We've Been 'Walking Apart' for Fifteen Years

By Dale T. McKinley · 11 Aug 2009

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Picture credit: Daquella Manera
Picture credit: Daquella Manera

With all the crocodile tears, gnashing of teeth, post-hoc analysis and mea culpa discourse on offer over the last few weeks of community protests and worker strikes, one could be forgiven for thinking that South Africa has suddenly crossed some kind of developmental and political Rubicon. It is as if recent events have triggered a sudden and combined rush of (relative) conscience over the plight of the poor/workers, a new found, critically informed concern about the character and role of our institutional and representative democracy and an acute angst about the general state of South African society. 

What makes this all a bit unreal - and thus hard to accept as genuine -  though, is that the very material, social and political bases for these newly found/formed concerns, consciences and critiques have been both real and visible since 1994 (and some, before). Put another way, there is an incredible amount of generalised historical amnesia and more selective ‘memory’ opportunism at work here. 

So, what does a more honest, realistic and historically informed scenario for South Africa look like? 

The political - The core ideology and politics of the Zuma faction in the ANC, which has now ascended to state power, is not in contradiction with its predecessors. We must remind ourselves that the new leadership emanates out of the same dominant and fairly narrow nationalist, armed liberation/struggle context. It is one which was, and remains, in overall terms, patriarchal, hierarchical and socially conservative despite the enforced exigencies of more liberal/open transitional compromises. There is no special and/or 'new' departure from the long-running preference for exclusionary politics, predominately experienced along class lines, populist rhetoric and approach of the Zuma faction notwithstanding.

The macro-political framework remains intact, with a renewed 'push' towards the consolidation of a partially reconfigured political power base to ensure a 'friendly' presence in key societal institutions (e.g. the Constitutional Court). Building on (and learning from) previous efforts, there will be a strengthening/expansion of the coercive, intelligence and social control institutions and mechanisms of the state as well as the continuation of a foreign policy focus underpinned by narrow national, class and liberation movement foci and interests. All of these trajectories will, as in the past, be overlaid by the slick use of human rights and leftist rhetoric and posturing.

Attempts to deal with the heightened expectations from poor communities and organised workers will increasingly be centred around a reinforcement of the ‘political’ – mainly through the party form – as the key answer to, and driver of, change. This will necessarily be accompanied by an intensification of political battles  - predominately framed by racial and identity politics and with the various levels of the state as the main vehicle - amongst the new, and sections of the old, elite. 

Consistent with the past fifteen years, the overall impact of this political scenario will only further limit/circumscribe the possibilities for open and meaningful political participation and ideological contestation in broader society. The relative political importance and centrality of key societal issues such as corruption, affirmative action, crime, redress/equity, human rights, diffusion of power and the role of the state (amongst others) will thus increasingly become framed and addressed outside of, and in conflict with, the broader democratic space.

The economic - Like the political, there is not now, nor will there be for the foreseeable future, any major disjuncture from the macro-policy and practice as laid down over the last fifteen years – a status quo ante will prevail. Rather, tactical shifts in infrastructural spending alongside minor redistribution of economic opportunity for the ‘disadvantaged’ and use of productive capital can be expected. There will be an intensification and deepening of state power and its institutional matrix at various levels, as the core driver of economic policy and development. 

Domestically, South Africa will experience a progressively more potent 'brew' of socio-economic discontent and polarisation driven by increasing poverty and inequality (both in terms of access and opportunity along class, gender, ethnic and racial lines) and catalysed by the broader crisis of capitalist economics. Increasingly, the core causes of the socio-economic malaise will be attributed to external factors alongside the recalcitrance of white/unfriendly black elites and independent organisations to endorse a self-constructed  version of transformation.

Internationally, previous efforts to orient economic policy and trade towards the 'third world' (and more specifically to developing powers in the South such as China, India and Brazil) will be expanded. There will also be an initiation and consolidation of economic relationships with oil and mineral rich ‘friends’ such as Angola, the DRC and Sudan. Accompanying this will be increasing degrees of class conflict inside South Africa, centred on relative benefit and opportunity alongside intensified contradictions between the organisational, political and productive relationships of the state, organised labour and private capital.

Further and intensified penetration of regional and continental economies by combined state-private capital (reflective of new, internal power configurations) will occur. This will exacerbate existing economic problems and social/class conflict in 'recipient' countries and thus facilitate further economic migrancy to South Africa. Not only will all of this trump any proto-moves by the South African state to play a leading and/or facilitative role in resolving/policing continental wars and conflicts, it will almost certainly stoke increased xenophobia and social conflict as a result of constructed competition amongst the poor over increasingly scarce resources and economic opportunity.  

The social - The accumulated apartheid-era and transitional legacy of social stratification and dysfunctionality amongst the vast majority, will further intensify. Besides the obvious causalities of poverty and inequality, it will be the more contemporary embrace of ('return' to) conservative and often reactionary social mores/values and approaches to social problems that will be a key driver to 'dealing' with social problems. This will be catalysed by a state approach that shows clear signs of privileging ‘traditional’ cultural and religious influences and beliefs, alongside coercive and manipulative short-cut remedies such as a constructed 'South Africaness'.

As has been the case for the last fifteen years, there is little prospect of any kind of sustained and large scale formal employment creation/opportunity for the millions who reside in perpetual destitution. Thus will there be ever-increasing competition for access to progressively limited state disseminated and controlled social benefits and services  - which will become tools for further social control and influence - as waged labour itself becomes the elusive 'prize' for social inclusion and stability. 'Civil society' will continue to be called upon to ‘play’ its transitional role of apolitical social gap-filler.

Conflict over access to the now well entrenched circuit of social largesse and patronage, at all levels of the state and private sector, will add further fuel to social division. This will be overlaid by rising levels of intra-black class tension, ethnic identification and narrow nationalism along with the rising importance of geopolitical location.

The elite group that earlier this year proffered the ‘Dinokeng scenarios’ for South Africa’s future, opened their account by stating that "South Africa is at a crossroads." Well, the reality is that South Africa was "at a crossroads" fifteen years ago. The very conscious and specific ideological, developmental/policy and institutional choices made at the start of South Africa’s ‘transitional journey’ ensured that the crossroad was breached then and there and that the  Dinokeng, ‘walking apart’ scenario, was translated into reality from the beginning. 

The past fifteen years represent the accumulated inheritances of those choices, the events of the last few weeks, simply the latest manifestations. South Africa’s 'walking apart' scenario has not suddenly transpired since the April elections, nor does it belong to the future. It is an historic and ongoing reality and it is only in honestly exposing and confronting its combined transitional and more contemporary political, economic and social contexts that there can be the possibility of forging a radically different future.

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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hughlaue Verified user
23 Aug

Walking apart

Great analysis Dale. Detailed insight into how this is manifesting in municipalities can be found in a presentation by Prof Peter Franks that was given at the 2009 IMASA conference. Can be downloaded from there. "Civilisation" sounds great but when did it ever exist? Civil rights in USA was post-Elvis, contempory Bob Dylan. That's a very short time ago in the 10000 years or so of modern man.

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