Breaking the chains: South Africa’s economic struggle goes beyond race

In a thought-provoking analysis, Sindile Vabaza expands on sociology professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, Roger Southall’s dissection of South Africa’s persistent racial tensions. Vabaza contends that the failure of the 1994 settlement to uplift the majority’s material conditions perpetuates racial divisions. Economic disparity, rather than racial identity, forms the crux of the issue. The Multi-Party Charter faces the challenge of reconciling non-racialism with substantial economic progress for the masses, navigating the nuanced terrain where psycho-social experiences of economic domination shape political dynamics. The upcoming elections will test whether this approach resonates with South Africa’s electorate.

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Why race continues to matter in South Africa when it shouldn’t

By Sindile Vabaza*

In an article written on 24 October in The Conversation last year, Roger Southall, a sociology professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, argues that the reason South Africa’s stated commitment to non-racialism has not taken hold and that “race” continues to be a powerful wedge issue used to mobilise political support for politicians is that South Africa’s negotiated 1994 settlement has failed to significantly improve the material conditions of the majority of South Africans.

This is of course true. It is the constant thread that underpins everything from inflammatory pronouncements by self-styled revolutionaries to memes on Twitter about getting back the land. This sense that being black or the black experience is primarily one of economic domination (humiliation) underpins race-based legislation even to the point where middle class and affluent black people in Gauteng will identify psycho-socially with this experience despite it being far removed from their material reality. 

Even commentators such as Moeletsi Mbeki who decry the ruling party and race-based legislation recognise this.  Writing in a Business Day article in September 2020 titled How a History of Conflict Made SA the Most Unequal Country in the World, Mbeki says:

The countrys conquest by the Dutch and British, and the reaction of its native peoples to their conquest, is the only context in which the issues of race and race relations are understandable.

Among native peoples I include descendants of slaves and indentured Indian labourers, as well as Dutch settlers who later described themselves as Afrikaners since they also eventually resisted Dutch and British domination.’ 

In other words, any talk of non-racialism that is not underpinned by sound public (economic) policy that leads to rising prosperity for the black masses will fall flat, according to unscrupulous politicians who will use the psycho-social experience of economic domination to mobilise support for themselves. Put another way, rising economic prosperity is the horse and non-racialism is the cart. 

It is worth noting here that ironically, the ANC’s inability to deliver, or its impeding of rising economic prosperity for the black masses, is the very reason they are able to so acutely exploit the psycho-social experience of mass poverty and mobilise support while keeping the wheels of patronage in motion.

The question that lingers in the air for most of South Africa’s disaffected masses is: What difference will voting for someone else make to my psycho-social experience? It is why, despite the opposition-led Western Cape’s remarkable gains and performance,  the ANC regularly and cynically asks what life is like for those who live in Khayelitsha and Langa and the Cape Flats. The ANC understands that exploiting this disaffection is key to its continued survival.

It is why the parties involved in the Multi-Party Charter for South Africa must come to grips with and understand this experience when crafting their messaging for the upcoming national elections this year. They must not abandon an insistence on non-racialism, but they must understand it is the cart and rising economic prosperity for the black masses is the horse that will drive non-racialism and entrench it in the DNA of the country. It is also critical that the Multi-Party Charter supporters keep this well in view, should they prevail and win a majority in Parliament. 

In other words, the Multi-Party Charter must deliver on what IRR surveys have long attested to; that (black) South Africans care about jobs, about safety, about their kids having better lives than they have, and not fundamentally about race. Where race does come in, and this is the nuance, is the feeling or psycho-social experience of economic domination: ‘White people and their kids continue to have plenty while we continue to have nothing and suffer’.

It is an incredibly important nuance that is bypassed by many people across the political and ideological spectrum. It is unfortunately buttressed by a common economic fallacy that the political economy is a zero sum game, or to put it another way: ‘White people must give up their privilege’. This fallacy drives a collective scarcity mindset in the country (and the attendant policy that comes with it) rather than a collective mindset of prosperity and expanding our economic pie, which must come with attendant policies. It is the difference between a focus on redistribution and a focus on growth, the difference between prioritising “localisation” and prioritising trade, especially Intra-African trade.

Despite all the negative press, the dream of a rainbow nation is neither foolish nor dead, it just hasn’t been truly tried. It hasn’t been fleshed out economically and psycho-socially. That is the task that will await the opposition coalition if the Multi-Party Charter prevails in the elections.

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Sindile Vabaza* is an avid writer and an aspiring economist.

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission

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