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

PAUL POPPER/POPPERFOTO
Show Hide image

No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain