At the bottom of my street every Monday, on the nursery school drive, a phalanx of ragged beggars rummage through green wheelie bins outside a Tudor-style housing complex. I slow down at the stop sign and press the requisite button on the car’s console. Bent at the hips, African men rummage for calories and chucked-out crap to add to their swag before the garbage truck arrives. The guy with the dark-glasses is a pro. You see him everywhere, neat and bustling. Most of the others come from the children’s park they’ve taken over. It’s hand to mouth for them and whoonga1 in between. Like a conjurer, a young man finesses an improbably long pole from the bin. Rationally, it’s hard to begrudge them their messy survival. One or two, though, fail to avert their eyes. Like the one producing the wooden pole. He hears the locks knocking shut. This offal is not enough. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t only scavenge. He wants more. I rev away.
Twenty years after universal franchise was half ceded and half won in South Africa, the country is beset with social tension. Violent protests for housing and sanitation occur almost daily, there are no jobs for a quarter of those wanting work, development is mired in the most brazen corruption and there are signs that the country’s infrastructure is shot. To top it off, global winds lash the economy. The rand lost 40% of its value in the last two years and sovereign debt creeps ever higher. A metaphor one hears often from social commentators is that Mandela’s proud and hopeful rainbow nation is now a ticking time bomb. If South Africa blows, they say, the explosive will be inequality. That may be true but it is increasingly looking like the fuse will be race.
Democracy was supposed to bring the man at the end of my road a prospect of escaping poverty. Largely this was to be achieved via government action; giving him and his family a house, medical care, education and social grants. With the basics taken care of, the labour market would do the rest. For millions of people this has not transpired though. The dissatisfaction of the poor is still mainly aimed at government. However, over the last few years the black youth and lower middle class have started peering more intently through the scope of race. In 2014, an ANC breakaway party was born which wants white land expropriated without compensation and certain industries nationalised. It’s charismatic leader, Julius Malema, employs rhetorical flourishes isolating and outraging whites. His insistence on songs and chants about shooting the Boer is an example. For the new radicals in his debutante political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, the ANC government’s real failing is their protection of white property and privilege. The fewer whites clogging up the ownership of businesses, land and property, the better off blacks will be.
Who knows, perhaps the man at the end of the road sees me, and what I have, as the sine qua non of his wretchedness. If so, if the two of us sat down to bargain about our condition – his misery and my insecurity – he would be the challenger in bargaining theory, and I would be the defender. In a fascinating paper on the paradox of terrorism2, Max Abrahms begins by noting that terrorism inflicts greater pain and cost on defenders of a status quo than other forms of political challenge, such as protest. When a challenger uses terrorist tactics, he also signals a high level of ‘resolve to fight for his given preferences’. This stands his demands in good stead. Yet the sheer credibility of a terrorist’s threat of mayhem undermines the chances his demands will be willingly met.
Why is this? Using bargaining theory, Abrahms states:
‘Logically, the challenger must signal not only a credible threat to inflict pain when concessions are withheld, but also a credible promise to remove the pain in the event concessions are granted. Otherwise defenders lack incentive to accommodate the demands’.
His actual demands may be modest but, if a challenger’s tactics are extreme, defenders tend to infer that his true requirements lie deeper, that he is even, perhaps, implacable.
‘Because of this human tendency to confound the extreme means of the challenger with his presumed ends, escalation can discredit his vow to remove the pain regardless of whether the defender were to accommodate his demands’.
The dominant rationalist model of bargaining theory does not give enough attention to the promise to remove the pain once concessions have been made. If a negotiated settlement is to be reached, the credibility of the promise is just as important as the credibility of the threat.
Abrahms’ insights are useful in understanding the contestations in South African society today and the racial and class impasse we have reached. This paper is about the racial side of the conflict. It will divide black and white South Africans into the categories challenger and defender. These binaries, of course, do not describe the complexity of life. Whites and blacks are far from being homogenous groups. However, there is no denying that a broad and stark racial fault-line runs across our society. Our past and present is dominated by racial differentiation. We find it meaningful to enquiry after the race of people to place them socially, geographically and sub-culturally. Many governmental policies and laws take racial inequality and the consequent conflict as a given. Black and white citizens are officially divided for the purposes of redress through affirmative action. In political argument, value is constantly, if crudely, assigned to the race of an interlocutor in evaluating their interests, authenticity, bona fides and experience. Although it is strictly for the sake of argument and subject to qualification, I am satisfied that I am not departing too far from the habits of my everyday compatriots in South Africa when I work in black and white for the next few pages. The purpose is to achieve clarity about a problem, perhaps then adding complexity into the mix.
Before looking at the present position of pieces on the chessboard, first a survey of an earlier stalemate between white and black is in order.
In 1990, two threats confronted white defenders of wealth. The privileges their forefathers obtained for them were at risk from insurrection by “organs of people’s power” and intensified international isolation if demands for democracy were not met. The content of the Black promise, should they cede political power peacefully, was an inclusive, non-racial society in which property would be protected and social transformation proceed gradually under a market economy and the rule of law. The disbandment of uMKhonto weSizwe, (itself almost totally a symbolic institution), grand, dovish gestures by Nelson Mandela, a liberal constitution and the fusing of interests of challenger and defender elites in BEE3 partnerships strengthened the credibility of the no-expropriation promise.
ANC rhetoric undergirded the content of thepromise. Non-racialism was elevated, almost to the level of an article of faith, as an inviolable tenet of ANC dogma. It was constantly invoked during Mandela’s term as a synonym for equality, the foundational value of the new democracy. Non-racialism united demand and promise. If everyday racism was done away with, the place of white people was secure and blacks would start to thrive. If a backward white artisan in a workplace somewhere sparked a toyi-toyi by calling a black co-worker a name, the true offence moving the knees and pumping the arms was that against the civic virtue of non-racialism. The white guy was not disparaged because he was white or privileged but because he was rude, a racist. Non-racialism was a value Eugene Terreblanche4 himself may have invoked, back in the day, if ever circumstances called for it, and he was inclined to seek its protection.
People chased Mandela’s rainbow for a few years. Then it frizzled away. Many are cynical about it now. It cloyed a materialist analysis, they say. It completed the demobilization of ‘grassroots’ civil society, quieted for a decade. And, to please white business, foolish privatisations occurred with huge amounts of, now unchallengeable, wealth waved through exchange controls. Whatever the critique and however cheesy Rainbowism was, those were as close as any halcyon days a South African is likely to experience. Which is, in itself, quite sad.
Thabo Mbeki, the unloved, came next. On race, he bristled, believing that business or Western criticism of ANC policies came from a place where not only material interests were measured. A surplus of bigotry towards Africans as unworthy or unready administrators of a modern state also motivated his detractors. Mbeki fashioned an Africanism of free trade and cultural affirmation to compensate. The banner of non-racialism flew from few battlements on his watch. However, the social and economic policies over which he presided still underwrote the basics of the promise given to defenders of wealth. Unlike Mandela, though, he would demand much stricter compliance with laws regulating ‘transformation’. In ten years, many parts of the civil service became denuded of white employees, with the state becoming the go-to place of occupation for blacks. This accorded with the precepts of employment law, which required every workplace to strictly reflect the country’s demographics. All South African workforces thus, from top management down, had to be 79% African, 9% white, 9% coloured and 3 Indian. BEE policies in the private sector saw large enterprises having to sell 30% of shares to black people. Smaller companies, if hoping for any business in the government supply chain, had bigger targets. Overnight, many millionaires were created among the politically connected black elite. Race quotas were also set for admission to Universities, inclusion in sports teams and other bodies.
In return, it could be argued, Mbeki disciplined the Left and kept ‘radical’ economic proposals, such as nationalisation, off the table. His racial prickle was strictly interpersonal, theoretical and often deserved. He made an ass of himself over Aids, for sure, but part of the disdain he attracted arose from those who, a priori, expected no good from the “native intelligence”. And, it has to be said, the white left was as vocal a part of the “here comes the post-colonial horror” narrative as the white right.
At some point in his almost two terms as President, Mbeki realised that the economic development South Africa needed to fulfill promises of ‘a better life for all’ was not going to be produced by the record capitalist growth he fostered so well. He’d expected greater patriotism, or even just self-interest, from the bourgeoisie. Instead, the super rich demanded maximum dividends from doing business in South Africa and did not plough back either in investment or praise.
Mbeki’s true and enduring legacy to South Africa was a significantly expanded Black middle class and a highly politicized civil service. The Black middle class, unfortunately, was not moored to the productive economy but fed, as parasites, off government patronage or BEE deals with white business. The promise to defenders precluded challengers being given a direct and immediate stake in the ‘first economy’, either as owners and managers, the exception being the parastatals like Eskom. In other words, businesses were not expropriated and given to Black owners and managers to get on with it. They had to enter obliquely, slowly and under tutelage. Whether another more radical model would have left South Africa better off in terms of the tax base necessary to fund social programmes is a question no one has seriously answered.
While growing the Black middle class and batting away white carping, Mbeki had other exasperations. For the disparagement of whites did not irritate him near as much as the ‘ultra-leftism’ of his foes in the SACP and trade unions. They cast the unamused President as a sell-out to ‘neoliberalism’. In working them over in return, Mbeki unashamedly pulled the levers of state. In 2009, the vaunted Machiavellian, though, lost this battle to an alliance of his political victims. His poorly educated, morally compromised deputy, Jacob Zuma, led the alliance. After the necessary purges, the ‘broken’ successor was left to take full advantage of governing with a state largely beholden to one party.
Zuma is now in his second term. Truly, ‘unnatural vices’ have been fathered by the ‘heroism’ of the past. The country is in the political grip of as venal a cabal as ever governed the country. No loyal cadre is too unskilled to be a municipal manager. No loyal lawyer is too dodgy to head the prosecuting authority. No relative is too parasitic to be given yet another tender. No friend’s daughter is safe. The economy is weak, growing at less than 2 percent a year. Development is hampered on the one hand by the inherited scale of inequality in South African society and on the other hand by farcical incompetence and bare-faced suborning of the state, at every sphere, to grow the estates of comrades. The ANC does just enough, through social grants and displays of power, the ever-useful bread and circuses, to keep its constituency in the polling booths marking the right spot. For the most part, though, the poor are left to their own devices.
We are told South Africa has a huge level of inequality. This, more than poverty in absolute terms, is what makes the place so violent and crime so endemic. Separating want from envy and cruelty from desperation in the agitations that beset our townships, universities and workplaces is a fruitless task. Social discourse in suffused with racial tension, crumbling increasingly even into tribal blocs. With growth not providing a better life for all, eyes inevitably swivel to redistribution.
Radical forms of redistribution involve taking property away from its current owners. Such drastic steps require political justification. In South Africa, race provides that justification. If Mandela treated whites as part of the rainbow, a new and powerful discourse, brewing in the hearts of the lower middle class, sees them as an unfairly bright and distant moon. And so, in the form of property and opportunity, white5 people are singled out as having to give much of that brightness up. Moving from the individual to the economy, expropriation and nationalisation are mooted for sectors with a predominantly white ownership, such as mines and agriculture.
In Mandela’s day, a positive sign of equality was well-behaved whites being subsumed into the broader nation. In Malema’s day, equality is best advanced by making whites (and other minorities) visible as a problem for the nation. The problem is profound. It is not even their being particularly and selfishly rich. Even a poor white has ‘privilege’, and so is liable for redress. A pale farmer struggling on a small plot must also have his farm expropriated because he is part of a historically alien and displacing race. In more extreme forms of this discourse, such as on the EFF’s left flank, white people do not really belong in South Africa at all.
The ideological shift in talking about race since 1994, (I am sure the thinking was always there), means that invoking non-racialism these days is seen as quaint, even conservative. To achieve substantive equality, race must be accentuated not downplayed. White racism is not the prime civic sin. White privilege is. However, while the thinking on race has hardened, the thinking on class has cooled. A critique of white privilege at Universities, for example, stops well short of interfering with the function of those institutions to insert alumni into an elite. There are calls for more Black Profs, mathematics taught in African languages and for a course or two on pre-colonial wonders 6. But the University’s function in the capitalist economy is hardly challenged at all. Calls to Africanize historically white Universities by Black student organisations are exposed as slogans by the fact that, where the baleful influence of whiteness is absent, in historically Black universities, the research orientation, curriculum and so forth is unchanged after 20 years of Black sufficiency, if not dominance.
One gets the feeling that it is access to privilege, unfairly reserved for whites in the past, that the new generation seeks, not so much socialism7.And good for them! But, there should be no confusion about the ideological place from which a fair proportion of Black indignation springs. White privilege gives its holders capital, opportunity, confidence and a job. When it comes to accessing the same privilege by displacement, a representative identity politics is more effective than a leveling class-consciousness. And so, every challenger for advancement within what we may call white institutions must display a unique wound or become a unique voice for the wounded8. This is all the better to place themselves in the queue for institutional advancement and recognition9.
The demand for equal privilege sometimes takes the form of a demand for equal pain. The former student union President at Wits University recently celebrated Hitler in these terms:
““He [Adolf Hitler] reduced white bodies to the same level of black bodies. Because, according to a white man, only a black man must be killed. According to a white man, only a black man must be placed in a quarantine to die.
Hitler took white people and killed them. Hitler took white people [and] starved them to death, the same way they did to black people. That’s why they hate him. I love Adolf Hitler for that,” Dlamini said during his address to the students who clapped and cheered”10.
Some of the arguments made by the EFF have the same blood group. It is as if the reclaiming of dignity and power can come from the superficial pleasure of sticking tongues out at the former overlord.
An insurgency is not upon us. The Left constantly fantasizes about Black bodies being thrown into really bloody situations, either exhorting them to turn out for revolution or exaggerating their actual strife. It does seem, however, that, after 21 years of an economically stagnant democracy, the challengers need to renegotiate the social compact that constituted the promise made to defenders in 1994. Such a renegotiation is normal, healthy and necessary. Thus, on the national question, Blacks gear up to signal anew, in the coded way these things are done, the pain they can cause whites should greater wealth and access to institutions not be ceded to them. The problem though is not how the threats are composed or countered. The problem is that the credibility of Black promise to remove pain should white concessions be made, is fairly low11.
Partly what undermines the credibility of Black promise is the fact that there is a renegotiation at all. But it is not the most serious impediment. The major problem is the extremity of the damage wrought to non-racialism in the run-up to negotiations12. This, in context, is akin, I would argue, to what Abrahms sees as the adoption of extreme tactics in support of demands. While the law still guarantees white people equality and citizenship, in the minds of an increasing number of vocal Blacks, the moral guarantor of peace in South Africa, the value of non-racialism, is exploded. And white people have been shown spectacular displays of racial vilification in public discourse lately. Things that it would be unthinkable to propose under Mandela or Mbeki are routine both in Zuma’s Presidium and the substantial fringes of Black politics where the ANC’s withering non-racial Geist, in any event, has no sway. It is not a persuasive answer to point out that whites are still economically powerful and can effectively buy out of Black acceptance, creating private enclaves for themselves, as they do. If history teaches anything, it is that demography trumps privilege in the end.
The collapse of non-racialism as a protective value is seen most clearly in the language of land redistribution. To the EFF, representing over 1 million Blacks, whites are simply land thieves. Generation, improvement, labour or method of acquisition is of no consequence in their analysis. All land ‘belonging’ to whites must be expropriated without compensation. It is not really even about what will be done with the land in an economic sense. Current evidence suggests very little. It is to make a point and strike a blow. White pain is thus not a consequence of a demand being unmet. White pain is endogenous to Black need.
The content of this policy constitutes a strong repudiation of the 1994 promise. Even more significant is what the tone of the repudiation does to the promise of non-racialism.
Perhaps covering its left flank, the ANC has mooted a repudiation of its own. The ANC’s BEE policies were part of the 1994 settlement. In fact they form part of the Rainbow Nation ethos where whites and Blacks would work together to achieve a better future. It was always understood that positive discrimination would be aimed at whites, as the holders of wealth and position. There would be some interference in how they ran their businesses to achieve diversity in the workforce and equity in ownership. However, for all of that, BEE policies were usually announced in cold, technocratic terms. The historical context is mentioned with restraint. Inequalities need to be ‘addressed’, the potential of the previously excluded ‘unlocked’ and ‘mechanisms’ found to advance social transformation. Any stake in these industries must be purchased, even if at discounted rates. Guidelines and targets are usually set at 30% Black involvement in a given industry or sector.
ANC sounds on land are different. Government’s proposed policy requires white farmers to immediately cede half their landholding, essentially half their estate, to farmworkers for zero compensation. It also enforces a contractual relationship with particular challengers, the farmworkers. This deprives an owner of the, until now, prized ability to freely choose a BEE partner. In a dog-whistle reference, the Minister of Agriculture, Gugile Nkwinti, said in Parliament that he was honoured to have his ideas on land redistribution compared to that of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe13. He also declared the 30% target as the most interim of numbers. Land redistribution will continue forever, if needs be.
Although more reserved than the EFF, and in fact playing off the “anarchy” the latter could unleash, the content of ANC land policies suggest a threshold has been crossed in the way black nationalism relates to white property14.
Farmer organisations strenuously oppose these policies. So far, food security vies with unilateral expropriation; investor confidence vies with the ANC not reigning in land invasions. It remains to be seen what the capacity of the challengers and defenders are to cause actual pain should their preferred outcome not be met.
As argued above, though, the issue is not with the pain that begins the cycle of racial conflict but with the promises that might close it. Abrahms says it most elegantly:
“The credibility of the challenger’s promise hinges on precisely this open question inherent to anarchy, that is, whether his preferences are indeed as moderate as his demands. If not, granting them would not be expected to sate the challenger, undermining his promise along with the strategic logic of appeasing him”. (p5)
In all the new bellicosity, whether about land or other issues, the challenger party does not seem to have much if anything to offer the defending constituency. Whites are deluding themselves if they believe that their interests are guaranteed by the property clause in the South African constitution; this could be undone in a moment if black parties cooperate to muster the required two-thirds parliamentary majority. In truth, it was the ANC’s principled commitment to non-racialism that gave whites their only meaningful hope for the continuation of some version of the status quo. As that commitment wanes, the logic of attempting to appease blacks by surrendering further chunks of the economy looks increasingly dubious.
The time has come to switch Abrahm’s concepts around a bit. Cedric Nunn’s installation depicting the century long Xhosa resistance to colonial advance in the Eastern Cape, reminds that the original colonial situation saw itinerant white settlers as the challengers and Africans as the propertied defenders. I remember a vivid print showing a man with his back to his huts and herd feebly warding off hordes of swiftly advancing attackers. The best one can hope for his children is that they have run off into the bush in terror. I am sure there were interesting historical anomalies, alliances, open spaces and reverse mischief but the general position the Xhosa found themselves in during the Frontier Wars was as defenders. At some point in the story of South Africa, resistance, signaling, defense, became struggle, signaling attack, probably once most that Blacks had left to protect was lost.
Seen the other way around, then, the structural, economic and perhaps even biological position of present day whites may well constitute an attack on Blacks. It is not only in an extensive sins-of-the-fathers sense that white people potentially challenge Blacks. To the hungry man at the bin, whites still actively push him off his turf. They pay security guards to keep his like at bay. They build walls with electricity zing zinging atop. They invoke law and violence to stop him from having a shack in their neighbourhoods or an income from combing their pavement and yard. How credible then is a promise that whites will stop his pain should he give into their demand? And what is their demand?
What I demand is the man at the bin’s absence. This is both a murderous and philanthropic demand. I confess that I want him off my street and, yes, to stop scaling my walls. If this can be achieved by giving him better prospects in life, so much the better. These prospects are to be achieved by an efficient spend of my tax contribution and any economic growth I cause. Ramped up to scale, across all the suburban streets of South Africa, is white promise credible? If the Black poor stop plaguing the white rich, will things get better for them? If there were no property crime for a year, no begging, no strikes and no protests, no land redistribution, would the consequent increase in economic growth trickle down to the poor in sufficient quantity so that, on aggregate, the poor are meaningfully better off than before? The answer is very unclear. Trickle-down economics does not have a great track record. For Black students at UCT, no matter how dismissive white compatriots may be to their demands for – and method of – advancement, their ultimate interests are not served by bringing the social order to its knees. The point is to displace whites in that order. The same goes for the Black middle class. For the Black underclass, however, anarchy15 seems the better option.
The problem with white promise, which is also capitalist promise, was best identified by James Baldwin in the 1960s. Even if upliftment through economic inclusion and education was plausible in itself, the timeframes are too long to contemplate. If the man at the bin is a father like me, could I ask him for time?
In whose time? One has only one life. One may become reconciled to the ruin of one’s children’s lives is not reconciliation. It is the sickness unto death”16.
The credibility of white promise does not hinge on observing the niceties of non-racialism. It hinges on unheard of growth rates, something no one in a democracy these days can plausibly pledge. The consequence is that, in bargaining theory, there is no arena for an agreed settlement. Someone has to be defeated.
Racial conflict is bound to intensify. The pain that each side promises will take various forms, from insult to injury. Our capacity to hurt is not in question. Our capacity to promise is. The credibility of the promise either party could make to bring the conflict to an end is the lowest it has been in a generation. Of course, as indicated at the outset, there are many messy bits in the way South African society is structured that defy the binary in which I am working. But, if social conflict in future does take a primarily racial character, the chances that racial concord, even if temporary, will arise thereafter is very slim.
This is going to sound so contrived and I have deleted the following sentences a few times. But, on my back home from the school run on Monday, I again passed by the men at the bin. Someone in the complex had thrown the stick away that the young man wielded. Now I could see its bottom end: the multi-coloured stripes of the South African flag carpeted the floor by the poor man’s feet.
this article previously appeared in Counterpunch
May 15, 2015
- A narcotic composed of low-grade heroin, rat poison and soap powder.
- Abrahms, Max. (2013) The Credibility Paradox: Violence as a Double-Edged Sword in International Politics, International Studies Quarterly, 1-12
- Black Economic Empowerment laws provide for the inclusion of Blacks into the economy, as both owners and managers. Companies not meeting targets are subject to fines, loss of license and other measures.
- Leader of a right wing, Afrikaner separatist movement active in the early 1990s.
- It is too complex to analyse within the binary framework I am using but Indian and Coloured people are colloquially, increasingly, also treated as white for the purposes of expected redress.
- The struggle for privilege has some paradoxical features. Very few black kids aspiring to the middle class clamber for entry to institutions where whites are not present, like the University of Venda. This is not only about better resourcing of institutions like UCT. If the widespread, if anecdotal, phenomenon of Black middle-class parents, including militant SADTU officials, preferring schools with a dominant ‘white teaching ethos’ for their own children checks out, this would plausibly extend to tertiary institution preferences too.
In essence, it is against the interest of present UCT students and their parents for the institution to be open to the masses, especially the unpaying masses. It is in their interests for their personal route to a degree to be made easier and for some of the psychological jolts to self-regard to be removed from campus while doing so. The struggle for privilege has strange symbolic and subjective dimensions.
- Official communiqués from the University of Cape Town students fighting to topple the statue of Rhodes included criticism of society’s “heteronormatism” too.
- Noticeably too, not a single mediocre academic refrained from celebrating as a game changing event, the removal of the statue of Rhodes at UCT, much as they latched on to Marikana before and Numsa’s expulsion and PayBackTheMoney and so on.
Indeed, to keep political scientists relevant, if incipient insurgency did not exist, it would need to be invented.
Which, come to think of it, …
- I hasten to add that this is only a problem if the aim is another negotiated settlement. If Blacks are able to prevail over whites, the need for their promises to hold any credibility falls away.
Whether prevailing will leave blacks better off is another question entirely. For those whose motivations are primarily ideologically, this is a trivial practicality. However, Zimbabwe serves as a reminder that market and international foreign policy reaction on the one hand and the loss of productive capacity on the other may significantly hollow racial victory out.
- It may seem strange that white renunciation of non-racialism, or failure to embrace it in the first place, is excluded from this analysis.
This is because, in terms of the bargaining binary I am exploring, non-racialism functions as part of the challenger’s promise to end conflict after material concessions are made by the defender. Also, non-racialism is not one of the new Black demands on whites. I turn to look at white challenge and black defense later.
- This could well be a classic application of the ANC’s two-stage theory of national democratic revolution. Except that the concepts are reversed in order: democracy comes first, giving statutory effect to racial nationalist preferences. Farmers are a geographically dispersed, symbolically easy, historically pressing and demographically small constituency of citizens on which to practice a broader rescission.
- I use the term in either its pejorative or political sense.
- Baldwin, J, ‘Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White’, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/books/98/03/29/specials/baldwin-antisem.html