Mandela’s South Africa and the Poverty of Liberal Narratives on Race and Equality

The liberal narratives around Nelson Mandela ought to be rejected, in favor of recognizing that a revolutionary redistribution of the means of production is what is needed to truly solve racial disparities.  

Nelson Mandela, the great hero of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, has passed away.  But while the political and economic elites of the world shed their tears and vaguely talk about the need for “peaceful commitment to a better world” (whatever that might mean to them), we should keep in mind that the struggle for racial equality–and equality in general–requires not just increased participation in political processes, but a radical engagement with the distribution of property, and a democratization of the means of production.  And it is none other than Mandela’s South Africa–which took the liberal route of political enfranchisement without economic redistribution–that demonstrates this need.

Income Inequality and the Turn to Neoliberalism

We can see that from the point of view of the Black masses in South Africa, the (supposed) end of apartheid has meant very little in terms of its effect on economic empowerment.  The Economist has just published a short piece demonstrating the rapid increase in income inequality that has defined South African political economy since the early 1990s.  The highlight of the piece is a graph of average income by race, and its percentage change since 1917.

The Economist even goes so far as to say that the Black population is even worse off today than during the era of apartheid.

But given the policy routes that the African National Congress (ANC) and Mandela took after ending apartheid and seizing political power, this rapid increase in inequality and economic marginalization should not be surprising.  South Africa quickly went forward with neoliberal reforms as pushed by the Washington Consensus.

A good case study of the effects of this policy turn is in the electricity sector, and the privatization of the state electricity company, Eskom, in the late 1990s.  As a result of this privatization, electricity prices for poor consumers (mostly Black) shot up, and millions were disconnected from the national grid due to their inability to pay–and consequently, militant community groups like the Soweto Electricity Crisis Commission were formed, in order to fight for the rights of poor and the right to a basic level of electricity consumption.

Free-Markets and Racist Feedback Cycles

On a more abstract level, its easy to see how the imposition of free-market capitalism onto a racially divided society can lead to increased racial disparities.  Racist institutions like apartheid and segregation don’t just exclude people of color from politics; they also serve to limit the amount of property and wealth that these communities can accumulate and utilize.  In other words, systems of apartheid are just as much about the racial monopolization of the means of production, as they are about excluding people from voting or participating in other procedures of representative democracy.  Then, given the historical entrenchment of economic disparities between the races, a free-market political economy can easily fulfill the goals of apartheid–albeit in a more invisible, and less political, fashion.  The people who had economically gained the most from apartheid–wealthy White bourgeoisie–can continue to leverage their monopolization of economic assets, and influence politics such that their assets are protected, and even subsidized.  There might also be the creation of a new Black bourgeoisie, who participate alongside old-money White elites in the governance of the new state of affairs.  But meanwhile, the Black masses–thrust into a free-market economy with little to no assets–can do little else but remain in their position of political and economic servitude, lacking the economic resources to truly engage in South African society (even if explicit barriers to their participation have been removed).

In other words, capitalism creates a feedback cycle with respect to power; the powerful can leverage their power to increase their power even more, while the poor must suffer increasing repression, poverty, and marginalization (insofar as they respect the institutions and rules of the powerful).  The clear alternative, then, is a redistribution of wealth and property to the historically disenfranchised–for, as argued above, the redistribution of wealth doubles as a redistribution of power.

Parallel Perspectives from MLK and the Black Panthers

The inability of capitalist political economy with racial emancipation was also noted by Black radicals in the United States, during the era of the Civil Rights Movement.  Martin Luther King, Jr., the darling of White establishment liberals, was starting to make the elites nervous with his astute remarks on how political emancipation would not be enough to truly liberate Blacks–or any other oppressed group, for that matter.  Note the following passage from a speech King gave in 1967:

I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here?” that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?”

This paradigm shift, of moving from political emancipation to emancipation along economic lines, was fully realized in the rise of Black communist militancy and organizations like the Black Panther Party.  Their program, which sought to end racism and exploitation via an overthrow of not just racist laws but capitalism itself, is perhaps best summed up by the following quote from a speech by Fred Hampton in 1969:

We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.

The need to fight these deeper structural issues resonated with American Blacks, and as a consequence the Black Panther Party exploded in popularity and people-power–hitting a peak in 1969, before falling apart due to internal squabbles and violent repression by the State (Fred Hampton was killed by government agents in December 1969, shot in the head as he slept in his apartment).  But nonetheless, the fact that Black militancy exploded after the supposed gains made by the liberal-oriented Civil Rights Movement is evidence that simple political emancipation was not nearly enough to truly raise Black people up from their position of marginalization and oppression.  And even today, America’s racial disparities mimic the trend of South Africa.

Reviving Mandela’s Communism

But to say that Mandela did not foresee the need to challenge capitalism would be an insult to the man.  He was, after all, an outright communist for much of his political career, and a friend to Fidel Casto until the very end.

More likely than not, is that given the context of the ’90s, Mandela saw no choice except to accept the hegemony of world capitalism.  This was, after all, a period that just saw the collapse of the Soviet Union–which, for all its major faults, had assisted South Africans (and numerous other colonized people) fight against apartheid.  Its collapse meant that the socialist route, or really any route that did not respect the sanctity of private property, would not be supported by any world power–and thus, could easily lead into bloodshed, chaos, and the roll-back of what little gains were made by ending apartheid.

Or, as put by Zizek in an excellent piece on Mandela via The Guardian:

South Africa in this respect is just one version of the recurrent story of the contemporary left. A leader or party is elected with universal enthusiasm, promising a “new world” – but then, sooner or later, they stumble upon the key dilemma: does one dare to touch the capitalist mechanisms, or does one decide to “play the game”? If one disturbs these mechanisms, one is very swiftly “punished” by market perturbations, economic chaos and the rest. This is why it is all too simple to criticise Mandela for abandoning the socialist perspective after the end of apartheid: did he really have a choice? Was the move towards socialism a real option?

But of course, the unstable nature of revolutionary changes is no reason to shy away from fighting for such changes.  And clearly, given the growing unrest of the South African masses, it would be hasty to bury the radical roots of Nelson Mandela, and concede the liberal ideal of a peaceful reconciliation with capitalism and the monopolization of the means of production.

Even if the ’90s were one of the apparent victory of liberal capitalism over all alternatives, we are today clearly living in a time of new horizons and prospects for radical and revolutionary movements.  As Zizek concludes:

If we want to remain faithful to Mandela’s legacy, we should thus forget about celebratory crocodile tears and focus on the unfulfilled promises his leadership gave rise to.

It is thus in the mines and factories of South Africa, and in radical organizations like Zabalaza, that Nelson Mandela’s legacy is truly carried forward.

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