Race and Capitalism: No Easy Answers, But Posing Is Nowhere To Go South Africa

Historians are likely to conclude that there wasn’t a single reason why the recent riots and looting of supermarkets, shops, and warehouses in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, South Africa’s two economically most important provinces, left so many generally law-abiding citizens in their slipstream . There were seemingly numerous dynamics at play, from the sheer poverty of numerous black citizens to the manipulation of social media by supporters of former President Jacob Zuma, who was angry about his arrest.

One explanation touted by various quarters, however, was that the upheaval was the result of the “racial capitalism” that South Africa has been exposed to over the centuries. Such a declaration harks back to the racialized politics of the past and how it linked the political ideologies of segregation and apartheid promoted by the white governments of South Africa prior to the democratic transition in 1994.


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This view suggests that present-day inequalities, which continue to have a strong racial dimension, along with the brutal treatment of poor blacks – for example by police in Marikana in the Northwest Province in 2012, when police shot 35 protesting miners – are a Product of the history of racial capitalism in South Africa.

It is difficult to contradict the main point of much of the analysis that is put forward in this sense. It is generally accepted that the 1994 democratic transition was the result of an “elite pact” that changed the country’s politics but did little to undermine the foundations of white economic power.

Continuity and change characterize the political economy after apartheid. Still, South Africans must be careful in attributing all current crises to “racial capitalism”. Blaming racial capitalism for all of the country’s evils can easily lead to diverting responsibility from the country’s current politicians – and from the South Africans themselves.

Past as present

The colonial conquest happened in parallel with the development of capitalism. Both projects require non-white people, especially Africans, to become instruments for other purposes. Africans were stripped of their land and property and became the tools of their oppressors. The arrival of democracy did not stop this process.

When the Lonmin miners of Marikana in the platinum-rich Northwest Province demanded an appropriate wage increase, the state collaborated with foreign capital to crush their differences. Inequality promotes this objectification of people, which leads to greater exploitation of the poor, who are predominantly black.

The problem with the often offered solution – that the entire system of “racial capitalism” should be overturned – is that it is so remarkably boring. So it’s worth trying to deconstruct it.

So what is to be done?

Is the implication that racism and capitalism are inseparable? If so, is the further implication that capitalism itself should be overthrown? Which might be a very nice idea, but first of all, is it practical and likely? Who should carry out the overthrow? At what human and other costs (since it is unlikely that capital and the state will give up without a fight)? And what would one put in the place of capitalism? Should this be a new socialist order, and if so, will South Africa follow historical examples (which overall have not been very successful) or will it go its own way?

Or is the implication that capitalism can be desocialized? In theory, this is exactly what the African National Congress (ANC), which has ruled the country since 1994, intended through legislation on equality and empowering blacks to be economically empowered. While the company’s profile did not show insignificant changes in terms of ownership and management, most would agree that the accomplishments of ANC policy have been remarkably modest.

However, it remains controversial whether this is due to company resistance, social factors (e.g.

Aside from the whole question of whether a disassociated capitalism would be less exploitative than a racist one, and whether it would be less patriarchal, the more fundamental question is how South Africa can achieve this when the current strategies, with which most agree are well intended – by itself prove inadequate to achieve their goals.

Should equity employment and black economic empowerment be increased when the prevailing reputation in business is that more regulation is the main barrier to the influx of much-needed foreign investment? Will this add or prevent much-needed employment? Or should current strategies be revised?

Such an analysis often neglects the question of what kind of state is required to bring about the transformation to a more humane society that South Africans are seeking. The current disillusionment with the post-1994 order shows the limits of South African democracy and the way in which ANC dominance has eroded them.

Much attention has recently been paid to the ANC’s deployment strategy, how this has resulted in political loyalty to the party replacing the ability to do work, how the deployment has led to corruption, how it has destroyed state-owned companies, how it has undermined government efficiency; and how it has collapsed local government.

The answer that is usually given is that it is necessary to reverse the merger of party and state and consolidate the independence of the state in order to allow expertise to flourish and ensure the rise of the achievement society. But then the mystery remains whether the ANC is able to bring about such a transformation or whether the ANC itself must be disempowered.

That, in turn, not only requires that it lose an election, but that it gracefully acknowledge its loss in such a case. Perhaps both dimensions of the last sentence are unlikely.

No easy answers

Where is all of this going in South Africa? I honestly don’t know. But I know that the answers to South Africa’s many problems are far from easy. That doesn’t mean that South Africans can’t work their way through to the solutions, and if they don’t just give up, they have to believe they can. But it will be extremely hard work. South Africans will have to talk, listen and bargain hard to find their way.

But one thing South Africans need to pull out of this complexity is that realistic and workable answers cannot be obtained by posing. Unfortunately there are no easy answers.The conversation

Roger Southall, Professor of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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