In taking on the question of “a growing gap between the black elite and the black masses?” both Ntombikanina Malinga and Sipho Seepe came up with perceptive analyses that did a lot to dispel some of the entrenched notions that have too easily become part of the public vocabulary when discussing this topic.
Before attempting a reply to them, first a qualification as to why Die Vrye Afrikaan took on this topic. This qualification is in order as particularly Malinga in her opening paragraphs voiced her unease about the “assumptions” that seem to be made in the question. Malinga is perfectly correct when in deconstructing the assumptions underlying the notion of a growing gap between the black elite and the black masses she points to a number of problems, for example the simplistic way in which the term ‘black’ is used, or that what could be meant by the notion of the gap or the nature of the growth in the gap. However, posing the question on whether there is such as growing gap is not the same as assuming that there is such a gap, as Malinga seems to imply. The fact of the matter is precisely that in the present public South African debate the notion of such a (growing) gap is easily bandied about on the left (Cosatu and the SACP’s anger against the “elitist” nature of black economic empowerment [BEE]) or the right (the cynical Afrikaner rightwing minority all too prepared to equate BEE with corruption and graft elsewhere in post-colonial Africa). In a politically frail South Africa with its long history of elite exploitation of the masses (which has definitely not always been only black, as Malinga implies when she forgets imperial Britain’s exploitation of Afrikaners after the Anglo-Boer War) not questioning the notion of the elite in its latest incarnation is even more irresponsible than making uncritical use of this notion. As far as we are aware Die Vrye Afrikaan is the first publication to attempt a serious analysis of this notion, precisely to take us beyond sloppy and irresponsible uses of it, and we intend to carry the debate forward over the coming months.
Afro-nationalist rather than black
This brings me to Malinga and Seepe’s articles. The main virtue of Malinga’s analysis is that she uses a classical Marxist approach to clinically lay bare the falsity of an assumed growing gap between the black masses and the black elite. I fully agree with her qualifications around the term ‘black’, but I propose that we substitute the term ‘black’ with the term ‘Afro-nationalist’, and indeed for two reasons. The first reason is that the main ideological basis of the South African government under president Thabo Mbeki has become an inclusive Afro-nationalism. In his recent book Thabo Mbeki and the Struggle for the Soul of the ANC (Cape Town: Zebra Press, 2005) William Mervin Gumede argues that Mbeki genuinely believes in an inclusive nationalism of which the ANC must be the keeper, and in which all South African communities should be able to find a home. Equally, the ANC in a recently published working document on the “national question” calls for an inclusive nationalism of which the most important motive is the liberation of “black Africans”. In other words, one is confronted with an inclusive Afro-nationalism which on a secondary level aims to make space for all South Africans, but on a primary level aims to liberate “black Africans”.
The second reason why I propose the term Afro-nationalist rather than black is that over the past year or so various figures in government have called for particularly the empowerment of “black Africans”. Recently, for example, an ANC MP stated specifically that the transformation of the Springbok rugby team is above all about the inclusion of “black Africans” in the team. In other words, although we intellectuals have good reason to warn against the simplistic notions of the term black, the politicians have ample reason to be less careful. Perhaps part of the reason for the underlying blackness of Afro-nationalism stems from what Adam Habib as quoted by Sipho Seepe points out, namely that where there is a deracializing “of the apex of the class structure… the other levels [are] largely left untransformed.” As Seepe states the “rhetoric of the struggle will continue to appeal to the masses” as long as these levels are not deracialized.
But now back to Malinga’s analysis. The gist of her Marxist application to the problem boils down to the following argument: economic power is the most important form of power in society. Economic power is in turn controlled by the capitalists, i.e. “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 in a particular system.” She goes on to point out that in the classic sense of what a capitalist is we do indeed have very few “black” capitalists in South Africa, what with even the new black heroes of capitalism such as Ramaphosa, Sexwale and a few others cumulatively controlling probably less than 1% of the means of production of the South African economy. (This figure is supported by the fact that “blacks” control less than 1,6% of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, as Seepe points out.) Whether we are talking of 1% or 2% the fact of the matter is that Malinga is fundamentally correct when she argues from this that there can be no talk of a new “black” elite. Rather, she states, we should be looking at old patterns of elite formation, and whether these haven’t worsened since 1994, with a touch of black now thrown it. (Here she supports Seepe’s neat political point that just about everybody politically needs the illusion of a “black elite”: the ANC, in order to prove that it is improving the lot of its constituency; the captains of industry, in order to prove that they are serious about BEE; and the masses, in order to believe that there is also hope for them.) Lastly Malinga does point to the fact of a growing black consumer class, whose visibility is probably one of the main reasons why notions of a new black elite is so easily accepted in the public South African debate. Nevertheless, she reminds us that blacks’ participation in the economy has always been of a consumptive rather than a productive nature, and that, if anything, this pattern has been further entrenched since 1994. The diabolical beauty of this is that it further enhances the illusion of a new black elite without demanding any significant sacrifices from either the new political or the old corporate masters of South Africa.
For a classical Marxist analysis of the notion of a growing gap between the black elite and the black masses one would be hard-pressed to find a better attempt than that of Malinga, and she does indeed lay bare how little economically things have changed for black South Africans (defining black in the inclusive sense that she does in accordance with the BEE Act.) Of course this situation is not sustainable, and as Seepe reminds us that “for now it is safe to assume 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”. But how long can this situation persist, especially if one notes the growing civil strife by the poor at local government level all across South Africa (which the National Intelligence Agency now, somewhat ridiculously and not very inspiringly as with regards to our political leadership, is tasked to investigate)?
The gaps in Malinga and Seepe's analyses
In answering this question one has to go beyond Malinga’s Marxist approach, for she duplicates all the known shortcomings of a Marxist analysis: overestimating economic power at the expense of symbolic power; failing to come to grips with the nature of a modern hyperindustrial as opposed to a classic industrial economy; and not making enough of the changing nature of the South African state-corporate dispensation. Let me attempt to illustrate what I mean by these three remarks:
1) Overestimating economic power at the expense of symbolic power: In her analysis of what the elite is, she refers to wealth as “an ability to enjoy privilege and to exercise actual and supreme power” (my emphasis). Now the fact of the matter is that if economic power was so determining in societies, a country like India, which has probably sustained economic inequality for longer than any other country on earth would have exploded long ago. The main reason why India has remained relatively stable, is the role that religion has played to help people endure their suffering and poverty. It is not for nothing that two major world religions, Buddhism and Hinduism, were both born in the Indian city of Benares, with Buddhism for example taking suffering as its point of departure. Let us not forget that South Africa is one of the most religious countries in the world, and that this undoubtedly helps to explain why so many South Africans have not long ago revolted against their material deprivation. In a sense religion often even leads one to find meaning in suffering (which of course led Lenin to see it as the opium of the people, somewhat diminishing the meaning of religion). Religion is of course only one form of symbolic power, as we can see if we consider my second remark:
2) Failing to come to grips with the nature of a hyperindustrial as opposed to a classic industrial economy: Although commentators like Moeletsi Mbeki have pointed out that South Africa’s industrial capacity has shrunk over the last decade or two, one has to qualify this shrinkage. In the classical (Marxist) sense South Africa has undergone two major waves of industrialization. The first one was led by the British from the the 1870’s onwards following the discovery of diamonds and later gold. The second one was by the Afrikaners from the 1930’s onwards, following the recovery of the mineral prices after the Great Depression. Both these waves of industrialization also accompanied a symbolic politics, namely, first, affirming the grandeur of the British empire over and against the local “backwards indigenous inhabitants” and, secondly, affirming the standing of Afrikaners over and against the British empire as well as the other “backwards” indigenous groups.
Although South Africa’s industrial base have shrunk from the 1980’s onwards, the country has, however, entered a third wave of industrialization, albeit a wave of hyperindustrialization (to use the term as Bernard Stiegler does in his book De la misère symbolique: 1. L’époque hyperindustrielle [Of symbolic misery: 1. The hyperindustrial epoch.], Paris: Gallimard, 2004). Stiegler’s contention is that whereas various commentators have referred from the 1960’s onwards to a post-industrial economy with more leisure time for the autonomous individual, we have in fact seen the rise of a symbolic economy in which the attention of the individual becomes the most important commodity in the global market of the contents of consciousness, such as films, television programmes, sports, music and so forth. The rise of this symbolic economy has come on the back of a massive surge in hyperindustrial capacity, primarily in the communications industry.
From the first wave of South African industrialization South Africa has always exhibited an astounding capacity for the importation and local adoption of technical systems. The third wave of (hyper)industrialization that South Africa has experienced from the late 1980’s, and which really took off under the current Afro-nationalists, has been no exception to this rule. The heart of the Afro-nationalistic project is of a symbolic nature, namely the reaffirmation of the dignity of Africa and “black Africans”, popularly known as the African Renaissance. In the execution of this project the Afro-nationalists have spared no effort, investing particularly heavily in transport, communications and electricity, that is precisely those sectors that are vital to the hyperindustrial economy. That is also why Telkom, the SABC and Transnet is so strategically important to the current state. Of course these sectors also come in handy for the much-vaunted public-private partnerships, i.e. the state and corporate sectors joining hands in the growing of a South African symbolic economy, as embodied by the emphasis on tourism as an industry of global exhibitionism and spectatorship. Marx never foresaw that the state would at one stage become the most important agent in the industrial economy, and one can only guess what he would have said at witnessing the current South African state being the foremost symbolic producer (with all the implications for using black consumptive participation in the economy as platform rather than attempting to change it! In mitigation one must at least concede that Marx and Engels maybe foresaw something of this when they wrote in the Communist Manifesto: “Everything that was sacred, is being desacralized.”). The main product of this symbolic economy besides a rather elitist notion of Africa (centred around the state-corporate sector, rather than communities), is of course the fiction of a centralized South African nation (rather than a nation of communities). “Simunye, we are one”. Indeed. And here exists a very real gap between the Afro-nationalistic symbolic producers and the consuming masses, whose consciousnesses are fertile ground for the meaningless programmes being dumped on them, from global brands to meaningless “music”, from one-sided news broadcasts to cellphone mythology. Talk about opium for the people.
3) The changing nature of the state-corporate dispensation: Both Malinga and Seepe makes nearly no attempt to theorize the nature of the South African state, a mighty colonial invention if ever there was one. Bearing in mind that this state is by far the most important political instrument in South Africa, one can’t leave it out of the equation when attempting to understand elite formations, especially if you bear in mind that the selfsame Afrikaner-nationalists who had the moral high ground and the state at their disposal in 1948, by the early 1960’s already fell victim to a new elite forming (or rather the Super-Afrikaners joining the existing elite, to take a page from Malinga’s book).
The changing nature of the South African state
The key to understanding the changing nature of the South African state lies firstly in reminding ourselves that this state is a colonial invention, and, secondly, that the colonial pattern of an elite versus the masses have not disappeared – on the contrary. The basic aim of the South African colonial state was to privilege a small elite at the expense of the other communities in the country. This elite has always been associated with a politics of identity: British Imperialism, Afrikaner-nationalism, and now Afro-nationalism (the latter being inclusive and the former exclusive, but not necessarily more tolerant and more democratic in the long run). If democracy is about the voice of the people, then this current state is as colonial as its predecessors, if not more so. The reason for this is that in a country as vast as South Africa, democracy means the overcoming of distance. Only when one is no longer the victim of distance, when you are mobile and audible, can you fully participate in the economy, both materially and symbolically.
In the history of South Africa since 1652, those who controlled transport and communication always controlled the country. The British, for example, put a national rail network at the centre of their industrialization efforts, just as the Afrikaners put a national road network at the centre of theirs, and just as the ANC is putting sky travel and television at the centre of theirs. The net effect in the present South Africa is that the state in conjunction with the corporate sector is massively investing in transport and communication, but that the masses in the rural areas are as immobile and voiceless as ever, whereas in the urban areas talkback radio and television do not exactly make for participative as opposed to representative democracy. The colonial gap of mobility and communicativity is maintained, this entrenching further the gap between a vocal, mobile elite and voiceless, immobile masses. Afro-nationalism plays a central role in this politics of mobility and communicativity, and if “black Africans” were to end up as the final point of reference for transformation, the old racial motive in South Africa will be reproduced at the expense of what should be the real goal of democratization and economic liberation in South Africa: closing the gap between the imported technical system and the indigenous communities. But for this one has to look at the most potent (and neglected) tool for technological adoption and, indeed, political transformation: our indigenous languages.