South Africa’s Corporatised Liberation

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A recent World Bank report, published in March 2018, showed South Africa to be the most unequal society on earth. Seventy five percent of the country’s aggregate wealth is held by the richest tenth of the population, while the poorest half hold a mere 2.5 percent. These 30 million people, in fact, have a total wealth equivalent to the two richest South Africans. The report points out, rightly, that much of this inequality is the responsibility of the racist apartheid regime that ruled South Africa from 1948 to 1994. This privileged the minority white population at the expense of the non-white majority and forced people to live, learn and work apart, in areas determined by their ethnicity.

This is not a view disputed by Dale T McKinley in this book. However, he goes on to make two further points. The first is that the African National Congress (ANC), which has ruled South Africa since the first free elections in 1994, could have done more to reduce this inequality. The second is that the failure of the ANC in this regard, in alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party, is not solely due to the legacy of apartheid. Instead it is in large part down to the decision of successive ANC governments to support South African capitalism and, particularly, to embrace neoliberalism in recent years.

For McKinley, this is not a recent conversion. As early as 1985, leading business figures had sought talks with the ANC leadership in exile. Seeing that the days of the existing order were numbered, they wanted to press their view that “we dare not allow the baby of free enterprise to be thrown out with the bathwater of apartheid”. Their audience were generally open to the message then and became more open to it as they assumed control.

The story of South Africa since 1994 has been one of regime figures enriching themselves at the expense of those who propelled them to power. For example, current president Cyril Ramaphosa is said to be worth an obscene $450 million. Ramaphosa was a director of the Lonmin mining company in 2012 and had called for “concomitant action” against striking miners in August of that year, just before they were attacked by police at Marikana, leaving 34 dead and dozens injured.

This book has a wealth of information about the journey of the ANC from freedom fighters to guardians of capital. The author is very careful to explain this in terms of ideology and priorities, rather than as a tale of individual greed and weakness. Having said that, the final section is a little short on alternatives, offering instead a few vague formulations for a “new” politics of the left. This is a minor criticism, however, of what is a very well researched and composed study of a liberation that still has some way to go.