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A growing gap between the black elite and the black masses? Don’t confuse a consumer elite with a capitalist elite 2005-05-05
Ntombikanina Malinga

By Ntombikanina Malinga. Malinga has a backgrond in law and politics and presently works in the strategy division of a major parastatal


    Patrick Reinsborough claims that there is a Buddhist saying that cautions that if “the task before us is very urgent, we must slow down”. This assertion is most enlightened since analysis is the most important tool in any social change toolbox (1). As a consequence, an attempt to unpack, define and even comment on the growing gap between the black elite and the black masses could only start with a critical analysis of the terminology and the ideological orientation embedded in that very assertion.

    Before one even comments about the gap between the African ‘haves’ & the have ‘nots’, what captures ones attention is the already presumptuous manner in which the topic has been posed. From that observation, it is apparent that the gap does not only exist, but most interestingly, that it is growing. The growing element further assumes a contemporary tone as opposed to the gap probably being a phenomenon that has always existed pre-1994.

    It is therefore important that a few fundamentals be agreed upon before a thesis is posed. Firstly, the element of a growth is a very subjective starting point to depart from. Put in lay woman’s terms, one could only ask the question: what piece of research forms a basis for this assertion about growth? That is, if the gap is said to be growing, from what point in history are we referring back to? And most fundamentally, how do we define growth? What constitutes growth in objectively irrefutable terms, and in a manner that could easily be comprehensible to any average South African?

    Secondly, there needs to be clarity on the notion of a gap. Is this a real gap or a perceived gap we are referring to? What degree of disparity constitutes a gap and who defines it? Furthermore, and most concerning: what type of divergence are we referring to here? Is this inequality distinguishable in terms of: class, gender, socio-political aspects, religion, culture, academic/ political orientation or even locality? Which category are we referring to? Is it one of the above, all of the above or a combination of sorts?

    Thirdly, who is a ‘Black’ South African? This naïve question has become a never-ending quest in South Africa when seeking to differentiate the different shades of grey (or black in this regard) that exist. There are socio-political analysts who will in indisputable terms argue that ‘Black’ refers to groups of people that were previously known as Bantu, Coloured or Indian during Apartheid South Africa. This is a more dominant view as various legislations  in the country would commonly define ‘Black’ as any person who regards themselves as African, Indian or Coloured – and most notably who has been disadvantaged during Apartheid South Africa (1948-1994).

    The Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2003 defines "black people" as a generic term that includes "Africans, Coloureds and Indians. (2) However, in the same breath, there are ‘right-wingers’ in each of the three noted groups who often argue for a more purist approach to defining different races in South Africa. They would argue against a ‘one-size-fits-all’ type of a definition and would even cite religious and obvious cultural differences as legitimate differentiation. A good example is how a majority of the so called ‘Coloured’ people still refuse to be called ‘Black’ as well as some from the Indian community (who strongly share the same sentiments). Having said all of this, now what shade of ‘Black’ is going to be the subject of our analysis from this point onwards?

    Lastly from our analytical toolbox, how does one define the Black elite? Would one apply the same principles if one were defining the ‘White’ elite? Is melanin (4) the only differentiator here or is there more to this term? And most importantly, at what point of the social organisational strata does a ‘Black’ person graduates from being ‘mass’ to ‘elite’?

    This article will in this light seek to answer the questions posed.

History of Inequality in South Africa

In his book Sampie Terreblanche (5) makes a very interesting observation in the last chapter of his book titled The apparent dysfunctionality of South Africa’s version of neo-liberal democratic capitalism. He states that “…apartheid had a worse legacy than was realised …the social distortions and destructive dynamics introduced by apartheid have reproduced an augmented poverty and perpetual inequality”. If one may add further, inequality within and across all categories of social organisation.

    Inequality in South Africa is so rooted in the socio-political and economic foundations of society that for anyone to wonder about existing rifts across classes, sexes or races is simply questioning the obvious. Nothing demonstrates the above assertion than the economic constitution of the South African society. Not only did Apartheid thrive within a capitalist formation: the fact of the matter is that it is in the nature of the capitalist system to thrive on chaos and differences. One therefore cannot say that it is merely race, class, gender, religious, academic of even locational differences that are the cause of the supposedly growing gap between the Black haves and have-nots; the truth of the matter is that the entire capitalist system (6) is responsible for ‘the’ divergence. In fact one can go so far as to say depending on one’s lenses, that the texture of the South African economy (7) could easily still be the same as in pre-1994 South Africa.

Black capitalists? Black elite?

    To understand the above assertion one only has to attempt to define the term ‘black elite’. There seems to be no need to define the black masses since that is a class of people that no analyst can claim to have difficulty defining its constitution. However, the definition of who the Black elite are on the other hand, always poses a highly contested debate. For the purposes of this article Black will be defined as the BEE Act does. This will therefore enable one to focus on the more substantive argument of the ‘elite-ness’ of blacks than the former, which we have unpacked, and is more comprehensible.

    The elite in any state is often understood to be the upper class. This is a group of people who acquire an elevated social status through various means: for example, by being leaders in their own fields (e.g. priest/ scientist), by being born into a particular family (e.g. royalty) or through excessive accumulation of wealth (e.g. entrepreneurs). It is the latter characteristic that gives anyone who possesses the elite trophy more than just status – but an ability to enjoy privilege and to exercise actual and supreme power!

    The bearer of this economic power in our capitalist world is termed a capitalist. A capitalist is nothing more than anyone who controls the means of production (land), the distribution of wealth and the institutions that help maintain such power over others or in a particular system. Now, in terms of how the capitalist system and capitalist principles evolved in Europe and later throughout the world (enabled by imperialism and colonialism, especially in Africa) it has often been easy to talk of a white person as a capitalist. Reference to the Apartheid period in South Africa makes it even simpler to illustrate this point, meaning that, Apartheid as a system unapologetically entrenched the notion that economic power in South Africa was to be enjoyed only by the privileged white minority. That is why, one could not, especially during the pre-1994 South African context, be confused about who the capitalists were.

    The above assertion is not intended to perpetuate a belief that capitalism especially in post-1994 South Africa is still a ‘white only’ terrain… actually what the statement does is the opposite. It opens a debate on whether there is really a black capitalist in present day South Africa? Applying the proposed definition meticulously, one wonders whether we do have in South Africa today black persons who own the means of production, distribution and the institutions that make it possible for them to maintain that level of economic control. This question is important because it addresses the realness or the synthetic notion of an existing gap between the masses and the elite.

This is not to dispute the fact that there are black people with substantive wealth, who could easily be termed elite and who are actually perceived by society as belonging to the upper class. The debate arises where one applies a strict definition of ‘elite’ and associates it with capitalism to embrace the critical aspect of the ownership of the means of production. And by adopting the above approach one is left with a duty to then define the classes. In short, is there a difference between the petty bourgeois class and the real capitalist class?

B.E.E. (7)

In his article in the Mail & Guardian’s on-line edition (9) John Pilger notes “…certainly the income gap between whites and blacks has narrowed slightly [by the inclusion of a small group of black (males) in South Africa’s white corporate masonry, which is overseen by the power of five big companies dominating the Johannesburg Stock Exchange]. However, inequality among blacks has increased sharply as the new black elite gets richer and the majority gets poorer. [Surely] the new apartheid is one of class not race.”

There are two responses one could have to Pilger’s above assertion and in relation to our broader enquiry (a) that probably there is a group of black people one could refer to as black capitalists or our so called black elite. Here we would be implying that there are black people who control the means of production, distribution of wealth and the institutions that make it possible for them to maintain this economic power; (b) or that, equally on the other hand there are no black capitalist in South Africa. That what we perceive to be the black elite is nothing more than a sophisticated advancement of bourgeoism or what we commonly term the ‘middle class’.

    Bourgeoism for the purposes of this article is to be understood as a progression into wealth through professional means (e.g. by being a doctor, lawyer, corporate manager …etc.). It is further important to note that this is the most common way through which black people in South Africa pre- and post-1994 have managed to be part of the middle, or is it the ‘upper middle class’? The remaining minority of blacks who have embodied the true meaning of the upper class have done so through the true spirit of entrepreneurship. These are a few who in most objective terms could claim to be the black capitalists and black elite. However, for the purposes of this article, elite embraces both the middle and upper class.

    In South Africa the BEE programme has managed to accelerate to the capitalist class a few black people (e.g. Cyril Ramphosa, Mzi Khumalo, Patrice Motsepe and Tokyo Sexwale to name but a few examples). As Zolisa Soji put it in Business Report’s on-line section of opinions/ analysis: “… for the black masses, the BEE programme is a fantasy that is lived out by those with the right political connections” (10). Soji, here affirms the unnaturalness of this acceleration to economic power. In his eyes, this is very different from true entrepreneurs which a lot of the so called black masses already are – but unfortunately can only exercise informally. To support this assertion, it is vital to note that in South Africa today, it is suspected that less than 1% of the South Africa economy is truly owned by the black people.

    What this assertion suggests is that there seems to be a class rift between a very few black haves and the majority have-nots that is state and corporate led. The creation of this artificial gap actually leads certain analysts to even conclude that it is therefore not surprising that the needs of the black elite are developing to be the South Africame as those of the white elite. That class plays a major role in determining the interests of different groups in South Africa, and furthermore, that it is only class [and not other forms of differentiators] that is responsible for the development of a gap in society. Capitalism in essence knows no colour!

    For some analysts this assertion is short of one critical element that could only be asked in the following fashion: If capitalism knows no colour, are we saying that the needs of the white elite and black elite are completely similar? And having established that there are a few black capitalists (who make up the -1%), a substantial middle class and a real prospect of accelerating oneself to wealth and economic power via the professional route, why then are we still defining groups in terms of race? Why a need to define the growing gap between the black elite and masses and not simply a growing gap between the elite and the masses in South Africa – without reference to race?

    The answer to this question is core to this article’s thesis, that is, in essence there is no real and growing gap between the black masses and the elite (however that is, if one is talking in pure political terms). In socio-economic terms one could argue that a real connection exists between political consequences and how these play out in socio-economic terms. The gap as it exists is therefore a consequence of the system itself. If one fails to acknowledge the results of racial prejudice and white history in South Africa, then one refuses to see a causal link between past political decisions and current and future developments. This reality cannot be overlooked even by any critical analyst as a phase that existed and that has now ‘gone with the wind’.

    It is indisputable that the challenges that the black masses experience are the same as those of the so called black elite, because they all speak towards redressing the pre-1994 injustices and inequalities. They all call for more access for black presence/representation in the mainstream economy of South Africa. Whether it is a small black business person seeking to elevate their activity from the informal to the formal arena, a black professional calling for employment equity in the corporate world or a BEE candidate seeking a tender or shares in the bigger pie of the South African economy, all these people are seeking one thing, and that is, to be part of the engine that drives the pulse of this country’s economy that has for ages and by designed been reserved for whites in South Africa. What differs however, is the scale and level of their economic game - at the end of the day the fundamental objective is the same.

    This universal call for black participation in the South Africa’s mainstream economy should not be confused with how then this reality plays itself out in social terms. Black people like white people in South Africa (and anywhere in the world) are a composition of complex personalities with different individual aspirations and abilities. As much as there are differences among white people there are fundamental differences among black people. This sounds like one is stating the obvious, however in the South African context it is important to differentiate between state engineered inequality and the natural inequalities that exist in all societies.

    There is a historical reason for inequalities in South Africa and for it to be embedded in racial foundations. Therefore, although it is important to acknowledge the different classes in South Africa, it is equally important to understand the reasons that led a majority of black people to be part of the have-nots/ masses and, why there is virtually and hardly any reference to white masses/ have-nots. Any honest South African knows that this was by deliberate human design, through the manipulation of state systems, and that unfortunately it will take years to correct.

    Therefore, when one ponders a growing gap between the black elite and the masses, one is probably in a convenient fashion choosing to acknowledge the obvious fact that there are differences in black consumer patterns. It is no secret that black participation in the South African economy has always been largely consumptive, and of course depending on where one finds him/herself in the social strata, their ability to exercise this economic clout would differ from one person to the next. This would explain why some black people can live in certain localities, work in certain places, eat, or even holiday where they previously could not. The issue here is not to mistake these differences in consumer behaviour as legitimising an assertion that there is a growing gap. The greater aspirations and objectives for economic equity that all black people in South Africa by historical default share, demonstrates that there is no paradigm shift / gap. A growing gap defined in consumerism and in accumulative terms belittles what black people as a nation fought for pre-1994.

    One is not saying that what people accumulate in their lives is of no significance. In South Africa today, the house that one lives in, the car one drives and the standard of lifestyle one enjoys is often perceived as the measure of true success. However, in real terms, all that means nothing if one continues to be an unequal peripheral participant in the economic activities of South Africa. Black people cannot continue to perceive the growth of the middle class as a true reflection of economic inclusion in South Africa. Maybe at one level it is, but fundamentally, as Moeletsi Mbeki put it in his article on South Korea and lessons for South Africa, by focusing on promoting real entrepreneurship and using government power to do so, Korea managed to economically empower its people to be major players in its economy and also abroad (11).

    On a lighter note it is also important to note that capitalism is not only an economic system, but that it is a comprehensive social system. Hence socially and with the influence of globalism, the consumer patterns of most classes as a collective will evidently be alike both within countries and across countries and continents. The difference here is again not fundamental ideological differences but that in pure economic terms any individual, regardless of their culture, religion, gender or race will respond in a predictable manner towards globally defined and popularised consumerism patterns and preferences.


    We started off by stating that, “the task before us is very urgent, we must slow down”. This warning was relevant to understanding the various aspects of a changing society like S.A. It was a warning heeded in this task of unpacking the growth of the gap between the black elite and the poor black masses. It was therefore prudent that in “slowing down”, one began by critically assessing the very nature of the assertion that there is indeed a growing gap.

    What this article has attempted to do is to unpack the assumptive notion of a growing gap between the black elite and the black masses. It has tried to define key terms that often if left undefined lead to long and unnecessary debates.

    Whether the above was achieved or not is a topic for another article. What the reader could take out of this article is an acknowledgement that depending on how one wishes to view the gap, one should start first by acknowledging certain key fundamental aspects, for example, that to talk about a gap one needs to be very clear about the type of a gap one is scrutinizing. That is, could it be a core ideological rift of how people view their world or are we talking about a superficial gap that could exist in any given group of people or society?

    Of most significance is that one also identify the characteristic about that gap that makes it an interesting case study for analysis. In this case, one would then understand why one would be interested in analysing a growing gap between the black elite and the black masses. The enquiry by its very nature is very contextual and is motivated by a particular paradigm.

    The context is that South Africa is a highly dynamic society that has and continues to go through a major metamorphosis since its transition from Apartheid to a Democracy, post-1994. For that reason, it is not unusual for people to ponder upon this constant change. The paradigm is as stated before, that the assertion of the growing gap is pregnant with two major assumptions: Firstly; that it has been established that indeed there is a gap between the black elite and the masses; secondly, that this gap is growing. Inherent in this, is that it has been established indeed that there is the gap. Furthermore, the assertion assumes that the supposedly growing gap is a new phenomenon, that is, a product of the post-’94 dispensation.

    Put bluntly, one can conclude that, including a few black people who own 1% of South Africa’s economy (whether on their own or through sophisticated partnerships), the majority of black people (as consumers, professionals or entrepreneurs) still find themselves at different stages of South Africa’s economic periphery. To claim that there is a growing gap between the black elite and the black masses, is to overlook the fundamental fact that one is still making reference to a group of people facing the same challenge – that is, a movement out of the periphery to the real core of economic activity in South Africa.


(1) Originally published in David Solnit (editor), Globalize Liberation, San Francisco: City Lights Book, 2004, pp. 161-211.
(2) For example: The Equity Act, legislation on the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment, etc.
(3) Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act 53 of 2003
(4) “Melanin is a dark biological pigment (biochrome) found in skin, hair, feathers, scales, eyes, and some internal membranes; it is also found in the peritoneum of many animals (e.g., frogs), but its role there is not understood. Formed as an end product during metabolism of the amino acid tyrosine, melanins are conspicuous in dark skin moles of humans; in the black dermal melanocytes”
(5) Sampie Terreblance, A History of Inequality in South Africa 1652-2002, Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press & KMM Review Publishing, 2002, p. 419.
(6) An appreciation that the capitalist system is more than an economic system – but also a social, cultural and political system - is very important at this point.
(7) The economic character of South Africa is elevated over the socio political aspects – fundamentally because that is where real power lies.
(8) According to the Act, "broad-based black economic empowerment" – with an emphasis on 'broad-based' - refers to the economic empowerment of all black people including women, workers, youth, people with disabilities and people living in rural areas.
(9) 17 April 1998.
(10) Id=2335831
(11) Moeletsi Mbeki, South Korea’s Economic Miracle, The Star, Friday 8 April, 2005.


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