The news that the African National Congress is to gobble up the New National Party, the enfeebled remnants of the perpetrators of apartheid, might seem grotesque, even satirical. To many in South Africa, however, it is just another example of how the new “rainbow” middle class – black and white – carves things up for its own benefit. “They say we have the best constitution in the world,” said angry black callers to a radio phone-in this month, “but who does it protect?”
Take the policy of black economic empowerment (BEE), an attempt to fast-track black people into what used to be called (in the ANC’s more revolutionary days) “the commanding heights of the economy”. Charters for each economic sector, from banking to mining, require white-owned corporations to take on black partners at preferential prices. And, in deal after lucrative deal, the same well-connected ex-liberation heroes pop up.
For example, Standard Bank cut in the former mineworkers’ leader Cyril Ramaphosa, now a corporate deal-maker, along with Saki Macozoma, another millionaire ANC power-broker. Earlier, Absa Bank had signed up “Tokyo” Sexwale, once a prisoner on Robben Island. BEE beneficiaries are almost always from a restricted new black elite, known as “the struggle aristocracy”.
The most trenchant and effective critic of BEE is Moeletsi Mbeki, younger brother of President Thabo Mbeki and a deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs. He thinks BEE began as a ruse, encouraged by white corporations, to head off – or buy off – early ANC talk of nationalising the economy. BEE, he charges, has produced a class of black businessmen who live off pre-existing enterprises and produce nothing new. “We’ve created a powerful black elite that has its hands in many pies,” says Mbeki, “but, at the end of the day, doesn’t have the technical know-how of running the companies which they supposedly own or of which they are in control.”
In the Standard Bank case, for example, Ramaphosa and Macozoma netted equity worth about £350m. “Two people who are already very wealthy have got themselves a nice little stake in South Africa’s biggest bank without, apparently, having to put down any cash,” wrote a Business Report analyst. “And depending on the dividend stream from their Standard Bank shares over the next 15 to 20 years, they may not ever have to pay anything at all.” It later turned out that one beneficiary of this “black empowerment” (he got about £8.5m in shares) was actually white.
Then there is Ramaphosa’s brother-in-law Patrice Motsepe, a mining magnate, and perhaps the wealthiest of this new black business elite. Motsepe’s sister Bridgette is also a new mining tycoon – and she is married to the cabinet minister Jeff Radebe.
“South Africans went to the brink of full-out civil war in the 1980s,” remarked a former guerrilla fighter, quoted in The Media magazine, “but decided to go shopping instead.”
Assurances that empowerment deals would result in “trickle-down” benefits for poor blacks ring increasingly hollow. On the contrary, inequality in South Africa is growing. Statistics South Africa, the national statistical service, found that between 1995 and 2000, the income of the average white household increased by 15 per cent, while that of the average black household decreased by 19 per cent. More than half of all South Africans live below the poverty line of roughly £100 per month for a family of four.
In his book A History of Inequality in South Africa, the economist Sampie Terreblanche acknowledges the growth of a new “colour-blind” middle class, but argues that the country has simply shifted from race-based to class-based disparities.
South Africa’s population of 45 million, he suggests, can be divided into three socio-economic classes of about 15 million each. The first group, an affluent middle class, comprises four million whites (that is, all but roughly 500,000 of South Africa’s whites), along with 11 million blacks, Indians and mixed-race “coloureds”. The second group is a struggling working class, mostly black. The bottom 15 million is almost entirely black: an underclass in dire poverty, property-less, mostly uneducated and still “voiceless, pathetically powerless” in Terreblanche’s words.
Unemployment hovers at 40 per cent and two-thirds of all black South Africans live in extremely poor rural areas, surrounded by large, prosperous white farms. In the towns and cities there are pleasant suburbs, increasingly shared by well-heeled blacks, whites, Indians and “coloureds”; but squalid townships and mushrooming shanty towns remain isolated, miles away.
Frustrations can boil over quickly. Riots broke out last month in Diepsloot, a wretched township north of Johannesburg, and the police use of stun grenades and rubber bullets brought back painful memories of apartheid days – especially as the “unrest area” was sealed off from the media, using old National Party regulations. In another echo of the past, several councillors had to flee angry crowds, but this time they were ANC representatives.
Diepsloot was established to accommodate people relocated from squatter camps until they could be housed elsewhere. Its population now exceeds 100,000. The government, despite its ambitious housing programme, cannot keep up with the influx of jobless migrants from destitute rural areas. Gauteng, the region containing Johannesburg and Pretoria, attracts more than 300,000 poor newcomers every year, while the provincial government manages to build just 40,000 new houses annually.
Nor is the government on course to achieve its target of transferring 30 per cent of agricultural land to black ownership. Indeed, ownership patterns remain almost unchanged since the apartheid era: in the first ten years of democracy, less than 4 per cent of farmland was transferred. Now, the government has set an even more ambitious target: to make 50 per cent of all agricultural land available to black farmers by 2014.
This, not surprisingly, has sparked concerns that South Africa will end up like Zimbabwe, a spectre that is raised at both ends of the political spectrum. The Freedom Front Plus (a right-wing Afrikaner party) and the conservative Transvaal Agricultural Union claimed the latest target opened the way for “a Zimbabwe land-grab” and “revolution”. At the same time, leaders of land-hungry rural blacks, including the vociferous Landless People’s Movement, have warned that they will not wait patiently for ever.
At the ceremony to mark Thabo Mbeki’s second presidential inauguration in April, there was considerable surprise – and great consternation in some quarters – when the South African crowd accorded Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, a standing ovation. Yet this was probably less an endorsement for Mugabe’s despotism than a symbolic expression of appreciation for an African leader who, many poor blacks think, has given those greedy whites a long-delayed and just come-uppance.
Similarly, the ANC’s absorption of the party of apartheid may be largely symbolic. However, if the former liberation movement fails to deliver on land, jobs and housing in the coming decade, the final judgement of the poor on those who now embrace their former white oppressors may not seem so historically ironic or poetically figurative.