Racial Capitalism in Post-Apartheid South Africa:
Challenging the Fallacy of Black Entitlement under Service Delivery Protests.
University of Cape Town
This essay focuses on racial capitalism in post apartheid South Africa, with reference to service delivery protests.
There is a domineering narrative within South African white liberal spaces that black people who have failed to escape the shackling cycle of poverty are lazy, incompetent, and sit on their verandas the whole day waiting for a job to fall in their hands (Biko, 2017). This narrative is conventionally understood as ‘black entitlement.’ White liberals erroneously believe that black poor people, who are in fact dispossessed and agentless, do not want to seize the opportunities South Africa has. With reference to the trend and nature of South African service delivery protests in post-Apartheid South Africa, I argue that South Africa has been and still is plagued by systemic racial capitalism that has persisted through South Africa’s transition into democracy. I argue that racial capitalism has manifested through the adoption of a neo-liberal economy, initiated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission compromise. Consequently, the pre- and post-apartheid impact of a racially segregated and unilaterally white-benefiting capitalist economy is a rash on the black mind which has not seen adequate redress. I will first show how Marxist and Liberal authors have attempted to merge the concepts of race and capitalism. I will then highlight the Marxist and Liberal shortcomings in validating racial capitalism as a comprehensible and historically visible concept. I will then call for a holistic re-conceptualization of racial capitalism that makes up for the Marxist and Liberal shortcomings. This new conceptualization will inform the rest of my argument around the fallacy of black entitlement in South Africa. I will show that even a black majoritarian government has not been enough to correct the historic economic disadvantage that presently plagues the black poor majority.
II. Conceptualising Racial Capitalism
In this paper, I will make use of the micro and macro levels of political analysis to understand South Africa’s racial capitalism. This analysis will observe the condition of black South African lives over time in order to explain the persistence of racial capitalism from Apartheid until today. Additionally, by addressing inconsistencies in the Marxist and Liberal conceptions of race and capitalism, I will argue that the effects of colonialism and South African oppression politics have integrated racial capitalism into South African society.
Liberal scholarship on racial capitalism in the Apartheid era focuses disproportionately on the socio-legal systematic framework of Apartheid to explain the relationship between race and capitalism. This literature almost regards race in South Africa as inherently anti-capitalistic and claims capitalism was incompatible with Apartheid, primarily because “free-market” capitalism requires equality of opportunity and agency (Schneider, 2003). In truth, liberal scholarship on the intersection of capitalism and racism in South Africa is incomplete because it fails to fully account for institutionalized racism, dispossession and the displacement of black people in South Africa. Liberal scholarship has completely ignored provisions made for white monopolized capitalism, so much so that an Apartheid-like economy could persevere constructively for 46 years. The writing of Merle Lipton exemplifies the liberal perception of an intersection between race and capitalism under the Apartheid regime which I critique. Lipton took no issue in disapproving of Apartheid on a moral basis. He argues that the legalized systematic exclusion of black people in South Africa was unwarranted and unsustainable (Hirsch, 1987). Lipton argued that South Africa, if it were to revive any sign of liberties or democracy and have a sustainable capitalist economy, needed to end Apartheid and replace it with multi-racialism (Hirsch, 1987). While admitting that the South African economy relied on the coerced, cheap labor of black people, it seems surprising and somewhat contradictory that Lipton also states that capitalism never required or supported Apartheid (Hirsch, 1987).
This point by Lipton, that capitalism never required Apartheid, is incomplete because it fails to recognize the role that racism and white supremacy has had in the distribution of socio-economic resources, as well as with regard to the historical discrepancies of intergenerational endowments for Blacks relative to Whites. Lipton’s form of liberalism does not account for disproportionate endowments of historical value, such as education, property, wealth and capital that has enabled the legalization of a systematic exclusion and deskilling of black people. In particular, Liberal writing about South Africa tends to minimize the impact of the Bantustans. Liberal writers downplay the role of black people’s economic contribution (Murray, 1987). It is undeniable, as Colin Murray says, that the Bantustans excluded 'blacks from rights of access to jobs and housing in white South Africa;' thereby making blacks economic foreigners in their own country (Murray, 1987).
There is a strong indication that due to a lack of education and skills, black migrant cheap labor was the backbone of the agricultural and mining sectors of the South African economy. This produced a “whites as owners” and “blacks as laborers” framework of traditional capitalism being practiced in South Africa between the 1960s and 1970s (Schneider, 2003). Thus, it is clear that we cannot discount the impact of systematic exclusion from economic activity in the form of adequate welfare provision, labor mobility and deskilling, which incites consistent wealth creation disproportionately along racial lines. It is the discounting of the abovementioned systematic exclusion that accounts for the incompleteness of the liberal attempt to conceptualize racial capitalism.
Alternatively, Marxist scholarship places disproportionate emphasis on capitalism’s need for class creation and reproduction, thus ignoring the role of racial subjugation (SACP, 1987). In historicizing class creation through racial lines, Marxist conceptions completely sidelined the historical impact, nature, and intent of settler colonialism in changing the psychology of South African blackness. While I admit that cheap black labor is a manifestation of racial capitalism, racial capitalism cannot be removed from the narrative of settler colonialism in South Africa. The experience of continual dispossession of blacks from their social and economic endowments is informed by the institutionalization of settler colonialism as bedrock of racial capitalism.
Marxist conceptions of racial capitalism in South Africa focused primarily on the issue of Black cheap labor. The economy of South Africa was sustained by black unskilled workers, who were forced to migrate from the Bantustans to South African economic hubs such as Johannesburg to find work (SACP, 1987). The views of neo-Marxist writers, such as Nancy Leong, provide a revisionist yet historically deficient view of racial capitalism, stating that racial capitalism is the “process of deriving social or economic value from the racial identity of another person” (Leong 2013). Leong comments on how liberalism has made blackness a desirable entity, which is to be captured, possessed and used (Leong 2013).
While this type of Marxist conception focuses on the importance of race relations in driving capitalism, it still lacks an adequate explanation of why Black people are disadvantaged in a capitalist system. It is arguable that more can be done in the literature to hone in on the extent to which settler colonialism was the fundamental determinant the native’s structural economic exploitation. This may further inform how the subjugation of natives in South Africa became a structurally inherited and sustained method of fostering a type of capitalism which is drawn along racial lines. The South African Communist Party’s “Colonialism of a Special Type Document” fittingly substantiates my argument about this point, as it too claims that South Africa’s capitalism maintained the norm of colonial dominance, where the colonial ruling class (White people) and the oppressed black majority live in one country (SACP, 1987).
The structural reinforcement of capitalism by the white owning class has not changed with the changed South African Political climate, which should be seen as a factor solidifying racial capitalism in post-Apartheid South Africa. While racial capitalism occurred in the Apartheid system, it is not reliant on that particular regime. Rather, we must understand that racial capitalism exists today because of the intersection of settler colonialism intent, historical dispossession and the deskilling of black people. Thus, by merging Liberal and Marxists concepts of race and capitalism, I conclude that racial capitalism is best defined as follows:
Racial capitalism is a malleable term that defines the conditions under which racial identities are used to reinforce coercive power relations, which are seen in the racialization of socio-economic resources. It is informed by the domination of a particular racial group in order to extract economic gain for the benefit of the dominant class (Leong, 2013). Racial capitalism at its core makes use of racial prejudice as an instrument of maintaining unequal participation in the market resource allocation process by reinforcing systematic dispossession and deskilling of the oppressed race under a typically liberal economy ideological set.
III. Racial Capitalism in the New South Africa
This above-mentioned definition of racial capitalism recognizes that the birth and persistence of the capitalist economy in South Africa is inseparable from the unjust system of domination encapsulated by settler colonialism and the maintenance of black dispossession. This definition indicates that the black body is considered valuable so long as it can provide labor and be remunerated with subsistence wages. This leads to its commodification.
I anticipate that liberal critics of my working definition might find that this conception of racial capitalism is incompatible with the current condition of South Africa post-1994, a country that adopted what is argued as the best constitution in the world, and maintains a predominantly black-ruled democratic state. However, I counter the supposed positive effects attributed to the process of democratization and liberal constitutionalism, by arguing that there was very little redress, which has resulted in the transferal of racial capitalism into the democratic state, even after 1994. I argue this because the South African government, at a pivotal time of regime change, chose to focus on a creating a globalized neoliberal economy rather than leveling the intergenerational effects of distorted socio-economic endowments along racial lines.
To assert this argument, I will refer particularly to the period of transition and ten years post-transition into democracy. Additionally, I will address the way in which uncertainty and neoliberal compromises informed economic policy in the period of democratic transition in South Africa. There is a vivid indication of how compromise politics, which played out through the African National Congress (ANC) primary and National Party negotiating agents, is coupled with the consolidation of neo-liberalism and the protection of racial capitalism in South Africa.
The ANC initially had hoped to enact radical economic transformation in South Africa. This is evident from the drafting of the Freedom Charter by the ANC and its allies in 1955 to the introduction of the radical “Reconstruction and Development Programme” policy in 1996. In particular, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) was an ANC document that stated the intent to use the resources of the country to explicitly eradicate Apartheid, moving towards building a non-racialized society (RDP, 1994). The RDP Policy document recognized the effects of “repressive labor policies” under colonialist domination (RDP, 1994). Furthermore, the document also admitted that the economy was built through systemic racial division, and finally recognized that a political democracy could not flourish with the mass of South Africans remaining impoverished, landless and having no tangible prospects for an increasing standard of living (RDP, 1994). Therefore, the ambitions aimed at addressing these observations and conditions around the past and future of South Africa necessarily are ambitions aimed at the eradication of racial capitalism in South Africa. I claim that it is highly probable that if the ANC, in assuming power, had religiously followed the Freedom Charter and the Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP), racial capitalism would be well on its way to eradication in the foreseeable future.
Upon receiving much negative feedback on the RDP plan by organizations such as the IMF and World Bank, the ANC was pressured to put the interests of economic liberalization over racial justice in redressing the impact of historical racialization of wealth creation. This compromise is evident in the 1996 adoption of the Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (GEAR) neoliberal policy, which favored the deregulation of markets and opposed state intervention in the economy (Schneider, 2003). Such privatization clearly ignored the fact that the poor black majority would be made unable to participate, considering there is no substantial effort in GEAR that aims to equitize and equalize the starting positions of black and whites in economic participation (Reddy, 2011). The adoption of neoliberal policy, despite unconvincing theories on neoliberalism and the perfecting nature of capitalism, was a compromise that allowed continued white monopolization with only one or two elements of emancipation for the black poor (Schneider, 2003).
In short, the adoption of neoliberal policies after Apartheid protected and consolidated white economic interests. The adoption of an unregulated capitalist market with limited government intervention meant that white people could retain the wealth and endowments they accumulated over 200 years of settler colonialism and Apartheid in South Africa (Schneider, 2003). While it is true that negotiation and compromises during the regime transition made provisions for political emancipation, they did very little in reality to provide sizeable and immediate economic emancipation, leaving South Africa in a crisis of racial capitalism. Despite an attempt at political negotiation and economic compromises, white people still earn five times more than blacks in South Africa, despite the country being majority black (Stats SA, 2017). There is a systemic economic problem, which cannot be removed from the clawing effects of a historically racially discriminating economy; endowments and privileged market access still remain largely skewed to the white minority in South Africa. It is unlikely today that South Africa will be able to get rid of racial capitalism - especially if the government fails to account for the influence of racialized intergenerational endowments.
IV. Racial Capitalism as Material Life: Service Delivery Protest and Black Entitlement
Service delivery protests in post-Apartheid South disprove the idea that racial capitalism is incompatible with the new black majoritarian democracy. As I have discussed, moderate economic policy approaches to poor black people can, to some extent, be held responsible for the lack of improvement of the material life of black people post-Apartheid. The service delivery protests display the anger in the black living memory of Apartheid, characterized by a feeling of imprisonment under racial capitalism. These protests can be used to explain that the traditional notion of black entitlement must be replaced by a new understanding, which normatively asserts poor black people’s entitlement to decent service delivery from the government. Black entitlement should not imply the unwillingness of black people to be active participants in the free market economy, but rather, black people fighting back the dispossession faced at the hands of their government.
The concept of black entitlement is barely developed in existing literature. It is a concept discussed in the early 2000s when the ANC government first attempted to create a welfare state by providing free housing to the poor in the township communities. There were frequent claims that black people were waiting for the government to do everything for them while remaining idle and free riding on taxpayers’ money. Thus, black entitlement has been used to describe a negative character trait which I believe has been fallaciously attributed to the black poor class. I believe that this concept remembers the past with amnesia by ignoring the economic effects of settler colonialism and racial capitalism. By implying that we are all equals today, it wrongly attributes the continuing economic inferiority of black people to their choice to rely on the government rather than uplift themselves.
To date, it is clear that neoliberal policies have not benefited those who need economic reform the most in South Africa: The black poor. In 2016, Aljazeera reporter Sophia Hyatt wrote about the living conditions of a 28-year-old woman from the township of Langa in Cape Town. This woman slept on the floor of a small hostel room with her parents, two sisters, and son, and had to use unhygienic and damaged communal toilets a long distance away from the safety of home (Hyatt 2016). This reality is not just hers, but that of over half of South Africa’s population. This low standard of living is common in most townships and slums all over South Africa, which perversely find themselves cheek to cheek with South African economic hubs - for instance, Alexander township borders Sandton, “Africa’s richest square mile”. Despite the government’s mildly socialist attempt to provide basic services, many poor black South Africans still find themselves living the memory and legacy of Apartheid.
It is due to these poor living conditions and the constant reminder of the opulence of white monopoly capital that we have seen a large surge in protest action all over South Africa over the last fifteen years. A service delivery protest is essentially public unrest caused by citizens in response to the government’s failure to address their key welfare concerns. The unrest comes in the form of rioting, marching and the general destruction of normalcy in government operations. In the government’s RDP plan, the ANC promised to provide free water, electricity, housing, and education to the South African poor and to create jobs to decrease the 23% unemployment rate (ISS, 2009). However, the government has proven to be highly inefficient in delivering on these promises, resulting in a disgruntled and disillusioned civil society which seeks to express their grievances the only way they believe they will be heard: through the very language of protest that brought black people political freedom under the ANC. Therefore, there is a certain frustration-aggression as put by Ted Gurr, which arises and brings about behavior that has the propensity to be violent (ISS, 2009).
As they did during Apartheid, black poor people still have to find employment in urban areas, thus leaving their families in horrendous conditions in slum townships. These people wake up in the early hours of the morning to commute to city centers where they work predominantly in low skilled labor positions, such as cleaning and gardening. Given that their elected government’s policies have done little to improve their living conditions since the end of apartheid, black poor people are increasingly disillusioned with their political emancipation. It is due to these discouraging conditions that poor black South Africans are angry and protest violently all over the country, with what Carl Death terms the return of the imagination of rolling mass action, as seen in the height of civil disobedience in South Africa in the 1980s (Death, 2010). Poor black people have turned to angered demand and mass mobilization to advance their struggle for economic emancipation, replicating the tactics that secured the victory of political emancipation and the end of Apartheid (Death, 2010). This explains the rioting and protesting around dissatisfaction with democratic South Africa, as seen in the service delivery protests.
V. A Small Step Towards Conceptualising Black Entitlement as a Response to Racial Capitalism in South Africa
It is worth asserting that black people must be entitled to an equal footing in South African economic life. It is also erroneous to believe that the government has adequately addressed the impact of a historically racially segregated economy, law, and society on black opportunities to participate in economic life. The continued underrepresentation and dispossession of black people validate my claim that it is unfair to use black laziness and incompetence to explain black economic inferiority. Rather, racial capitalism must be identified as the cause. However, it is unlikely that racial capitalism will disappear if we do not start viewing black entitlement as a normative prescription - that black people should be entitled to radical economic redress. Black people should continue to feel entitled to adequate services and economic emancipation, as this is the only remaining fuel to the fire of resistance against racial capitalism.
To legitimize the concept of racial capitalism as an explanation for South Africa’s present political economy, I recognize that there is one crucial question that needs to be tackled: Will racial capitalism persist over time or was it an isolated historical occurrence? I believe that racial capitalism can explain how historical disparities in endowments necessary for social mobility have generated economic inequality along racial lines. Since white superiority still remains at the core of resource allocation in our society, it is highly unlikely that race-based inequality will dissipate anytime soon, and thus racial capitalism will remain a relevant and powerful explanatory concept.
By analyzing the intersection of race and capitalism in South Africa, I have shown that both Marxist and Liberal literature fails to account for the historical commodification of black people through racial inequality. While Liberal scholars state that racism is incompatible with capitalism, Marxist scholars erase black suffering at the hands of settler colonialism. The depiction of racial capitalism offered in this paper better represents the complexities of race relations in neo-liberal South Africa. Furthermore, my paper has challenged fallacies around black entitlement by highlighting that racial disparities in socioeconomic endowments have not been redressed. Thus, I have shown that irrespective of regime type in South Africa, racial capitalism has, and still does, dispossess and disempower the black poor, leaving them to feel that demanding economic emancipation through protest is the only way to make their voices heard.
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