Marius Oosthuizen
Marius Oosthuizen

Are South Africans really all capitalists at heart?

The South African news cycle often is awash with nationalist rhetoric from the emerging and vocal opposition, raging against the African National Congress. These quasi-socialists hold out an image of an economically liberated Southern Africa, a picture of Mzansi at peace on the land – their land.

The capitalists too have a vision for South Africa, so do the co-opted communists and more recently the communitarians. While the real economy stagnates, and the political establishment fractures, we may ask: with all this vision for our future why aren’t we moving forward?

The reason is that we suffer from an oversupply of competing visions, none of which are honest. We pretend to be egalitarian and democratic but upon reflection it is evident that South Africans are really all capitalists at heart. In our pretence we hold competing visions that all seek to recreate the Rainbow Nation in a capitalist image of our future rich selves.

It is the reason that the succession debate around the president hinges increasingly on a unionist-cum-billionaire with, until recently, interests in Lonmin and McDonalds. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is, as it were, the glamorous embodiment of the personal hopes and aspirations of the majority of South Africans.

The capitalist vision
This vision is perhaps the easiest to describe. The capitalists see a future South Africa buzzing with industrial activity. They see highways and roads clogged up with cars, motorcycles and trucks carting goods to and fro, between factories, office buildings and tile-roofed homes.

In this vision South Africans enjoy their sunny summer, watching their favorite sports team win on their flatscreen TV, while sipping an alcoholic beverage of some or other so-called aspirational brand. To achieve this vision, the capitalists argue, we need security of property rights, policy stability and the consequent investment by government and business to unlock growth, create jobs and increase the public purse on the back of fattening each of our own.

As for addressing inequality and historic injustice, the capitalists outsource this duty to the state, faithfully paying the minimum tax in the belief that the poor will one day, through education and good luck, join their consumerist utopia.

The socialist vision
This vision of South Africa begins with the sound of protest and ends with South Africans working in our worker-owned factories, where middle managers from the factory floor preside over the profit sharing of their co-operatively owned enterprises.

In the background the state looms large, having nationalised the key industries and the banks, dictating the terms within which private interests should employ their energies for the collective good. We all have adopted the ideological mantra of socialism in this vision, seeing the country somehow mysteriously veer towards equality.

The excitement over the prospect of a better life inspires greater productivity by workers who now have a shared interest in the profitability of their “employer”. It’s a vision of Ubuntu economics, apparently.

The communitarian vision
Emerging from the conservative faith-communities is increasingly a vision of a kumbaya society where the goodwill of ordinary people leads them to significantly alter the prospects of the neighbours through largesse and generosity.

In this vision, quality private schools are splattered with previously disadvantaged black children being driven around in the luxury of air-conditioned SUVs belonging to their semi-adoptive parents. Townships and squatter camps either shrink in this vision, as the poor are allowed to migrate into the affluent suburbs, or are transformed as shack after shack is replaced by small but dignified brick buildings with metal roofing.

This vision does not rely as much on industry based job growth as it does on familial neighbourliness, especially between previously separated communities.

The nationalist vision
The most recent to emerge, and seemingly most virile vision for South Africa, is that of the nationalists. Spurred on by the adrenaline of a resurgent Black Consciousness narrative, albeit without the former intellectualism and humanist hue of Biko, this new nationalism impatiently wants wealth and dominance.

In this vision for South Africa, the demeaning and cumbersome existence of low paid informal labour undergoes a change in its racial demographic composition. Whites become domestic workers and gardeners, while blacks become managers and CEOs. In this vision the American dream of a three-bedroom house, a family sedan and a picket fence is imported and takes on a uniquely South African bent.

Visiting Ikasi, for instance, is in this vision not so much an opportunity to only show off one’s new car, but rather to compete with the grotesque opulence of one’s fellow Black Diamonds. It is highly likely that in this vision the South African National Defense Force makes a comeback as youths are bamboozled into military service under the guise of learning how to be good nationalists – cadets of the revolution.

In the end, paradoxically, all of these visions lead to a South Africa where a consumerist nation binges on their material affluence as they bask in the glory of modernisation. The current elitist battle, if we are honest, is not for equality, but for luxury.

What was Madiba’s vision?
When Nelson Mandela fathered the New South Africa, he spoke of the need for restitution and supported the project of transformation. He argued for not only a “reconstruction and development program”, or RDP as it was popularly known, but he lamented the need for the “RDP of the heart”.

What Madiba dreamed of was that South Africans have compassion and take responsibility for one another in a shared project of social reformation. Perhaps Madiba was naive? Perhaps our benevolent chief was bewitched by his handlers at the International Monetary Fund as some believe? After all, he did secure an IMF loan in 1993, having abandoned his own proposals for nationalisation and opted for a largely free market system instead. What did he learn that made him change his mind?

So, while we quip and clamor about minimum wages and democratic dividends, it behooves us as South Africans, especially at this time of giving and family, to ask ourselves; what is the vision we have for South Africa?

If one of equality and mutual-benefit, if one of dignity and progress, if one of neighborliness and healing, we may need to temper our appetites and expectations. We may need to develop a vision that does not see our neighbours as competing for a place in the sun but consider how our diverse communities can complement our shared growth agenda.

In the end, South Africa will have a future and it will be forged in the fire of our competing interests, unless we can articulate a national interest within which we all somehow benefit fairly.

Marius Oosthuizen is a member of faculty at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, University of Pretoria, South Africa. He teaches leadership, strategy and ethics. He oversees the Future of Business in SA project that uses strategic foresight and scenarioplanning to explore the future of South Africa, Africa and Brics

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