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Southern Africa Report Archive

Mzwanele Mayekiso, the international representative of South Africa National Civic Organisation, provides a trenchant criticism of current attempts to rewrite South Africa's recent history in the interests of a conservative perspective on the present. (jbv)

vol 10 no 3

Bell curve, South Africa style: Re-writing the civics movement
Mzwanele Mayekiso

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 10, No 3, March 1995
Page 29



Mzwanele Mayekiso is the international representative of South Africa National Civic Organisation and a master's student in urban and community planning at New York's Pratt Institute.

In the United States, where I am completing my master's degree in urban and community planning, there is a new intellectual fad on the far-right, which explains the poverty and despair of African-Americans in terms of genetically-determined ignorance. A variety of social ills - including having children out of wedlock - are blamed largely on the IQ of blacks, which is alleged to be fifteen points lower than that of whites. Following this logic, House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and author Charles Murray want to end welfare benefits for teen mothers because they believe that the measly $388 average monthly benefit acts as an incentive to have more children (they would also remove black children from unwed mothers and place them in government orphanages). Murray and Hernstein's notorious "Bell Curve" is a farce of a book, for reasons that have been spelled out in great detail elsewhere. But I think North American solidarity activists - especially intellectuals - must be aware that blaming the victim is becoming fashionable in South Africa too, and that it may have important social consequences.

In this article - which is expanded upon in my forthcoming Monthly Review Press book "Civic Struggles for a New South Africa" - I review the methods and ideology of some leading outside researchers of the civic (township community group) movement. The reason to focus on this is that much of the confusion that we face in the civic movement reflects our confusing times, and in particular the departure of many of our best comrades into government (for example, our first two presidents of the SA National Civic Organisation, Moses Mayekiso and Lechesa Tsenoli, have joined the ANC in parliament, which was a great loss of our movement's leadership). But this time of confusion will pass, and our grassroots forces are always regrouping, and always ready to campaign on pressing bread-and-butter issues. (At the recent ANC conference in Bloemfontein, it was remarked that civics have fared much better in keeping local structures intact than ANC branches.)

What is perhaps more dangerous to consider is the less-confused political move afoot by a group of corporate-oriented researchers who are extremely hostile to the civic movement. Their arguments blame South African township victims, in much the same way Gingrich, Murray and the Republican Party are doing to residents of US ghettos. The researchers develop theories about cultural conditions in traditionally-oppressed communities that distract attention from structural economic problems. They feed the bourgeois media with vague ideas which heighten middle-class journalists' intrinsic suspicion of black community power. All of this poisons debate even within the ANC-led Alliance, concerning issues such as continuing rent boycotts (for economic reasons), or internecine struggles within the progressive camp over the shape of local democracy in many locales, or the ability of civics to contribute to the Reconstruction and Development Programme.

A `culture of poverty'?

But the research also has a larger purpose. As I have watched it develop over the last few years, it seems that the new social analysis is aimed at shoehorning the civic movement into thinking about the overall problems facing black society in South Africa in a way that lowers our expectations. This is known as the "culture of poverty" analysis, and has been applied by, among others, the leading white political theorist Lawrence Schlemmer of the Urban Foundation ("UF," now being merged into the Consultative Business Movement), researchers of Nedcor/Old Mutual (the largest financial institution in SA), and some conservative technocrats involved, unsuccessfully, in grassroots development.

The central issue is, as might be expected, one of class: those writers who suffer from what I call a "culture of privilege" appeared willing to do anything in their power - even floating reactionary and untenable ideas to the civic movement - to maintain their own wealth, assure the continuation of an extremely exploitative form of capitalism in South Africa, and lower the political willpower of the civic movement to gain our socio-economic objectives.

Schlemmer, whose work on townships stems from a biased reading of the US experience, admits in a 1992 UF paper that "until recently the idea of a culture of poverty was thought to be outdated. But it is now being revisited, especially since other ideas didn't adequately explain barriers to development within poor communities." Schlemmer believes that "People who are very poor also often have unrealistic expectations about the future. This is usually a way of escaping from reality." He goes on to distinguish "social action" (also called the politics of protest) from "community-based development" (politics of development). Schlemmer's analysis has already been attacked from the grassroots (in this case by a Civic Associations of Johannesburg comrade at a 1992 UF seminar):
Lawrie spoke about the sense of futility and frustration that are supposed to result from social action and protest. I don't think this is really the case in South Africa. Many people feel that the changes of the past two years have come about because of these pressures. They feel they have achieved something through mass mobilisation.

What about a culture of corruption?

Such criticism can be advanced even further, beyond what the civic movement has achieved in the past through a politics of protest. My point is that Schlemmer's distinction between social action and community-based development is a false dichotomy, because protest is inseparable from development. After all, the civic movement is - even after formal political liberation in 1994 - still dealing with intransigent (mainly white) bureaucrats steeped in the culture of privilege, many of whom have shown themselves to be

* profoundly corrupt (the Department of Development Aid wasted hundreds of millions of rands, much of which was linked to fraudulent schemes of individual bureaucrats),

* linked to the security establishment (typical was the role of the Development Bank of Southern Africa in the reconstituted Joint Management Committee in Alexandra township which threatened activists' lives as late as 1990; later, agents from the National Intelligence System began monitoring "foreigners" in the civic movement in 1994, especially in central Johannesburg, which was these deluded agents' self-proclaimed role in the Reconstruction and Development Programme),

* extremely supportive of the most undemocratic forces in SA (again, the Development Bank placed billions of rands in the hands of Black Local Authorities and homeland dictators),

* utterly incompetent in carrying out their own development policies (two examples include the Urban Foundation, whose development subsidiaries lost R11 million on a turnover of R17 million in 1991 in part due to ill-advised land speculation; and the Independent Development Trust and UF, which tried to pump billions into township credit and loan guarantee schemes and by all accounts failed miserably),

* niggardly and miserly in their visions of development (again, consider the undemocratic, non-participatory IDT/Urban Foundation "housing policy" which in reality was a site-and-service "toilet policy" offering R7,500 grants in a developer-driven process), and

* trickle-down, free-market oriented in their socio-economic philosophy.

These are characteristics of the establishment development agencies which civic activists still confront daily. Even with the advent of democratic government, protest remains an essential part of the development process, in view of the uncooperative role of bureaucrats.

Protest, however, is unfashionable among liberal capitalists aiming for "social contracts." The most sophisticated intellectual approach to the civic movement (and the oppressed community in general) was that of Nedcor and Old Mutual, who mastered the art of the "compact."

Still blaming the poor

A fairly well-balanced group of researchers, led by the charismatic Bob Tucker (then Perm managing director), developed "Scenario Planning" as a means of probing future "prospects for successful transition." The exercise was guided by Pierre Wack of Shell Oil. Among the researchers, Maude Motanyane, Mamphela Ramphele and Sheila Sisulu supported the Scenario Planning exercise by "analyzing changes taking place in the black community." In doing so they considered the analysis generated by consultant Bruce Scott (a Harvard business professor) "a useful framework for understanding the dynamics of `underclass' development in a process of desegregation." What did they learn?

Perhaps most importantly, they discovered an "underclass," a "community of the careless," a "dreadful society" in which "undesirable behavioral traits . . . cease to be viewed as `deviant' and instead become the norm." They dwelled upon the often-cited problem of the "culture of boycott" which allegedly emerged in politicized townships. They observed that mistrust, suspicion and economic deprivation remain entrenched in townships. And they concluded that this so-called "collective victimisation" was leading to "dependency" and a "culture of entitlement," and, moreover, that this "culture" was inimicable to democracy in the new South Africa:
Inferiority complex formation results from constant degradation. This leads to mediocrity, aggressive denial, and intolerance of criticism. In the late 1960s, the Black Consciousness Movement recognized the formation of an inferiority complex among blacks as one of the greatest constraints to their becoming active agents of history. The sense of victimization and its use to justify a lack of self-accountability and a culture of entitlement pose serious problems for the future. It may become difficult to wean people from the negative attitudes and behaviour patterns flowing from such a culture.

The argument carries fundamental flaws. To compare black political thought in the 1960s with conditions forged by progressive organising and demands of the 1980s and 1990s is silly. Township organising in the 1980s did not make even a bit-part appearance in the Nedcor/Old Mutual analysis of black "survival strategies," unfortunately, nor for that matter was it included anywhere in the Scenario Planning exercise. Except: "The power struggle conducted between the government and its security forces on the one hand and the black community on the other during the 1970s and 1980s eroded the relationships, institutions, standards, and discipline on which any successful community depends." The opposite is truer: struggle strengthened not only our survival strategies but also our vision of a future society free of apartheid and socio-economic despair.

Restore perspective on civics

No doubt, township activists were out to destroy the apartheid system, and went to great lengths to do so, many thousands losing their lives, but not because of an "inferiority complex." It was because they felt legitimately entitled to a democratic political system, and in particular political empowerment of the oppressed, redistribution of South Africa's wealth and restructuring of the economy in the interests of poor and working people.

Nedcor and Old Mutual are, it seems, satisfied with a democratic political system only if it specifically does not lead to political empowerment of the oppressed, redistribution of wealth and restructuring of the economy in the interests of poor and working people - this led their analysts to construct a method for dealing with political demands which treats them as cultural weaknesses.

In contrast, the civic movement argument is that a democratic government must be responsible for subsidising the living standards of people so that they have at least the basic needs goods that are essential for a decent life: housing, education and child care, health-care, basic household goods, electrification, clean water, sewage services, essential clothing, etc. This is a well-developed notion in many advanced capitalist societies (and practised in Scandinavia without too many inferiority complexes forming).

What is crucial is that demands for these entitlements - and the political movement to support the demand - emerged not from weak township consciousness and organisation, but rather, in the mid 1950s (when the Freedom Charter was drawn up) from very militant anti-apartheid forces, and from even stronger township civic forces in the 1980s.

So no one should be surprised when Nedcor/Old Mutual and their hired hands characterise those of us demanding minimal decent standards of living as having inferiority complexes and a sense of victimisation, as highly dependent, and as unable to develop a culture of democracy.

More mistaken arguments

Finally, consider the use of "culture of poverty" analysis as a means of explaining why establishment development plans go sour and establishment agency philosophies are rejected. Many development plans went sour in the interregnum, and are still not working out even under the rubric of the RDP. Someone had to be blamed, and when establishment agencies could not legitimately blame the community itself (for this would make it difficult to rationalise continuing with development work at all), those such as the Independent Development Trust and Urban Foundation easily cast blame upon the civics. For example, Shalto Cross, coordinator of rural development for the IDT, set out this argument in a 1992 African Studies Seminar Paper at Oxford University:
The language of development, and much of the limelight, is currently dominated by civic and service organisations which are in the process of transforming themselves from organisations of struggle, into vehicles for the delivery of development. This is a rich area for study, and the wide bounds between the most ruthlessly tribunite and cynically populist of these, and those with less selfish and more genuine commitments to the arduous process of social reconstruction and self-reliance, will provide a broad field for the next generation of social historians.

Who are the ruthless and cynical? Cross believes
the most obvious proponents and standard bearers of civil society, namely many of the civic and service organisations which now offer their services as development intermediaries, acting on behalf of the rural poor, may provide more an obstacle than a help. This essentially arises precisely because of their predominant concern with the political, which . . . leads directly to an understatement and misinterpretation of those more hidden forms of social organisation, as represented by social and religious movements, which can most ably perform these functions.

The "culture of poverty" ideology is important to his explanation. Cross approvingly cites Adam Ferguson's 1767 Essay on the History of Civil Society: "The great object of policy . . . is to secure to the family its means of subsistence and settlement; to protect the industrious in the pursuit of his occupation; to reconcile the restrictions of police, and the social affection of mankind, with their separate and interested pursuit."

They keep piling it on

Now it all becomes clear: Cross seeks not a vibrant civil society able to defend poor and working-class people's interests through ongoing struggle, but rather an explicitly civilised society with "a common sense of nationality, and internalised sense of civic order . . . " such as new religious movements, all within the broader "developmental" context, of course, of "a shift towards manufacturing industry combined with a breakthrough into major new export markets."

A similar position with respect to the supposed gatekeeper role of civics and service organisations was adopted by Bruce Boaden and Rob Taylor of the Urban Foundation. Boaden and Taylor denigrate the Community Committee (an allegedly "elite group") of St. Wendolin's, between Pinetown and Durban:
The manipulation of the community by its leadership became problematic, as evidenced by the inability of those most in need of housing to gain access to even the most rudimentary of formal houses. Acquisition of sites on a site-and-service basis for the erection of informal housing was discredited by the leadership. The presence of a development agency made it possible to gain credibility for the leadership in terms of attracting resources. The fact that those resources were not used appropriately was not considered to be the fault of the leadership.

We are asked to believe, from the representatives of big capital, that a large community is "manipulated" by its civic (one well-structured with eight functioning area committees and countless street committees) and by (democratically-elected) civic leadership, who in turn are misled by the development agency, a university-based service organisation. (In reality, the organisation, Built Environment Support Group, has a well-respected working methodology characterised by community capacity-building.) Boaden and Taylor complain that St. Wendolin's was "over-serviced and over-surveyed" by this "interventionist agency" with its "own agenda."

In reality, the civic leadership's opinion was that the UF was aiming to build middle-class housing. This opinion was based on extensive experience with the UF throughout the Durban area. (My source is civic leader Musa Soni, whom I worked with in Johannesburg at Planact.)

Boaden and Taylor did not reveal in their article that the UF attempted, unsuccessfully, to acquire St. Wendolin's land from the Catholic Church, which formally owned it on behalf of the community. Nor did they reveal that there was no UF consultation on the housing process. The site-and-service scheme was rejected because the plan did not fulfil community expectations of decent standards. (This was in 1988, and it is no surprise that after hundreds of efforts by establishment agencies to make the horrid site-and-service philosophy work, in July 1992 the SA National Civic Organisation adopted an official policy position calling for a moratorium on IDT and UF site-and-service schemes.) Community members were so opposed to the UF that they occupied the St. Wendolin's Development Centre (a UF Informal Settlement Division workshop), leading to the centre's shut-down.

Rather than admit their own failings, Boaden and Turner explain - consistent with "culture of poverty" analysis - that St. Wendolin's was the victim of "a sense of helplessness born of years of dependency fostered by the political system," complicated by "a dependence on the church as the purveyor of goods and services' which "created an atmosphere of expectation in relation to the further development of the area," such as "the expectation of subsidy which would deliver large numbers of sites and formal houses at virtually no cost to the end-user."

While it is interesting to note the difference between these authors and Cross in terms of their respect for religion, the community itself disproved the Boaden and Taylor "helplessness theory" by constructing their own school at St. Wendolin's. So while "culture of poverty" analysis may appear tempting as a means of shifting blame for development gone sour, in this case the analysts protest a bit too vigorously - apparently because the community was not dependent enough . . . on the UF.

Ideas do matter

I have focused in this article on ideology, because it seems sometimes as if it is becoming something of a material force in undermining the civic agenda, and with it, true socio-economic liberation in South Africa. I have often defended our own civic ideology of "ungovernability" as being important to the way we have waged our anti-apartheid struggle. We always took a page from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, who said
The analysis of these propositions tends, I think, to reinforce the conception of "historical bloc" in which precisely material forces are the content and ideologies are the form, though this distinction between form and content has purely indicative value, since the material forces would be inconceivable historically without form and the ideologies would be individual fancies without the material forces.

For solidarity activists and readers of Southern Africa Report, many of whom also are involved in defending gains made in civil rights and national struggles in the West, what we are seeing is an extension of the problems of corporate globalization - the material forces - which I described in my last article ( SAR, December 1994). The ideological form is clearly a global phenomenon (as reflected in the intensified attack on people of colour and the poor in the United States), and is aimed at weakening our instinct for liberation and for social justice. It is the intellectual icing on the neo-liberal cake, which encourages the bourgeoisie to become fat and sassy, with fewer and fewer crumbs for the rest of us. It is incumbent upon all of us to fight such reactionary analysis, from wherever it emanates.

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