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OF SPECTRES, AND HARANGUES: "A spectre is haunting South Africa. A statement by Thabo Mbeki, late last year, catches the tone ``South Africa could have race riots in three to five years time if the living standard of black people had not improved. He warned whites that they would have to make sacrifices and asked them to emulate the response of the Chinese in Malaysia, who had voluntarily agreed to a distribution of their wealth.''Furthermore, ``business leaders should subordinate their commercial interests to the necessity to give black people a share in the economy.'' Change is not a threat, Mbeki stated; rather, ``too little change is a threat''! ... Such statements are double-edged, of course, and potentially ambiguous in their implications..." (jbv)

vol 13 no 2

Editorial and contents for Vol 13 No 2
the SAR editorial collective


Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 13 No 2, March 1998
Page 1
"Editorial"

EDITORIAL:
OF SPECTRES, AND HARANGUES

A spectre is haunting South Africa. A statement by Thabo Mbeki, late last year, catches the tone (from his interview with Die Burger , as paraphrased by Southscan , November 7, 1997): "South Africa could have race riots in three to five years time if the living standard of black people had not improved. He warned whites that they would have to make sacrifices and asked them to emulate the response of the Chinese in Malaysia, who had voluntarily agreed to a distribution of their wealth." Furthermore, "business leaders should subordinate their commercial interests to the necessity to give black people a share in the economy." Change is not a threat, Mbeki stated; rather, "too little change is a threat"!

Such statements are double-edged, of course, and potentially ambiguous in their implications. On the one hand, some critics have seen Mbeki as, first and foremost, seeking through them to further facilitate the advance of African entrepreneurs into the circles of capitalist privilege, a modest Africanization of the established economic system, as it were, in the interests of a small but relatively powerful stratum of the emergent black elite. On the other hand, one cannot doubt that Mbeki and others are aware of larger circles of discontent in the society and of the vast numbers of people whose aspirations for socio-economic change in the wake of apartheid have been far more cruelly thwarted than have those of any aspirant black bourgeoisie. Indeed, Southscan takes Mbeki's warning to be "the most direct indication to date of the fears which now prevail in government at the low levels of growth and consequent job creation and the social instability this may foster."

True - a point we return to below - one can doubt whether the ANC's adoption of a broadly neo-liberal economic strategy can really be expected to ameliorate, rather than exacerbate, such problems. Nonetheless, it need come as no surprise that fear of similar spectres (alongside similar ambiguities about the appropriate response to them) were evoked by Nelson Mandela in his five-hour opening address to the ANC's recent 50th National Conference. This important conference is analyzed in depth in three articles at the heart of this issue of SAR. In particular, the opening address itself - at once valedictory and a sign-post to the ANC's post-Mandela future - is front and centre in each of these articles. We will therefore not attempt to summarize the speech here. Suffice to say that, as regards both this speech and their broader assessment of the conference, our author's perspectives differ widely, albeit in ways that we hope readers will find to be instructive.

Thus, Tom Lodge concludes his careful analysis of the events of the conference by noting, positively, its essentially unifying thrust and outcome. In contrast, Oupa Lehulere and Dale McKinley are far more critical in their shared concern (although from different points on the political compass) that socio-economic inequality was merely "handled," even stage-managed, as an issue at the conference, rather than dealt with in any serious way. In making this case, the latter both cite the relative ease with which GEAR, the ANC's neo-liberal economic strategy, was granted safe passage through the conference, somewhat in defiance of prior expectations as to what might transpire at Mafikeng. What none of the three authors (including Lodge) would claim, however, is that anything very radical in socio-economic terms occurred there.

You wouldn't know this from some of the coverage of the conference generated elsewhere, however. Lodge cites, rather incredulously, the Independent's description of Mandela's speech as being "antiquated Marxist gibberish." Closer to home we find our very own (Toronto) Globe and Mail editorializing haughtily against "Mr. Mandela's harangue" (December 19, 1997). Noting that "the South African economy, the strongest in Africa, is owned and operated by whites" the Globe slates Mandela for "accusing (the white elite) of clinging to their privilege and conspiring to deny other races their rightful share of prosperity": "His remarks will only encourage those among the new generation of South African leaders who believe that white privilege is the country's main problem and that confiscation and retribution are the solution." "Pure foolishness," harrumph the editors.

Rick Salutin, the Globe's admirable house-radical columnist made one essential point about his paper's approach. As part of a critique of the Globe's more general "tendency to judge all good things from the standpoint of the rich" ("Of winners, losers and a not so merry Calvinist Christmas," December 26, 1997) Salutin reiterates the paper's reminder to Mandela that his economy is "owned and operated by whites." Salutin's response: " Operated ? The mines? The farms? Earth to Globe editorial board"!

There's not even the most minimal sense of history in the Globe's formulation, of course. If political inequalities founded on racial authoritarianism weren't legitimate, why are socio-economic inequalities - arguably the starkest in the world - that were created by that same racial-capitalist order any more so, or any less worthy of redress? Perhaps, behind all this, lies the Globe editorialists' utopian faith - no surprise to faithful readers - in the benign workings of the market as offering some kind of solution to the inequality question. Or perhaps, as Salutin implies, they just don't care: them as has, keeps. At best, one fears, there is a certain (intentional?) naivete as to just how deep seated and structural South Africa's socio-economic inequalities really are. True, "retribution" is not a particularly promising policy option for South Africa. "Redistribution" surely is.

South Africa's political leadership can't afford to be quite so smug as is the Globe and Mail : they can feel the hot breath of reality - those various spectres: race war? class war? or, as sometimes happens when vast inequalities go unredressed, further social disintegration? - breathing down their necks. And yet several of our authors seem to fear that (as hinted above) the ANC's own faith in the magic of the market may be just about as utopian as is that of the Globe's editorial writers. Whites to make sacrifices to help overcome the deep inequalities in South African society? But what meaning can that possibly have within the framework of a macro-economic policy choice - hands-off neo-liberalism - that is already producing, and at a fearsome pace, further inequalities along both class and racial lines.

Perhaps we're merely giving aid and comfort to the Globe editorialists by allowing our authors to so argue about the "benign" intentions (at least from what we take to be the editorialists' point of view) of the ANC. Cool it, fellas. God's in his counting-house, along with you and the ANC leadership, and all's right with the world. Moreover, the degree of unity of purpose manifested (Lodge) and/or schemed for (Lehulere, McKinley) at the ANC national conference might just hold.

But then again - and here compare recent events in Zimbabwe, the riots and other protests chronicled in this issue by Iden Wetherell and Patrick Bond - it might not. And that would be something for the Globe and Mail really to worry about.

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Southern Africa Report
Contents - Vol 13 No 2
"The ANC's 50th Conference: What Power to the People?"

Editorial: Of Spectres and Harangues - 1

The ANC's 50th Conference: A House of Many Mansions - 3
by Tom Lodge

The ANC's 50th Conference: Power to Whom? - 10
by Dale T McKinley

The ANC's 50th Conference: Exiles and Homecomings - 12
by Oupa Lehulere

Mugabe under Siege: Ending the Plunder? - 16
by Iden Wetherell

Mugabe under Siege: Behind the Protests - 19
by Patrick Bond

Mozambique: Soldiers of Misfortune - 22
by Carol Thompson

The Big Bungle: Teacher Re-deployment in South Africa - 26
by David Chudnovsky

Wit's Going On? Re-visiting the Makgoba Affair - 30
by Eddie Webster

Printable Version

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