Tag Archives: south africa

We are all Helen Zille. Or, why the West thinks that colonialism was not all bad

Check out my latest piece in Africa Is A Country on South African prominent white politician Helen Zille’s tweets in defence of colonialism. I talk about southern African whites and Western scholars’ involvement in spreading ideas about Western superiority.

Here is an extract:

“The end of colonialism, apartheid and Jim Crow have marked the global rise of liberal racism – what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls ‘racism without racists’. Even when we do not openly endorse colonialism like Zille does, our works are filled with strategic silences, omissions and erasures that continue to sustain ideas of Western superiority.”




Student protests and the crisis of South African democracy


#FeesMustFall protest in Pretoria, 23 October 2015. Photo: Paul Saad

Click here for our analysis in the Boston Review of the 2015 student protests  in South Africa. We describe the events as one symptom of the deep crisis of the post-apartheid order. We also consider possible future scenarios in what promises to be a hot year for South African politics.

This work is part of my ongoing research in collaboration with Ayanda Manqoyi from UCT. We are grateful to Boston Review managing editor Adam McGee for the excellent editorial work.

Here is an extract:

“The vast majority of black South Africans and other historically disadvantaged groups continue to be excluded from the centers of economic wealth and political power. Whites hold on to their privileged economic position, in alliance with a tiny black elite that controls the government, having benefited from limited ownership transfer deals in the private sector. Majority ownership in mining and other key economic sectors remains in the hands of local whites and investors from Western countries.

Most blacks are de facto segregated in areas that suffer from structural disadvantage and widespread poverty. Moreover, those black citizens living and working in privileged areas still experience the dehumanizing effects of racism. …

It is with a keen awareness of this context that the word ‘decolonization’ has been embraced by some student leaders to contextualize their activism as a facet of a broader strategy to dismantle white privilege in the country.”

South Africa’s student movement could be catalyst for wider social change

A major wave of protests has brought to a halt several universities in South Africa – Witwatersrand University, University of Cape Town, Fort Hare, Rhodes and Stellenbosch have all been affected. The issue of student fee increases, and more generally the exorbitant cost of higher education for the average South African, have become the catalyst for these protests. Demands for racial justice and concerns about economic inequality are coming together in a powerful call for change that cannot be ignored or easily dismissed.

This movement emerges from sustained efforts in the last months to build a wider social movement to bring about transformation of university staff and students, and widening access to higher education to include most South Africans – especially the black majority who continue to be excluded and discriminated.

Wits Professor Achille Mbembe has been a source of wisdom and guidance in these months, and makes an important point about the need for protesters to focus not just on universities’ management, and to shift the attention towards the state, envisaged as the key locus of decision-making in these crucial areas.

One question however seems to be less debated, at least in the mainstream reporting on these protests: are we sure that it is just a matter of identifying the “right” institutional structures in order to address the crisis? Why would the state be any more effective than universities’ management in addressing the root causes of the protesters’ demands? Government elites’ collusion with big capital and white interests can hardly be disputed. After all, this was the basis of the negotiated transition to a post-apartheid order in the early 1990s.

There is a great potential in these protests, which might or might not be harnessed by those who are participating in this mass movement: the opportunity to bring together people from different sectors of society who feel the brunt of discrimination and disadvantage, and yet have been unable to break through a sophisticated governance system that privileges “divide and rule” tactics, and fosters fragmentation along racial, ethnic, class and religious lines.

This alliance would give university students the role of ‘spokespersons’, articulating demands for racial and economic justice which people across the country, from informal settlements and townships to disenfranchised rural areas, are making everyday in their own specific ways and contexts. These calls remain largely unheard in a national debate dominated by a strong bias towards university-educated citizens – that’s why university protests attract widespread media attention and can have an impact on policy-making.

A narrow path focusing on representation in current state structures is certainly desirable as a first step towards systemic change. But it is not enough to address the root problem: the vast majority of South Africans are excluded from meaningful participation in the national economy and society, through a mix of racial and class discrimination that is often covered up under the guises of apparently democratic and inclusive structures.

The student movement can contribute to the formation of the grassroots participatory structures that are needed to build a new dispensation from the ashes of the apartheid system and its neoliberal post-apartheid successor. The inability of the current state-capital deal to deliver for most people will be increasingly exposed, especially with the ongoing economic slow-down that is affecting the country.

It might be time to bring together debates that mainstream media have conveniently kept separate, i.e. land reform, public control of the mining sector, access to and transformation of higher education. Ideas about resource nationalism could be easily extended to the realm of higher education. A new agenda for an “intellectual” resource nationalism that brings universities under public control would be one way out of the current impasse.

Public control cannot however be reduced to top down intervention by state structures that are hijacked by the same private interests that hinder transformation and access at the level of universities’ management. Efforts at widening access to and transforming universities should work in parallel with a sustained transformation of state structures. This can only be carried out by a wider social movement that pursues the interests of the excluded majority, and is willing to stand up to the attempts by big capital and the upper-middle classes to keep things as they are.

Neoliberal policies and principles around black economic empowerment have clearly failed to deliver change and cannot be the blueprint for future higher education policies. It is time to rethink the relationship between state and capital, and to reclaim the space for a participatory democracy that puts public control and regulation of markets and services above private interests.

Negative growth in 2nd quarter, tough times ahead for South Africa

The South African economy shrank by 1.3% in the second quarter of this year, with major contractions in mining and agriculture. Tough times ahead for the country, as the slowing down of China and general lack of recovery in Northern markets are not going to be reverted any soon.

This will further exacerbate the basic contradiction behind South Africa’s economic system. Most growth in recent years has come from investment in the rest of Africa, that remains in the hands of few – with a dominant position of white capital – and doesn’t trickle down to the rest of South Africans. Meanwhile restructuring and decline at home means even less jobs in the mining sector and elsewhere.

Considering the bottleneck many graduates are finding themselves in, these pressures will not only be on the poorest, but also on all those who had high expectations that university education would lift them out of poverty towards a better and fairer future.

It is in this context that the rising social movement towards transformation – but also the worrying rise of xenophobia across lower and middle classes – should be understood. South Africa is in for more social unrest, worsening living conditions and economic and political instability if unequal economic and social structures are not addressed head on.

Expansionism and xenophobia: the new South African consensus

After Zuma criticised other African nations rehashing neocolonial stereotypes about corruption and ‘failed states’, he now signs deals with his African neighbours from the Southern Africa Development Community to absorb jobless South African graduates. Only a few months ago, he and many other national leaders have openly stated that African migrants are not welcome in South Africa – an intention clearly supported by military operations to deport ‘illegal’ migrants in the midst of xenophobic attacks.

It is unlikely that Zuma and his allies have changed their minds. They quite possibly feel that South African graduates are entitled to work in other African countries, while the opposite is put into question. Of course the droves of white South Africans who have moved in the last decades to other African countries for business – from mining to construction, from supermarkets to junk food chains – have already asserted their ‘privilege’. They actively participate in the building of enclave economies where technical and managerial cadres pay themselves exorbitant salaries while exploiting workers, who are paid at much lower level than their South African counterparts. Meanwhile, just as South African apartheid regime used to do with his dependent countries (Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana), the growth of South African business is usually at the expense of local companies, put out of business by cut-throat competition and left alone by neoliberal government policies ‘opening up’ national economies to foreign investment. Needless to say, South Africa is in good company, with Western and Asian investors participating in the same destructive game.

Despite the intense racial conflict at home, the expansionist South African project into the continent marks an interesting kind of ‘multi-racial’ nationalist consensus at the top. At the expense of the rest of Africa, which is exploited as a growing market for South African business and skilled labour force, while foreign Africans have become dispensable labour within South Africa. And at the expense of the vast majority of South Africans, who see no benefit from the supernormal profits made abroad by a small class of capitalists and managers. When disenfranchised workers feeling the hit of the structural decline at home challenge the system – see Marikana – their massacre is covered up as ‘accidental’. Even the xenophobic crowds encouraged by the justificationist rhetoric of some government leaders are quickly disciplined through military force, after they carry out their ‘dirty’ deeds.

Make no mistake: pinning this solely on Zuma and the ANC would be unfair, and politically naive. There is a clear, if tacit, consensus across the national mainstream: the DA, the main opposition party – and its most powerful supporters, the white elites controlling top business – are in full agreement with the ANC leadership on the basic tenets of the expansionist post-apartheid state. Whenever serious threats to state rule and big capital interests arise, order should be restored. At all costs, as Marikana and the migrants’ pogroms painfully remind us.

Xenophobic attacks in South Africa and the need for transformation

The recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa are a major cause for concern. They are part of a complex landscape where past and present grievances, injustices and structural inequalities are forcefully emerging from decades of neglect and justificationist techniques to preserve the status quo. More than anything, we need unity and solidarity across all groups and communities, in a delicate moment when histories, identities, memories and feelings can be easily mobilised for destructive and self-destructive purposes. We need to reflect deeply about causes and concerns of all involved, and avoid using these events in any way to justify narrow political and identitarian concerns. Now more than ever, we need to recognise each other’s humanity, no matter what is being said and done by whom and for what purposes.

But let’s not fool ourselves. The entrenched inequalities and injustices these attacks hint at – which of course are much more complex and deeper than a simplistic scapegoating of one group can ever allow for – need to be addressed, if we want to truly find resolution and move towards a brighter future. As things stand, the path I am seeing is one where structural inequalities which favour certain class and racial groups at the expense of the vast majority of Black South Africans will continue to be glossed over. What is emerging is an undeclared but very palpable state policy of controlled fear and intimidation that feeds xenophobic sentiments, keeps foreigners ‘in check’, while leaving the structures of the economy fundamentally untouched. The attacks are coinciding with the rise of a wider movement calling for transformation, reaching traditionally middle-class institutions like universities. This is another sign that there are deeper structural issues that need to be addressed. This movement, which links people from all kinds of backgrounds and class positions, might in fact contain the seeds for a positive and negotiated transformation that addresses issues of poverty, underdevelopment and discrimination in all sectors of society. For those of us who continue to be embedded in the enclaves of privilege that South Africa offers to some – elite universities certainly feature in this – there lies the responsibility of contributing in whatever way we can to this process. This is a moment of crisis, no doubt, but also an opportunity to be part of a new deal that pushes further with the agenda of equality, redistribution and non-racialism that has always been at the centre of the liberation project, in South Africa and the rest of the continent.

The human economy hits Italian shores

The human economy approach hits Italian shores in the last number of historic liberal left-wing journal Critica Liberale, just appeared in print.

In a brilliant piece titled “La globalizzazione dell’apartheid [The globalization of apartheid]”, Keith Hart, LSE Centennial Professor and co-director of the Human Economy Programme in Pretoria, engages Europe and European liberalism from a global south perspective, more specifically South Africa and its regional economy. He builds on some of the arguments in a piece recently appeared in Anthropology Today, and an older article of some years ago from his Memory Bank website.

In my article “Tra stato, mercato e societa’: la crisi italiana e l’economia umana [Between state, market and society: the Italian crisis and the human economy]”, I try to explore some of the possibilities of developing a human economy approach to understand the Italian crisis, with a strong focus on informality and society to counter more common top-down state-market analyses.

Claudia Lopedote, sitting in the editorial board of the journal, provides the essential linkages between the human economy experience and Italian debates in her piece “Economia umana [Human economy]”.