Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

Self-serving black leaders: why the masses are “forgotten”

By Sebenzile Nkosi

Africans have fought long and hard for independence from colonial rule. Leaders of the struggle have been hailed for their self-sacrifice, many of whom have been prepared to pay the ultimate price of death at the hands of their colonisers and allies, for the course. A large part of this struggle, not very separate from race politics, has been concerned with economic liberation of black people in the continent. Many of us admire the struggle heroes for their ultimate sacrifices, courage, and bravery. But why don’t previously oppressed groups come to experience this economic liberation once liberation movements get into positions of power?

The admirable work of sociologist Antonio Gramsci offers some explanation towards this complex issue. In his book Prison notebooks, Gramsci describes a form of power called hegemony: the domination of one group over another through ideologically deceiving another group into believing that such domination is natural and/or beneficial to all. Gramsci says that such power can only be challenged through a counter-hegemony – a practice by which the oppressed group challenges and dismantles the status quo. A cadre of intellectuals within the oppressed group, so as to hold the group’s interests, is instrumental in producing counter hegemony as they conscientize the group against the status quo.

To use South Africa as a case study, the struggle for political and economic liberation from white minority rule has not been without its cadre of intellectual leaders. Indeed, late former president Mandela, probably the loudest sung hero, was a practicing lawyer, knowledgeable of the law, and as such could challenge it and conscientize his black comrades to the unfairness of those oppressive systems and introduce the possibility of change. Perhaps it is easy to remain connected to a struggle on racial oppression – for the most part, racial struggles can be demarcated because black people stay black and white people stay white, particularly since race is often reduced to skin colour.

The economic struggle however, highly linked to race in the global arena, is less demarcated. In his critique about hegemonic masculinity (a concept drawn from Gramsci’s hegemony but expanded by sociologist Raewyn Connell to explain gendered power), Demetrakis Demetriou argued that proponents of hegemonic masculinity are very strategic (indeed giving the impression that there are hegemonic soldiers standing guard with binoculars ready to hurry off to save hegemonic power from falling). Part of the strategy, he argues, is that hegemonic power is shared, some people get a huge piece of the pie and those who contest it are offered a small piece to keep them quiet. Because power is attractive and hegemony is not easily to dismantle, those offered the pie tend to take the piece and keep quiet.

It could therefore be argued that once previously oppressed people get into powerful positions that stand to distribute wealth, the wealthy can offer them a sizeable piece of the pie to keep them from challenging the inequalities. This notion is clearly illustrated by South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa’s pre- and post-democracy positions regarding wealth distribution. In Rehad Desai’s documentary “Miners shot down” a clip is shown where Cyril Ramaphosa says “There is no such thing as a liberal bourgeoisie…” and years later – when he himself is wealthy and being implicated in ordering the killing of mineworkers (then on a wage strike at a mining company at which he is a shareholder) – he says “when you get into the system, you become part of the system”. Indeed, the quotes demonstrate that his economic position as a wealthy shareholder of a mine compromised his liberal politics regarding wealth distribution.

I believe there is yet another dimension to this camaraderie among those who have had economic power and those who have ‘risen up’ to obtain it. The capitalist system, our modus operandi in global trade, is what jeopardises any real effort to equality, irrespective of whether black people hold positions of leadership. The capitalist hegemony requires economic superiority of one group over another: one group should own the means of production and another should provide cheap labour. In contexts where one race is positioned as superior to another, this is easy to do because the superior race simply gets the means of production while the race deemed inferior provides the cheap labour. But what happens when leaders within the previously oppressed race rise to the ranks where means of production also become available to them?

The noble comrade would ensure that means of production are made available to all and that all members of the oppressed race are uplifted from their long struggle with poverty. In reality, however, the means of production are still retained for a minority. Black people in South Africa have and many continue to be at the lowest end of the hierarchy of power. For black people to have and exercise power within a capitalist system, they can only oppress fellow black people since, being historically at the lowest end of the class hierarchy, there is no other group available to be the contrast of lack of power. The black race, without means of production, is the only group that can serve as gratification and demonstration of success among black capitalists.

Sebenzile Nkosi is a social scientist at the South African Medical Research Council. She holds an MA degree in Research Psychology from the University of the Witwatersrand. She is studying towards a PhD with University of South Africa (UNISA). Her research interests are men and masculinities, violence, and mental health including substance use.

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