We’re all South Africans Now — The Challenge of True Democracy

Place a full glass of water in an empty wash-basin, then smash it to pieces. The water will spill out, filling the basin, reaching a lower level than it did when concentrated in the glass.

That’s basic physics. It’s also not a bad illustration of imperial political economy and, in theory, of the politics of decolonisation. Using South Africa under apartheid as a micro-cosm of an imperial economy, you can think of apartheid as the glass, and money the water. When concentrated in the glass, from which only whites could drink, wealth was able to reach a high level. Once apartheid was smashed, the water was meant to wash over everyone equally.

To some extent, the transition to the new South Africa, which followed the end of apartheid in 1994, has looked like this. Public services have been spread far more evenly. Even though a disproportionate number of whites attend university, for instance, most tertiary students in South Africa are today black, and as importantly, blacks attend elite universities alongside historically privileged groups. So it goes for most public services, from schools to police stations. Thus, while whites have with  the apartheid’s end experienced a decline in the quality of public services, that’s principally because the water level in the apartheid-glass fell once it was smashed (I don’t want to discount the effect of inept public-sector management in aggravating this decline), but that”s a story for another day.

However, while this redistribution of public services was meant to create a more equal society, it’s had strangely little impact on the aggregate distribution of the nation’s wealth and income. While basic services have improved for the majority, South Africa is today even more divided than it was when Nelson Mandela took his oath of office. Some working-class whites, who would once have benefited from job reservation and preferential access to government services, are worse off. A relatively small class of blacks, notably those with university degrees or political connections, are better off, and some are much better off. But for most blacks, incomes have improved little and jobs are hard to find.

It’s a cautionary tale for all of us, as I noted previously. A regime which excluded the majority and compelled the rich minority to pay its workers inflated wages served, in effect, to build a mass base for capitalism not by redistributing resources between rich and poor within one society, but by redistributing resources from poor outsiders to poor insiders. It’s more or less the model we in the West used to build inclusive democracies after the Industrial Revolution: we gave everyone a stake in capitalism by giving them all a stake in empire. But if and when the empire broke down, we’d have a hard time maintaining the model.

For a few decades after the formal end of empire, Western countries managed to preserve an imperial economic structure in which the newly-independent states of the Third World operated. The end of the British and French empires in the decades after the Second World War, and of what remained of the Portuguese empire in the 1970s, completed the process begun in the nineteenth century when the Spanish empire broke up. However by then, the Western countries had already created a global economic order — the so-called Bretton Woods system — which benefited industrial countries more than developing ones. Not unlike the pattern of post-apartheid South Africa, the richer countries grew richer while incomes fell further behind those of the West. On the other hand, in the newly-independent states, access to government services broadly improved (at least initially). Thus, as would happen in independent South Africa, a small elite — those who had led the independence movements and captured state power — benefited from decolonisation; most everyone else was left wondering what it had all been for.

Needless to say, such arrangements couldn’t last, any more than apartheid could ever prove more than a transitional stage. Just as white South African businessmen wanted access to cheap township labour in order to boost their profits and compete in the global economy, so did Western corporations want to bypass their own, relatively sheltered working classes. They pined for the cheap labour supplies of Third-World cities, just as workers there pined for the higher wages they would get working for Western firms.

When, starting in the 1980s, Western governments began using neoliberal policies to globalise their economies, we all went along because it meant cheaper goods in the shops. But, as the income distribution figures from our own societies reveal, the chief beneficiaries of globalisation have been a small, fabulously wealthy elite of oligarchs who have reaped super-profits, and the rising entrepreneurial class from the Third-World, which has been partnering with them in out-sourcing contracts. They are the equivalent to the ‘tenderpreneurs’ who rose from South Africa’s black townships to become some of the country’s richest people in the post-apartheid era, during which time they have largely turned their backs on the poor blacks who had fought in their struggles.

As the gap between rich and poor widens further within our own societies, we are now confronting the same problem South Africa is: how to create a better society for our own poor now that we can no longer shift the bill onto someone else’s poor. However, while faced  with the reality that we’re all in this together, our politicians are behaving like tribal elders keen only to preserve their own supporters.

Africa can teach us a thing or two about what can happen when we succumb to the lures of tribalist politicians.


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