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Class and Jimmy Manyi

It’s, more often than not, a particular sort of person that says that kind of thing. I’m not referring to Jimmy Manyi’s comments about “coloureds” but to his use of the economic phrase “over-supply”.

He could have been discoursing about barrels of oil, or bushels of wheat, or any other commodity but he was talking about a racialised category of human beings. Of course that’s problematic and the outrage is both necessary and urgent.

But, notwithstanding the opprobrium, most commentators seem to have overlooked the reality that the diminishment of people to the status of a commodity, especially in the form of their labour, is so commonplace as to be invisible. As Manyi puts it in that now infamous interview with Freek Robinson: “So you [coloureds but it could just as well be workers] must look into the country and see where you can meet the supply … ”

Apropos his corporate and political credentials, Manyi is a member of a managerial class that regularly speaks about others in a crude fashion — as if the majority were mere utilities in the mechanism of supply and demand.

“Productivity” (meaning the working class’s productivity) is one of the choice idioms of this class. Most speak of it like a holy sacrament. But the concept is inextricably bound with the history of racism; for it was the very notion of the unproductive use of land by the natives, and not just res nullius, that laid the grounds for colonial law and its instrumental prejudices.

Today, the manifestly racist is considered politically incorrect and vulgar but the dehumanising language of profit (and its perennial victims) remains the same. Take this example by way of Neren Rau, chief executive of the SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who recently said: “You get more output in other countries per worker than in South Africa.”

Output? Are we dealing with souped-up engines? Over-supply? Are we describing the merchandise of Tiger Brands Limited — where Manyi once was the group executive of corporate affairs? Ditto the inanimate phraseology of “efficiency”, “rationalisation” etc.

Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin long ago pointed out how workers were forced to sell their body, mind and spirit so that:

“[The] employer will be the owner of his [the workers] actions and movements. When he is told: ‘Do this’, the worker is obligated to do it; or he is told: ‘Go there’, he must go. Is this not what is called a serf?”

Manyi’s comments recall not just a Verwoerdian-type of racism but reveal the still contemporary nature of a class-based condescension.