Now who will bell the fat black cat?
Mahmood Mamdani reviews Comrades in Business, an examination of the economic politics of South Africa in the post- apartheid order
Comrades in Business is an irreverent and outrageous book. Its argument, in a nutshell, is that black rule is the price white privilege had to pay to buy legitimacy. But the black leadership that was empowered by this “purchased revolution” is fast succumbing to human greed, in the process eroding the political legitimacy of the post-apartheid order.
To establish this conclusion, authors Heribert Adam, Kogila Moodley and Frederik van Zyl Slabbert take us through a comprehensive and useful survey of contemporary South African politics and economy. That survey begins with the political about-face that ushered in the peaceful reform of apartheid. One side sold out the “national democratic revolution”, the other did not even bargain for any special group privilege.
The moral of the transition story is that South Africa was “fortunate” in having political leaders willing “to compromise away the dogmatic convictions of their followers”. On the Afrikaner side, the heroes were FW de Klerk, who is said to have undergone “a spiritual leap” when he became leader of the National Party, and Constand Viljoen of the Freedom Front, who was sensible enough to turn to parliamentary opposition after “the traumatic debacle of Mmabatho”.
On the African National Congress side, the compromisers were Nelson Mandela, whose objective remained no more and no less than majority rule, and Joe Slovo and the Communist Party, who are given “the lion’s share of the credit” for sustaining the ANC’s commitment to non-racialism.
The authors are right to argue that the demand for group rights makes sense from the point of view of underprivileged groups, but not from that of affluent minorities - which is why “the affluent Afrikaners sold out the poorer Afrikaners”. An affluent minority needs the guarantee of individual rights and institutional autonomy - not of group rights - to defend privilege. From this point of view, De Klerk appears the rational representative of the wealthy stratum, and academic Hermann Gilliomee the ideologue of poor Afrikaners.
Unfortunately, the authors lack a similarly nuanced understanding of the anti-apartheid camp. Was not, for example, the culture of nonracialism nurtured not simply by the Communist Party in exile but, even more so, by the internal union movement in whose fold youthful white and black activists organised migrant black workers? At the same time, in the historic compromise that followed, did not the proponents of an armed struggle that didn’t happen, the ANC- in-exile, tend to short-change the militants of a popular struggle that did happen, the ANC-at-home, the United Democratic Front, the unions, the civics, and so on?
Comrades in Business is concerned to underline the core dilemma of “post- liberation politics in South Africa”. A single electoral statistic highlights that dilemma: less than 3% of whites voted for the ANC and less than 5% of black Africans voted for a traditionally white party such as the NP in the 1994 general election.
Commentators dubbed South Africa’s first non-racial elections a “racial census”. The authors underplay this fact as transient: true, democracy was racialised under apartheid, but its mere existence set apartheid South Africa apart from “the totalitarian systems of Eastern Europe”, for here “democratic institutions did not have to be established from scratch, but merely extended to the entire population”.
The real problem, they imply, is not race but ethnicity, which they discuss, in the first chapter, as a kinship-based biological phenomenon and a historically evolved cultural construct. This de- contextualised and unhistoricised analysis leaves out the mediating role of politics. Comparisons range across the globe: from Canada to Belgium to India to Israel, to everywhere but those African countries with a common inheritance of a colonial state that sought to reproduce ethnicity as a political identity.
The next chapter gets closer to the point. It tries to historicise ethnicity as a form of power, but as “feudal hereditary power”. The implication is that while race was an artifact of apartheid, ethnicity is an indigenous artifact. What should be at issue, however, is not ethnicity as kinship or culture, but as a form of power whose institutional underpinning - the Native Authority and customary law - was crafted under the colonial state.
This construct was as central as race to implementing the double political project of apartheid: to unify its beneficiaries around a racialised identity, and to fragment its victims through ethnicised identities.
The book concludes with a discussion of the core dilemma of post-apartheid South Africa, that between “consolidating democracy” and “speeding up the pace of economic reform”. It is worth exploring both sides of the dilemma, for each tends to illuminate the other. In this formulation, economic reform is not about making choices; it is a set of imperatives. Democracy, in turn, is about how to generate consent to implement these imperatives with minimum opposition.
A whole chapter formulates the agenda of economic reform as a set of imperatives and celebrates the “refreshing non-dogmatism” of the new era in terms that can only be described as gleeful: “In the course of a few years since 1990, the ANC has changed its economic policy from nationalisation of basic industries to a mixed economy, and finally to privatisation of the public sector. Even its symbolic radicalism is no longer en vogue. A Thatcherite discourse of fiscal discipline and market forces has taken over.”
The economic imperative is not argued as a policy choice, but is a priori asserted as a technical necessity. The place of argument is taken by a set of truisms that serve to highlight constraints: South Africa may not have a capital gains tax or tax land outside of municipal boundaries, but “South Africa cannot afford a welfare state of the Western European or Canadian model at its present stage of semi- development”; apartheid may have created a welfare state for whites but, surely, “it was much easier to fund state employment for a few 100 000 poor whites, compared with the millions of permanent economic outsiders now”.
Any critique of the ANC is dubbed “ultra- left” for it “ignores the severe constraints” under which the ANC must make policy. Those who call for redistributive justice are described as “ANC Jacobeans”. When the authors assert, grimly, that “Mandela alone genuinely transcends race”, we wonder what they mean by this. Is to transcend race genuinely to accept racialised privilege in the post-apartheid era as fait accompli?
It is around the acceptance or non- acceptance of this key artefact, racialised privilege, that the authors identify three latent cleavages within the ANC: between socialist ideologues and those more liberal or social democratic; between racial populists or African nationalists and more nonracial pragmatists; and between traditional leaders and democrats.
The ideological nature of the description is striking: one side of the binary (liberal or social democrat, nonracial pragmatist, democrat) is a self- description, while the other (socialist ideologues, racial populists or African nationalists, traditional leaders) is a polemic.
The conclusion is appropriately titled “The Underclass versus the Liberation Aristocracy”. The authors are clearly worried that their selective vision may be seen as racism: “Criticism of black fat cats without including white fat cats smacks of racism indeed.” But they go on to do just that. “Comparative extreme inequality remains South Africa’s ticking time-bomb”. But they do not see this as reason enough to explore the political possibility of social justice and economic redistribution. One wonders why.
They both bank on “the extraordinary patience of the poor amid extreme affluence” and are clearly worried that this patience may be wearing thin. The optimism stems from the fact that “the underclass is generally not a political threat through organised political opposition”, though “its size in South Africa hugely increases the cost of containing, policing and caring for the outsiders”. And yet, there is reason to worry: “The South African underclass does not suffer from a sense of relative deprivation because rich whites are not necessarily a reference group, but wealthy blacks may well become one.”
It is this last bit of reasoning that underlines the core worry of the authors, that the sight of white fat cats may not stir a black rebellion, but that of black fat cats just may. In a mocking tone, they relate page after page of episodes illustrating the nouveau riche black leadership of post-apartheid South Africa, for whom “anything less than a white bourgeois lifestyle would have appeared unequal”. Though they do not say it in so many words, the authors presume a clear and continuing division of labour between white fat cats as economic entrepreneurs and black fat cats as political supervisors.
This is why white cats can afford to look fat and act greedy; but black cats must at all times look lean and act mean. The old nonracial question, who will bell the cat?, is recast in a racialised South Africa: Who will bell the black cat?
The major problem with the book is that it fails to open a debate on the transition. This is a direct consequence of its notion of politics. The authors would have us believe in the post-apartheid world as a choiceless utopia in which democracy is about generating consent behind prepackaged economic policies, not about defining real choices for a political community.
But the existence of constraint is never the absence of choice. It is an obvious weakness of this book that it tries to pass one off as the other. At one point, the authors refer to a suggestion by an ANC lawyer that a “capital levy” of one-third of all individual wealth be introduced to address inequalities of apartheid.
It was a suggestion, the authors note, reminiscent of the German Lastenansgleisch, “an equalisation between those who had lost everything and those who had retained their property by sheer luck during war”. While noting that both “the German economic boom and domestic stability rested to a large extent” on this redistribution, they dismiss this possibility for South Africa, for a single reason: that the suggestion “was almost unanimously rejected by the old establishment”.
Radical redistribution was not unique to Germany. It was also characteristic of other post-war success stories: Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. If one asks why the establishment in each case accepted radical redress, the answer is clear: the fear that if they did not they would meet a fate worse than redress, communism.
Is not the lesson that while economic facts may underline the constraints under which we live, it is through politics that we generate new choices? That unless the economic establishment is threatened with the political possibility of something worse, it is not likely to consider social justice as a reasonable and realistic option? It is for this reason, if for no other, that we must part company with the authors of Comrades in Business and welcome the possibility of a radical turn within the ANC.
—Comrades in Business: Post-Liberation Politics in South Africa by Heribert Adam, Kogila Moodley, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert (Tafelberg, Cape Town, 1997)