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A growing gap between the black elite and the black masses? “Either the masses are being fooled, or the gap is a figment of our own imagination” 2005-05-05
Sipho Seepe

By Sipho Seepe, Rector, Henley Management College
Friday May 6, 2005

    A great deal has been said and written about the role of the black elite – much of which has not been flattering. Much is made, for instance, of the flight of affluent blacks out of the township en route to white suburbs. To some, this phenomenon reflects the effects of psychological damage that centuries-old colonization inflicted on black people. The script reads thus: Oppression leads to self-hatred and alienation among the oppressed. The oppressed begin to identify themselves with the oppressor and cannot wait to find some accommodation within the ranks of the oppressor.

    Making his contribution on the subject, Newsweek International correspondent Tom Masland writes:
“They are the black princes and princesses of the new South Africa. They wear Armani to the office, drive late-model Mercedes or BMW sedans and buy vacation villas in Tuscany. The children of Johannesburg’s new business elite attend once-segregated private schools in neighborhoods that look like Beverly Hills…And the nation’s world famous country clubs, where whites once learned enough Zulu to tell a caddy, ‘Move your shadow’ still thrive. The new black elite loves golf. ” (Newsweek International, 24 January 2005)

    The notion of the growing gap between the black elite and the masses of black people falls within this category. How much of the above descriptions reflect the majority experience of the black elite? How large is this elite to warrant such attention? How real is this gap and how much of it is a fabrication – a result of restless and fertile imagination? How does this gap manifest itself? Does it take a geographic, economic, socio-cultural or political form, or is it a combination of all of these?

    Is it homogenous or differentiated? Are categories such as professional black elite, political elite and economic elite helpful? Is there a historic obligation on all of them that derives from their experience and blackness? To what extent has its form, character and interests changed as the result of the dramatic political developments in the last 10 years?

    Why is this growing gap a matter of concern? Why is this concern limited to the black elite? Are there expectations that the black elite, on the basis of its colour will behave differently from other elites? How much of this fixation is a result of the residue and influence of apartheid-imagined prescriptions? An appreciation of the challenges of the black elite versus the masses demands a clear analysis and unbiased description.

    The character and role of the black elite, just like any other social category or grouping, will continually be shaped by their class interests inasmuch as they will be influenced by white interests. A purely class or racial analysis is inadequate. The convergence or coincidence of interests has not led to inter-racial mixing among the upper classes in the racial divide. The black elite is considered a threat to the interests of the white upper class.  Neither have we witnessed any social toenadering or rapprochement between the poor black and its white counterpart. If anything, some of the most crudest and racist outpourings have emerged from the poor whites. Poor whites can no longer rely on the protection that the apartheid state provided. The black poor on the other hand, competing for the same limited and diminishing resources, exploit the history of oppression and claim entitlement on the basis of the colour of their skin. The black poor embrace the political rhetoric of redress and remain lulled to sleep as they wait in vain for salvation.

    Historically, the mantle ‘black elite’ was associated with the professional elites. This group comprised of men and women of letters. They were distinguished by their success despite obstacles that racial oppression placed before them. They were mainly the professional elites: doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, social workers, accountants, etc. The other category consisted of the entrepreneurs and small to medium business persons. It was a sustainable group beholden to no one but their expertise and ingenuity. Professional elites were models of emulation with masses looking up to them for salvation.

    Theory suggests that given its class location and class interest, the black professional elite would distance itself from the masses. However, the black elite had to contend with a regime that would not even countenance the mildest of reforms. They found themselves in the same geographic and political space with the masses – and this not out of volition. This left the elite with no other choice but to close ranks with and to find common cause with the toiling masses. After all, they shared the same racial oppression and shared the same economic and political frustration.

    In the same way that there is no homogeneity of political and ideological orientation among the masses, the same could be said of the professional black elite. At the same time, it is important to point out that the unity of the masses is often overrated. In times of social and civil strife, this unity is brutally enforced, at times with fatal consequences. The response of the professional elite was varied. Some sought to seek an accommodation with the oppressor while others preferred to throw their lot with the masses. It is hardly surprising that leaders of the liberation movements emerged and were drawn from this group. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, liberation movements are rarely led by ordinary workers. Edward Said succinctly captures this observation. He writes: “There has been no major revolution in modern history without intellectuals; conversely there has been no major counter-revolutionary movement without intellectuals.  Intellectuals have been the fathers and mothers of movements, and of course sons and daughters, even nephews and nieces” (Edward Said, 1994:10, Representations of the Intellectual).

    In economic and material terms, the gap has always existed between the professional elite on the one hand, and the masses on the other. If ever there was a connection between the masses and the elites, it was as a result of a section of this group that chose to throw its lot with the masses.

    The political changes brought about the emergence of the political elite. This group comprises of former activists (and their relatives) that have been rewarded for their political activism during the struggle against apartheid. The category includes members of national and provincial legislature. Multiply the number of these by 20 or 30 to include the hangers on, one gets a figure much less than 100 000. In terms of the population, this is minuscule figure. This category is also unsustainable. Its survival is a function of its willingness to curry favour and ingratiate itself to those wielding power. Put differently, the political elite is transitory and very unstable compared to with the professional elite. Owing to its lack of expertise, and at times minimal exposure to formal education, it finds itself in a precarious position. Little wonder that members of the new political elite seem to be interested in the vulgar accumulation of material wealth which they are so eager to flaunt around.

    The examination of the growing gap must confine itself therefore to the examination of the conduct of the political elites in relation to the masses. It is this group that serves as vanguard to the struggle and was continually in touch with the masses. In this regard, the explanation of the flight out of the townships is not exhausted by appealing to notion of self-hatred or psychological damage. For many blacks townships are inhospitable and appalling. They are, for lack of a better description, human dumping grounds where blacks were kept for the sole purpose of providing labour for white capital. A majority of these townships are cesspools of crime, black on black violence, poverty-related diseases, and health hazards arising out of lack of proper sanitation. Is it therefore not reasonable that those who can afford to escape such human degradation will do so at the slightest opportunity? There is nothing heroic about celebrating abject poverty.

    The above does not detract from the fact that there are some that have exploited the opportunities brought about by the demise of apartheid. They have forged fruitful partnerships and deals with captains of industry. These remain awfully few. Regarding this, Masland observes:
“The new black tycoons include Cyril Ramaphosa, a top ANC leader once considered a potential president; Tokyo Sexwale, a former provincial premier; and mining entrepreneur Patrice Motsepe. Deals involving those three accounted for nearly 80 percent of the value of the top 10 empowerment buy-ins recorded during 2003.” The figures are alarming inasmuch as they are misleading. The majority would still remain poor even if the shares were to be evenly spread among. Poverty and inequality are systemic and structural and would require more than a piecemeal approach.

However, a broader picture reveals a disheartening development in which the majority remains trapped in gripping poverty. Referring to often quoted statistics, Tom Masland continues: “Between 1995 and 2000, for example, that the average black household income shrunk by 19 percent, while that of whites- and of the new black middle class – rose by 15 percent. The country’s Gini coefficient – a measure of inequality – also worsened.” This is despite the ANC government’s commitment to reducing poverty and inequality.

Of particular relevance to Masland’s observation is the fact that “ten years on, little capital has changed hands. Individual blacks still own only 1.6 percent of shares traded on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange”. The African National Congress and its supporters are alive to this reality. Has this reality turned the masses away from the political elites represented by the ruling party? If the outcome of the last elections is anything to by, the answer is a resounding no!

    The 2004 elections confirmed the findings of the 2003 South African Social Attitudes Survey. The study explored the attitudes to poverty and inequality held by South Africans. While a significant majority felt strongly about the need to address these social ills, they differed on the solutions. 80 % percent of blacks polled agreed that “there should be preferential hiring and promotion of Black South Africans in employment” compared to 15 % of white respondents.  72% of blacks polled agreed that “Government should… give preferential contracts and tax breaks to black businesses” compared to 13% of white respondents. Again 81% percent of blacks agreed that “Government should…redistribute land to black South Africans” compared to 17 % of whites.

    The overall findings of this research indicate that South Africans display high levels of polarization along race and class lines when it comes to redistributive measures to address poverty and inequality. Is it any surprise that race is predominant in the country’s political discourse? Most importantly, the attitudes of the masses reflect continued faith in the political elite.

    In a sense, the system of exploitation needs such individuals for its own survival as it responds to pressure. At the same time, the ruling party ANC and masses need the elite, because through their very presence, they create a sense of hope and possibility. The elite enjoy support from all sides - the masses, the ruling elite, and the captains of industry.

    There is however no mistaking the centrality of race in social and economic life. After ten years of democracy – race differentiates and divides. How are we to reconcile this with the non-racial goal of the liberation movements? Writing on the same subjects, Professor Adam Habib, Executive Director at the HSRC observes:
“First, racial and ethnic identities are more politicized now because it suits the interests of political and economic elites. Race has been politicized and kept firmly on the national agenda to enable elites to project their class interest as the national interest…Similarly, our political elites (those in government and our public service) use race to compete effectively in the political arena. When senior civil servants are subjected to criticism about delivery and even corruption, race becomes a useful tool to defend themselves.”

    How is this to be read? Does it mean that we have been fooled, or could there be another explanation? Ironically, the answer can be found in Habib’s own analysis; he continues:
“The second element contributing to the politicization of race is our macroeconomic policy. The fundamental compromise of our transition was not in the political sphere, but in the economic…the political elites in our society struck a deal to abide not only by a market economy, but also by neoclassical economic policy prescriptions. The quid pro quo was the acceptance of black economic empowerment. In a lot of ways this was a deal to deracialize the apex of the class structure, while leaving the other levels largely untransformed.”(Italics reflect my own emphasis). For as long as there are levels that remain untransformed, the rhetoric of struggle will continue to appeal to the masses.

    Understandably, the political reading will differ among all these groups. For some the ushering of the new political dispensation represents the end of struggle. And as a result their role and relationship with the masses has ended. For some, the struggle continues. Interestingly and contrary to popular opinion, for the majority of the black elite, the end of apartheid brought in a new struggle – the economic struggle.

    This group has to traverse the places that were historically preserved for the white elite. Because they are at the coalface of the new struggle and have had to contend with everyday racial prejudice on every level of the economy, they remain a potent/ motive force for transformation. Not surprisingly, they are the most aggrieved and vocal. It is this group that the ANC government relies upon in developing and pushing for what is now called broad-based black economic empowerment.

    The new struggle requires new methods and tools – fighting for deracialization of the economy, of boardrooms, and taking control of the commanding heights of the economy will not involve mass action. Understandably the masses, lacking the new tools of engagement, might find the new form of engagement disabling. This would invariably feed into perceptions of being left behind. Despite these shifts in the form of engagement, the ruling party of which most members of the political elite emanate, continue to enjoy majority support from the very masses they are supposed to have betrayed. Either the masses are continuously being fooled or the perception of betrayal à la growing gap is a figment of our own imagination.

    The notion that there is a growing gap derives from the form of engagement. During the oppressive years, engagement was continuous and involved mass mobilization. The would-be political elites were connected to the masses. Oppression mobilized everyone. Democracy, by definition, demobilizes, because it requires different forms of engagement – elections which are periodic, formulaic and finite. People are activated into a prescribed behaviour for a time and then it stops (government regulated); but when people are oppressed, the mobilizing that arises out of oppressed conditions, is not formulaic or government related. Indeed in this new struggle, the ANC identified the black intelligentsia as the motive force for transformation in the struggle for economic liberation. The 1997 Strategy and Tactics of the ANC notes: “The rising black bourgeoisie and middle strata are objectively important motive forces of transformation whose interests coincide with at least the immediate interests of the majority. They are, in this sense and in this phase, part of the motive forces of fundamental change.”
    At the same time, the document calls for vigilance. “The occupation of positions of power by individuals from the black majority, and the material possibilities this offers, does create some "social distance" between these individuals and constituencies they represent. It should not be ruled out that this could render elements in the revolutionary movement progressively lethargic to the conditions of the poor. This is not a distant and theoretical possibility; but a danger always lurking as we pursue fundamental change from the vantage point of political office. Preventing it is not a small appendage to the tasks of the NDR. It is central to the all-round vigilance that we should continue to exercise.” Whether such a social distance has been reached can only be tested by a political position that the masses take with regard to the black intelligentsia.
    For now it is safe to say that if the gap exists, it has not grown big enough to lead to a revolt or alienation of the black elite from the masses. The rhetoric of the National Democratic Revolution still appeals to the people and most probably will continue to do so for a long time.


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