The system reaps what it has sown. Only the courts can stop plunder, but at the moment, the courts protect and incentivize plunder.

“Man can live and satisfy his wants only by ceaseless labor; by the ceaseless application of his faculties to natural resources. This process is the origin of property.
But it is also true that a man may live and satisfy his wants by seizing and consuming the products of the labor of others. This process is the origin of plunder.
Now since man is naturally inclined to avoid pain–and since labor is pain in itself–it follows that men will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work. History shows this quite clearly. And under these conditions, neither religion nor morality can stop it.
When, then, does plunder stop? It stops when it becomes more painful and more dangerous than labor” – Frederic Bastiat “The Law” 1850

Absolutely spot on Sensei — Start lecturing the professors here !!!

Sensei, far and away the best commentator on MW.

Once again no real understanding of what Capitalism is. It is not just getting one over someone else by fair means or foul. Which “race” was favoured by the atrocity called Marikana? Surely the organ of state that perpetrated the killings acted on behalf of a government, and by extension the ANC or parties withing that structure, who are by and large of a darker hue.

The most important truths to never forget, are:

1) The capital does not know the race of who holds it,
2) There are still no communists in Africa, of whatever race,
3) Corruption kills economies and people,
4) Corruption is Africa’s biggest issue by far,
5) Capital needs to chase value creating projects,
6) Lenders always want their money back,
7) Messing up with ANY of the above truths results in harm, to citizens and economies.

The Snitch is inflation. You cant drag your feet anymore because inflation shows that a poor person can’t afford tripe and maize meal anymore. Food they used to substitute meat and vegetables that was already expensive. Even middle class is feeling the pinch if they are buying maize meal instead if corn flakes. So People knew money was stolen during apartheid but in those days things were cheap until the sanctions of the anti apartheid act of 1986 even the white man felt the pinch. So inflation will always open the public’s eyes.

This is the crux of the matter. These riots are part of a civil war over the purchasing power of money. I fully agree.

Thank you for a well thought out piece of writing. The reality in my opinion is its not really black vs white…… it’s rich vs poor. And if 6000 years of history has taught us anything at all…. it’s that the poor always win eventually.

The poor only wins if the start working and start saving and stop blaming others. They only win if they give their children opportunities and education and morals and the correct mindset that is needed to be successful.

The anc damaged the people.

You have to somehow fix the people!!?? The anc cant do that. All they are good at is destroying.

I hope the dear professor can explain why so many of the looters were driving around in cars more expensive and newer than mine.

As a young white male. I felt very guilty and these types of articles solidified the feeling.

What do I have to feel guilty about ? Absolutely zero.

I have done a complete 180 on te subject . It’s every man(or women) for himself.

Hand-outs Will get you nowhere. Teach a man to fish….

Speak to anyone of the millions of foreigners in SA , they countries is hell on earth.

We have it good in this country. (We as in blacks and whites).

The black middle class has grown considerably, and I wish it gets even better . BUT as long as population growth is greater than economic growth , we will NEVER fix the problem .

After 1994 the whole world was on our side. The world was eager to help us fix the damage of the past. We could have embraced a free market system and draw investors from all over. Instead the ANC insisted on communists in key financial positions. We still have a communist dinosaur in Trade and Industry who is more concerned about how you buy your chicken and how you wear your crop bottoms, than in drawing0 investors. Instead of joining the free market, we joined the loosers of the world. Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) each have more poor people than we have people. It was a loose-loose strategy from the start. The present inequality poverty, unemployment, are all the result of wrong choices made by the government. We could have had the fastest growing economy in the world, now it is indeed “blowing in the wind”

The Wits liberals and the ANC refuses to compare apples with apples. The majority in SA are not worse off than their peer group in surrounding countries. In fact, they are better off, that is why thousands streamed into this country during Apartheid and millions thereafter.

The subtext of Marikana was that the ANC aligned trade unions wanted to crush AMCU, and used the Police to do so.

You cannot have equality of benefits with equality of mindset:

Take two key issues. The rich (middle class tax payers) vote for good government – the poor majority vote for corruption and mismanagement.

The rich do not have more children than they can afford – millions of the poor have children they cannot afford.

Probably 95% of capital in the world today consists of ordinary people’s savings, pension and provident funds.

The workers have always had a stake in capitalism through their savings and pension funds. They are actually acting against their own best interest with their rants against capitalism.

When all else fails, play the race card

Weren’t you playing the “my language is a race” card the other day? Ironic.

We are yet to see a paper from Wits academics on the main reason for black poverty – the explosion in black population growth.

The fundamental problem with this analysis is the assumption that South Africa is in fact a Capitalist state. It is not now and even during Apartheid it wasn’t really. We are a currently a highly Socialist society (the social engineering of Apartheid was also typical of State Socialism), so blaming Capitalism for our ills is quite arse-backwards. On that track a truly Capitalist society wouldn’t give two stuffs about ‘race’ – the more who are affluent enough to spend and purchase the better to a true Capitalist and parochial concerns of race are actually quite absurd.
What we need in SA is for people to stop blaming the past for problems but to work themselves to provide solutions, and also to stop looking to others (State etc.) for help in solving problems. You have a poor education system? Use resources such as cellphones and public libraries to increase literacy and upskill yourself – even a domestic worker or labourer can use their own time to build literacy and numeracy skills. No job? Use your time to clean the sidewalks, look after and educate the young, volunteer, plant food gardens on open space (road verges etc) and above all if you are poor do not have more children than you can afford to support and provide a standard of living that is higher than that you received growing up.
There are myriad solutions that individuals can do to improve and build their own futures, but the State has created a dependency, victim mentality that is self-serving as voters are disempowered to solve their own problems and hence become reliant on the State as voting fodder.

The problem here is that big businesses lobby’s the State for favourable trading conditions, you have private corporation’s interests and you have state actors’ interests. We can blame apartheid, we can blame the current government of the day, but do we blame ourselves for what had happened and what is happening. Do we sit behind keyboards listen to academics and researchers that publish all these wonderful solutions but yet are absent in the struggle of everyday South Africans? Yet we want to impose imperialistic knowledge of what works and what does not, my correction is better than yours. Nor the Multinational corporations or state actors can resolve these socio-economic problems in South Africa. Yes, we can rant and rave on here but what are we doing as individuals other than paying taxes. Instead of blaming this and blaming that and stating this opinion is superior to that of another, actually, get up and do something, if it means thinking and being differently then do just that. Until we have both sides of the coin acting on the same interest will we solve a generational problem. You can have all the glorified research, academics, pundits, etc, if we do not deal with this individually then we cannot deal with it as a whole. Corporations rely on profits and governments rely on taxes. The first thing is to start being patriotic, change your mind, if you think all the failed policies failed the rest, it is easy to state failures but when those that are failing and these failures do not affect you in any form whatsoever, then who are you to comment. Do not be absent in people’s failures and expect to turn up in their success. Things will get right in this country whether one likes it or not. Just be lekka for once. Yet when everyone is poor do you think Multinational corporations give a damn, do they, life goes on every corporation is like an island once you on, you on and if you drown, we are not here to save you and we can replace you. When government policies fail who has to deal with the garbage, not the pack up and leave people but in fact me and you

End of comments.



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