As an analysis of our society race is still, to borrow a phrase from the mafia, the “boss of all bosses”. It’s a prefix, a subtext and for not an insignificant number — a totem pole.
But there’s another heavy hitter — a rival explanation — that maintains that class increasingly matters. Most do not yet think in this way, but it is the poor that will eventually constitute the effective post-apartheid opposition.
This does not mean race will not matter in the future; it will just not be the dominant schism. To be sure, primordial racists and the odd cry wolf will occasionally hijack the headlines, but overt racism is now both discredited and marginalised. We are — though we seldom pause to think of it — less racially estranged than ever before.
To be clear: racism exists; race doesn’t.
In a biological sense there is no such thing as a black or white, let alone “mixed race” person. A mere hundred thousand years old, we are a small species with greater individual differences than group variation. Indeed, we share 99.99% of our genetic material with (that “six degrees of separation” meme) Kevin Bacon and his once dark-skinned African ancestors. Race will only stop being codswallop until some madcap laboratory either succeeds in resurrecting the ancient Neanderthals, or in speciating post-humans.
Racism, however, reproduces “race” as part of a strategy of conquest and domination. Hence the origin of our race problem — white supremacy — stands cheek by jowl with both European colonialism and imperialism. And between that unholy alliance and the history of actually existing capitalism you couldn’t wedge a sheet of paper.
A ruling class often deems those lowest in rank inherently inferior. A so-called “underclass” might internalise that prejudice and spawn its own hatreds and resentments. Competition and scarcity with an equal two-parts hierarchy and inequality is — xenophobia a case in point — a toxic brew.
Already, as long ago as 1990, a couple of joy-killing British Marxists warned that the ANC was leading the anti-apartheid struggle “towards the dead end of a cleaned-up South African capitalism”. With hindsight we can see how the creation of a “black” capitalist class has done next to nothing for the poor majority. While the black share of the top-earnings decile has dramatically increased, so have disparities widened between blacks.
What sticks in the crop is that black economic empowerment has been disguised, as Moeletsi Mbeki well points out, to look like “reparations to black people in general”. Finance and mining companies, in the hope that a bought-off bourgeoisie would be an insurance against radical change, were the first to conceive of this strategy. It’s a swindle that has lined the immodest pockets of politicians unable to tell the difference between their business interests and their day jobs.
The shack-dwellers and the wretched are not stupid: they feel their low status; they know they live at the wrong end of the Gini coefficient. Such inequality — a source of chronic stress — gets right under the skin.
The incubus of race and tribalism will certainly seduce some, but eventually the ill-termed “service-delivery protests” will give rise to an unambiguous class-based politics. It promises to overtake our history and reorganise society along different fault lines. Already in a 2011 survey, conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, income inequality was “the most frequent response to the question of the ‘biggest division’ in South Africa”. After political party membership, racial identity placed third.
It may seem paradoxical, but progress often resides in moving from one problem to another, more fundamental one.