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Hoodwinking the black middle class

Why does South Africa not have a more established, powerful black middle class? Mphuthumi Ntabeni looks at where the country started to exclude its biggest grouping of citizens. 

The question of the creation of the Black Middle Class (BMC) was prevalent during the foundational talks about South Africa’s post-apartheid society. Economic advancement was seen as the saving grace towards the country’s economic development. Of course, the expectations were made without going into much detail about how they were to be fulfilled, except few talks here and there about devolution of big white capital monopoly capital (WMC), although at the time, since we’re all newly found friends, it was only referred to as big business capital.

A failure in planning

The failure in planning BMC as a hinge of our national economic development was obvious from the start to those without vested interests. It was an unreasonable demand to expert the BMC, without capital – scattered inefficient organisational business skills – to develop along the industrial capitalist lines. Hence all the planning achieved was in creating cheap imitations of WMC who developed through government rent seeking and existing big capital leeching. Perhaps this was the political original design? You can never know. But our real middle class are mostly professionals whose major economic trait, besides providing their skills, is consumption without any real economic production. It fulfills the role, by design or fault, of acting as a buffer between the propertied class and the poor. This is largely due to our government’s inability to solve the land question, and giving our state a minimum of equality that may liberate the middle and poor classes. Not only has this resulted in the reinforcement of the apartheid geography and socio-economic realities, but in preventing the black middle class into becoming productive in real economic sense of community contributing beyond mere consumption traits. As indicated above, it has resulted in economic privilege into a few, like your Ramaphosas, Motsepes and Tokyos without really liberating the production potential of black middle class.

Interests are being served, but not of the majority

The South African economy looks to be in a permanent deflation. No economy anywhere in the world has ever managed to grow and be vibrant ignoring the development production of the majority of its population. China became the second biggest economy only when it started rapidly developing its peasant population, the  same was true of the US. It is also disingenuous to claim our economy fails to attract  investments because of political  instability. There’s clear evidence of South African WMC being actual investor boycott for at least two decades during which time ours has been, basically, consumer based economy. The private sector has been investing less than the depreciation of capital stock for a long time now. Yes, there are now signs of our economy lurching between expansion and contraction, helped by the low foreign investor confidence brought about by the political instabilities of the Zuma administration. Meanwhile, our WMC has been splashing its huge liquid reserve abroad, expanding and sometimes, reckless buying companies to get rid of its hot mint since Mbeki’s regime gave them open permission during his first, our most political stable era since 1994. Our economy desperately requires those investments to give it a stable groove. Instead, we’ve seen an intensified investor boycott, which says a lot about the disjuncture between public and private priorities. There’s then a semblance of truth in both sides of accusations between the government and big business – that political instability drives investments away, and the unpatriotic nature of big business.

Most worrying is a misguided notion that identifies the black middle class, economically and socially, as reaping the rewards and gains of our political reforms. This is debunked by almost all statistical facts, yet the myth persists. The facts clearly show that the previously advantaged white middle and business class hasd gained more from our political reforms of 1994, and continue doing so, than anyone else. Hence our country’s glaring income and wealth inequalities continue being defined along racial lines.

The perception is also that the black middle class is preferred by government procurement processes through BEE or equity act. Meanwhile the reality is that the government predominantly procures its services from already established companies, which are mostly white owned or controlled.

And the reports from the Labour department, year on and year out, is that the majority of private companies ignores, with impunity, the imperatives of Employment Equity. And hardly any government department fulfills the obligations on the matter, although they fare better than the private sector.

The university, currently known as Rhodes, conducted an unemployment study among university graduates two years ago with disappointing findings: “The disappointing conclusion…is that race and gender, and not achievements, appear to be consistent predictors of success in the labour market,” says the paper’s first author, Dr Michael Rogan, a senior researcher at the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit at the Institute of Social and Economic Research. The national trend is that black graduates, in particular female ones, find it hard to find employment. We may euphemistically refer to the reasons behind this as lack of social mobility that is experienced by all people of the poor class. The study also reveals a higher percentage of white students graduating. This means, if social mobility didn’t care about skin colour, there would be more unemployment among the white students. This is clear not the case, ipso facto, our social mobility, like wealth, is racial and gender bias. I dare say its racist and sexist.

BEE is, of course, the modernised version of Napoleonic Freedom and Liberation fees. Instead of being paid to liberate cities and towns then forming the Cisalpine Republic, the levies are applied to the WMC to feed the elites of the ruling party as a form of sophisticated patronage. This is how our ruling party has managed to create a neo-patrimonial state whose roots are not African, but go back to the Napoleonic age. It is such a pity that South Africans fall for the ruse of the ruling party in pinning the woes of corruption of government into lame duck presidents – Zuma is the current flavour.

The fact of the matter is that the neo-patrimonial system is not dominated and dictated by the personal whim of one man, exercising power through an informal system of rule. It incorporates a particular set of power relations, hence it captures, or seeks to capture, even the trappings of government institutional accountability – Parliament, the judiciary, Chapter Nine institutions, and all in order to render them toothless while paying lip service to constitutional imperatives. Power might be concentrated in the President’s office – a grievous error in our Constitutional design deriving from the naivety of our Mandela era – but to be effective, neo-patrimony requires that the character of the president be corruptible so as to hinge the weaving of a matrix of corrupt economic, political and business networks that creates a veritable web of co-dependency that president can be manipulated by.

It might be that in Zuma the system found its perfect epitome, but it’s seeds were laid by those who came before him, and are allowed by the rot of party political system. So, the real seat of the matrix is the party system. The real money start it’s exchange on the party factional level. And if the poison is not drained there it cannot be neutralised anywhere else, thus the leviathan must die from its internal contradictions.

Our conclusion then is that the black middle class is hoodwinked by the government, discriminated against by the private sector, which is predominantly white, and generally oppressed by system that expects it to be the donkey of our national economic development.

Is it any wonder they’re angry and voting the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), the most angry and anarchist political party in our country? But all we ever hear about are anxieties of the markets – read white male capitalist class – who in my opinion have no reason to complain because the post 1994 situation has worked out into their advantage almost in every sense. They have even gained moral capital from the bankruptcy of the ANC’s dearth of vision and dereliction of the mandate to liberate the poor majority. Hence you are now wont to hear the likes of Rupert moralising over the corruption of the government. It is no mystery that the ANC government is losing power in the cities, where the black middle class is concentrated. It is no wonder that in social media, the ANC loss of power is regarded as a fait accompli, even before 2019. The social media is the echo chamber of the middle class. Since the ANC leviathan is more concerned with feeding on its tail, I don’t see these trend reversing until the proverbial centre fails to hold. SA.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Mphuthumi Ntabeni
Mphuthumi Ntabeni lives in Cape Town where he is a political commentator and writer. He writers for the Southern Cross and his book, The Broken River Tent is published by Black Back Book, an imprint of Jacana Books, in early 2018.

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