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A lesson on equality for the US from post-apartheid South Africa

There has been a certain irony in watching the anti-racism protests in the United States from far away South Africa. In 1986, the US Congress enacted the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which led to sanctions being imposed on South Africa for the racist policies that the National Party was guilty of creating and enforcing. Looking at the situation in the years shortly after the 1994 elections, it was as if the good guys in the US government climbed on board to help achieve justice and stop the bad guys of the then South African government. Today, the US government and many of its henchmen are faced with angry masses of civilians who, it seems, now see through the veneer of benevolence that their government has for many decades tried to foreground.    

One would think that South Africa, a country long plagued by heightened racial tensions, has something to offer other nations wishing to learn about how to deal with their own issues of oppression. One might be partially correct for thinking this, and it is possible that some of the lessons provide grounds for hope. Today in South Africa, people of all races occupy positions at all levels of all sectors of the economy, and indeed in every sector of the private and public domains. This was not the case during apartheid, so obviously something has changed for the better in South Africa since 1994. Formal equality was declared in 1994, and to this day formal equality continues to exist.  

Formal equality has existed in the US for quite a long time. The following Acts, for example, go back to the 1960s: the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration and Nationality Services Act and the Fair Housing Act. I use the word “formal” here to mean something similar to “official” –  formally and officially, legislation exists in both the US and South Africa for the purposes of upholding people’s rights. With this understanding in mind, consider the following commentary on South Africa by Naomi Klein:

“In the years that passed between Nelson Mandela’s writing his note from prison and the ANC’s 1994 election sweep in which he was elected president, something happened to convince the party hierarchy that it could not use its grassroots prestige to reclaim and redistribute the country’s stolen wealth. So, rather than meeting in the middle between California and the Congo, the ANC adopted policies that exploded both inequality and crime to such a degree that South Africa’s divide is now closer to Beverly Hills and Baghdad. Today, the country stands as a living testament to what happens when economic reform is severed from political transformation. Politically, its people have the right to vote, civil liberties and majority rule. Yet economically, South Africa has surpassed Brazil as the most unequal society in the world.”     

Klein, writing in 2007, is in part highlighting the gap between formal equality and actual equality. One could further qualify the term “actual equality” by, for example, using the term “equality of opportunity”. My focus is instead on the fissure between the ideals associated with formal equality and the reality on the ground. Thirteen years after Klein offered her commentary, South Africa is worse off than it was then. The country is not only more unequal than Brazil, it was declared the most unequal country in the world in 2018. That’s after about 25 years of rule under the ANC, a party almost exclusively constituted by black elites.     

The lesson I wish to foreground is Klein’s point, which is, to paraphrase, that formal political transformation is useless if deep economic transformation is not achieved. I would add that economic transformation is impossible where political structures entail hierarchies and concentrations of power. I may be guilty of deep and unforgivable cynicism in making such an addition, but I reached this conclusion after many years of research into the theme of political transformation — or rather the lack thereof. At the centre of most democracies is a capitalist core, and capitalism is excellent at resisting substantive changes. In fact, there are various mechanisms at play that prevent transformation from what I like to call democrapitalism. The political economy of democrapitalism is premised on the existence of inequality: to simplify dramatically, it is premised on the existence of rich business owners and various other elites, and masses of people existing at various lower rungs on the socioeconomic ladder.

An important caveat about my view of democrapitalism is that, in problematising it, I am not implying that something like democratic socialism would be able to make the transition from formal to actual equality. Nor is there an implication that something like a social democracy would solve the crises born out of the political economy that now aligns and orders everything through its immense ideological and repressive powers. Any political structure with a centralised core is a structure in which power is concentrated. So if, for example, the Economic Freedom Fighters were to occupy the seat of political power in South Africa, the hierarchical structure that concentrates power into the hands of a few elites would derail the party’s goal (or rhetoric) of deep economic transformation. The histories of socialism and communism show this to be true. It is the hierarchical structure itself, one which concentrates power into the hands of a few, that is antithetical to actual equality.           

When one combines Klein’s point with mine, it becomes clear that the people protesting in the US have acted out against symptoms of the problem, and not the problem itself. To be sure, the symptoms presently under the spotlight, namely discrimination-fuelled police brutality and deep-seated systemic and structural racism, are reprehensible and must be challenged and changed. But the analogy of shifting deck chairs around on the Titanic while it sinks comes to mind, with the analogue for one of the deck chairs being the protests themselves, and for the Titanic being the democrapitalist edifice that is the political economy of the US (and elsewhere). The shifting will probably result in more legislation that waxes lyrical about equality, but the sinking of a political economy premised on hierarchy and inequality will continue. The previous quarter of a century in South Africa is perhaps the harshest reminders of this.  

In the US, the presidential candidate most likely to replace Donald Trump is Joe Biden. Biden is an establishment man — he might be able to facilitate the shifting of a few of the deck chairs towards a society with more formal equality written into its legislation, but he cannot stop the proverbial ship from sinking further. Nobody can. Former president Barack Obama couldn’t do it, the Occupy Movement couldn’t do it (and Occupy was actually aiming at structural problems), progressive independent politician Bernie Sanders would not have been able to do it. It doesn’t look like Jesus is coming back to save us born sinners, and aliens who cross the vastness of space will hyper-drive out of our orbit to avoid us. Point being, structural and systemic arrangements are the fabric on which the picture of society, in all its ugliness, is printed. The structure is dominated, in part, by toxic concentrations of political power. To really change the picture, one would have to tear apart the fabric on which it is printed, which means addressing the concentrations of power.  

My commentary so far may be criticised for downplaying the central point of the protests in the US. Sparked by the murder of George Floyd, the protests have been aimed at ending a tragic reality for many black people in the US, a reality in which a black person may be killed by brutal police intervention simply for being black. If this is the sole focus of the protests, then yes, I have gone too far. Perhaps this reality will somehow be changed thanks to the ripple effects of the protests, in which case the world would do well to learn from any changes that may accordingly occur in the dispensation of the US. 

But, in reading about the protests, I have frequently seen analyses focusing on systemic racial oppression. Being South African, I have seen first-hand how the focus on ending systemic racial oppression has failed. It has failed because, in my opinion, one toxic concentration of political power was handed over to a different toxic concentration of political power. From what I can see, no option is on the table in South Africa or the US or anywhere, that does not entail political hierarchies and toxic concentrations of power. If the protests have been about systemic racial oppression at all, then those concerned should be warned about toxic concentrations of political power, which may make for appropriate targets in later protest action once justice has been achieved in light of race-based police brutality.