The curse of South Africa

Mineral wealth has distorted the economy for generations. Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of South Africa's

The conference of the African National Congress that was held last month was billed as a heavyweight contest between the party's president, Thabo Mbeki, and its deputy president, Jacob Zuma. The conference turned out to be much more than that. It was a complete rout, not only of the president, but also of his cabinet, the sitting national executive committee, and of Mbeki's economy team.

The December conference saw the ANC swing from the centre towards the left, if one believes the rhetoric. Jacob Zuma, the new president of the ANC, mobilised the support of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) in order to fight for leadership of the ANC.

The ANC is caught in a quandary. On the one hand, its members and leaders want to preserve the economic system inherited from the apart heid era so that they, too, can benefit from it through, for example, Black Economic Empowerment (an affirmative-action programme, initially designed by South Africa's big corporations, that favours the new black elite) and social grants from the government aimed at alleviating poverty. On the other hand, they hanker for change that will ameliorate the growing inequalities and pauperisation among black South Africans. They blame individuals within the organisation for not bringing about the socio-economic changes they would like to see, but do not dare to initiate themselves.

Much of the impetus behind the emerging instability in the ANC, however, is financial rather than ideological. The only solution would be for a leadership to emerge, from either within or outside the ANC, that has meaningful policies for building a more inclusive society in South Africa. Black Economic Empowerment and social welfare programmes do not fundamentally lead to such social inclusiveness. If anything, they entrench the inequalities inherited from the past and exacerbate new inequalities among the blacks.

The undoing of Pre sident Mbeki and his cabinet was that they failed to understand that, with Zuma's rise, a new phenomenon of populism had entered the ANC. They also failed to understand the potential of populism to appeal to the black working class, the black poor in general, and a wide array of disgruntled people associated with the ANC who felt excluded from the inside track.

Their mistake was to see Zuma as a paranoiac who didn't deserve to be taken seriously. Mbeki compounded this error by standing against the populist Zuma but refusing to engage with him in public debate. He thereby appeared to be afraid of Zuma. This encouraged Zuma and his supporters to press ahead with their campaign and, paradoxically, Mbeki's silence persuaded many ANC members that Zuma's claim of persecution was valid.

Placating the poor

South Africa is able to undertake both Black Economic Empowerment and large social welfare expenditures because of its vast natural resources, which are now selling at a premium due to the rapid industrialisation of the large countries of Asia. South Africa's fabulous mineral wealth has been seen as a blessing since the discovery of diamonds and gold in the 19th century. What gets overlooked is the curse that goes with vast natural-resource endowment.

Since the current commodities boom started in the late 1990s, the ANC government has been ratcheting up public spending on the welfare of the poor. Why? Out of the goodness of its heart, reply ANC leaders. Not so, say doubters: rather to placate the poor so that they do not rebel, but most importantly to buy their vote.

In his address to the ANC conference, President Mbeki went to great lengths to explain the good things the ANC government has done for South Africa's poor. He noted that the number of South Africans living below the poverty line fell from 51.4 per cent in 2001 to 43.2 per cent in 2006 and that the number of people receiving social grants increased from 2.6 million in 1999 to more than 12 million in 2006.

But are South Africa's poor happy and grateful to the ANC government? In theory they should be, given the largesse they are receiving. But judging by the support that Zuma and his communist and trade union allies have been able to mobilise among the poor against the mainstream ANC which runs the government, it appears South Africa's poor are very far from happy. This is where the resource curse comes in.

A country develops when it is able to harness the energies of its people and put them to productive use. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Oil-producing countries are one. For very little effort, petroleum-producing countries pump crude oil from the ground and sell it for fabulous prices to foreigners.

South Africa is similar to oil-producing countries in that it, too, has natural resources - gold, platinum, diamonds, coal, iron ore, and so on - that are valuable to foreigners, who are willing to pay South Africa top dollar for them. While it takes more people to dig out South Africa's minerals compared to those employed to pump up crude oil, mining is still a small employer. Despite employing very few people, mining, however, makes a huge contribution to the country's wealth, in that it accounts for more than half of export earnings. The value that the few people employed in mining produce far exceeds their income. The government, therefore, has large revenues from mining activity that it can redistribute to the rest of society that does not work in the mines. This is what is called a resource curse - governments of resource-rich countries think their people need not work and will be happy living off social grants.

That is precisely the trap into which the ANC government has fallen. At least a quarter of the South African population receives social grants that would not be possible if South Africa were not mineral-rich. Without mineral wealth to redistribute, the government would have to work harder and be more creative to find solutions to unemployment and poverty.

Resource wealth makes it possible for the government not to have to put an effort into redeveloping the economy to create more jobs, and instead it sustains the unemployed and their dependants with social grants.

But do such grants make people happy as the ANC government expects? Paradoxically, while social grants contribute to putting food on the table, at a broader level they make the recipients more insecure because they do not know when the government will withdraw or reduce the size of their grants. Second, the grants accentuate the humiliation that unemployed people feel from being dependent and unable to look after themselves and their families. Every time they collect their social grants, recipients are subjected to all manner of humiliations by the government officials who administer the system. The rest of society stigmatises recipients as idle, worthless and parasitic.

What do South Africa's subsidised and marginalised people do to regain their self-respect? They support demagogues who claim that they, too, are marginalised, and therefore want to replace the ruling elites with people-friendly governments. This, in a nutshell, is what happened at the ANC conference and in the months leading up to it.

Zuma, with the support of Cosatu, the SACP and the ANC Youth League, ran a campaign that told ANC members, most of whom are poor, that he, like them, is despised and marginalised by the elite who run the party and its government. Zuma argued there was a conspiracy by the elite to ensure that he, and poor people like him, are kept away from power and therefore do not benefit from their struggle against apartheid.

Zuma's message resonated with many trade unionists, such as the general secretary of Co satu, Zwelinzima Vavi, who grew up as a farm labourer and worked his way up to where he is today by fighting against discrimination and humiliation under apartheid.

Winners and losers

Did all the passion and recrimination at the ANC conference produce winners and losers? Leaving aside the rather tarnished image of the party, a few bruised egos and what will turn out to be short-lived elation by others, the conference, viewed in the context of the country's future, reproduced the stalemate into which the ANC has been locked since 1994. January 2008 is, therefore, the month in which the country has gone back to business as usual.

As for Zuma - in reality, his was a pyrrhic victory in a phoney war. In the coming months he will be back in court facing corruption charges that could lead to his being imprisoned for many years to come. The case is scheduled to start in August.

The giant trade union federation, Cosatu, which devoted so much of its energy and resources to Zuma's campaign, has come out of the melee a loser. Its leaders are at each other's throats and there were no changes made to the ANC's conservative economic policies, such as the independence of the Reserve Bank, about which Cosatu has been unhappy for many years.

Cosatu ended up as cannon fodder at the hands of disgruntled ANC and SACP politicians who used it as a proxy to fight their battles. Ultimately, under a populist regime, the masses are the main losers.

Moeletsi Mbeki is a deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs, an independent think tank based at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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