The country watches transfixed as the ANC creaks and groans like a wooden ship trapped in Antarctic ice. The ANC has long kept the lid on things, like some benevolent dictator might have done. But now the ship threatens to break apart. There goes the life boat. People cling to its splintered timbers hoping these might still save them.

This is the nightmare scenario some fear. For the moment the ANC holds together, but one can hear the timbers moaning under the strain. It cannot keep intact while failing to deliver for much longer.

Across the land, parched throats fill the air with cries for a radical shift to end their misery. The ANC responds with more policy and rhetoric. The fantastical promise of radical change is held out to a country already hooked on the Lottery.

At the conclusion of its National Policy Conference at Gallagher Estates, the end of “economic apartheid” looks even further away than it did at the start of proceedings. This despite the fact that the political class is almost entirely black.

Significantly, it is the wealthiest class of South Africans that has “transformed” the most in terms of apartheid race categories, as has senior management (at 39% from zero not long ago). The middle class has shifted unrecognisably from what it was. It is the colour of the poor that has hardly changed.

Apartheid and capitalism

A wealthy, white male tells me business was “always against apartheid”. He says apartheid forced him to employ Afrikaners at higher wages. The perversity of expressing this as a moral position completely eludes him – that apartheid was unjust, because job reservation didn’t allow him to exploit more blacks.

White labour was paid higher wages, but only because it was politically organised under the Afrikaans National Party (NP) in power. Capitalism is blind to many things, including colour; which is why it doesn’t care much for affirmative action.

It is true that the biggest capitalists (the English-speaking, the Oppenheimers etc) even as they profited were politically opposed to the NP’s race policies, and that “imperialist capitalists” (admittedly under pressure) disinvested or agreed to sanctions.

But history is seldom if ever clear-cut. The liberation movement used Communist rhetoric to mobilise against apartheid, yet vulgar Marxists must concede that actually it was a crisis in capitalism that ultimately ended apartheid.

As an accumulation strategy, racial capitalism had exhausted itself (hence the Wiehahn Commission etc). It had become counterproductive, too expensive and isolating. Big business was desperate to expand; the black bourgeoisie could not be kept down much longer.

There is more irony to be mined here too. In as much as capitalists took advantage of race, it was actually a powerful national socialist state with dirigiste economic policies (nationalisation, price controls, land confiscation, violent cohesive powers) and social engineering which built on colonialism to create this particular type of exploitation.

The engine of apartheid policy was state capitalism (Iscor, Eskom etcetera) and not the free market economy.

State capitalism

The nexus of political and economic power in too few hands will ruin socialism as surely as capitalism has an impetus towards monopoly. The only safeguard is a functioning democracy, and there are few of those around.

While China for instance has doubled the average income of its populace, it has gone from one of the most equal societies in the world to one of massive inequality. The Gini Coefficient (which measure economic inequality) rose steeply from the 1980s to 2001. Since it breached the index’s social stability threshold the Chinese government refuses to publish the real figure.

It is therefore a grave misconception to believe that economic apartheid will be ended by simply moving away from a neoliberal capitalist system to state capitalism and nationalisation.

The ANC historically always fought for equal participation in the economy. Nelson Mandela wrote in 1956 that the Freedom Charter was “not a blueprint for socialism” but “for capitalism”.

Africans, he wrote, would finally have the right to own property “and capitalism will flourish among them as never before”.

In 1994, the ANC government certainly saw capitalism as the means for uplifting the people. As soon as it came to power, it didn’t abandon capitalism, but attempted to update and modernise it through globalisation, increased competition, neo-liberal policies and conservative macroeconomics; which is why business today pays lower taxes than it did under apartheid. The ANC dropped the RDP project of its own accord.

White males

The idea that capitalism can be simplistically conflated with white oppression or that it is intransigent white males that are perpetuating the systemic inequality inherited from apartheid is a diversion tactic. The reasons for the “investment strike” by business are complex and cannot be reduced to mere recalcitrance.

Is it not as much to do with failure and corruption in the state? A disastrous education policy? The incalculable damage of HIV/Aids and the health burden? Or all of the above.

The worry is that the message being sent to the masses is that “economic freedom” can simply be attained by the redistribution of wealth. And then what?

The fear is that if the ANC fails, the country will be sucked down by the currents of populism: redistribution, undertaken as Ronald Lamola would have it, by “an act as forceful as war”.

Or to précis: we fought for liberation so we wouldn’t have to work. We didn’t struggle to be poor. It is our turn to eat. This is the political class speaking, not the poor. It is the “politics of the belly” to use Jean-François Bayart’s memorable phrase.

In a land invasion last year, the claimants told the owner, this land now “belongs to Malema”. In other words: to a new landlord. How tragic if by economic emancipation all we mean is to replace private property with political landlords.

Many are coming to believe that the ANC has been irredeemably “captured” by the new elite. Was Zuma’s “second transition” just another glib campaign slogan for re-election, like “a better life for all”?

A single, oxymoronic placard at Malema’s economic march last year said it all: “Black on black apartheid”. It was a parody of that phrase “black on black violence” so popular with the apartheid government in the 1980s.

Ending political apartheid was easy: give everyone the vote. But how to end economic apartheid? Or must the country indefinitely pay social grants approaching R90 billion to cover 15 million people and a ballooning public servant and state wage bill of R340 billion, with a revenue base of 5.4 million taxpayers? The white middle class certainly want to see the end to economic apartheid too. The nation agrees, as it did in 1994, but it cannot it seems this time agree on the means within never mind outside the ANC.

Do we look left or right or straight ahead?

Is the solution in the policies of the so-called “left” or the “right”? The National Planning Commission’s suggestions seem to form the basis for a “third way”, but is anyone listening?

In dismantling the apartheid legacy in the economy, the state cannot afford to make the same mistakes in the agricultural and industrial sector as it did to the public service.

The constant service-delivery protests and the burning of ANC ward councillors’ homes are unequivocal: the poor have been marginalised by the so-called left, while ignored as far as possible by the right.

Capitalists have never had much time for the poor except as a pool of exploitable labour. On the other hand, organised labour is so narrow in its concerns that sometimes it would rather see businesses fail and jobs lost than compromise.

Why is unemployment stubbornly higher among the black-skinned and not the white-skinned youth?

White youth enjoy higher employment not only because of prejudice in the hiring place, but a far bigger factor is that they are equipped with an education, good health, and the means (a motor vehicle at their disposal, family capital, a connection to the internet etc) to take advantage of the new world economy.

Much white youth is employed in multifarious, entrepreneurial, informal but high-earning work, and it is mostly outside of secure tenure with its fixed hours, pensions, tea and lunch breaks that constitutes Cosatu’s notion of constant employment.

The key to ending economic apartheid is through “service delivery”; to see that poor black youth get education (starting with textbooks), health, opportunities (scholarships, bursaries) and a leg up to compete in the workplace. Entrepreneurs are not born fully formed; they need to have had a job first.

Cosatu is therefore mistaken on the youth wage subsidy. Its DA champions too have misframed the debate as one about job creation; it is not. It is about poverty relief and getting young people into their first jobs. It is a hard place, but lowering youth unemployment is far more critical to the country in the medium and long term than holding on to a few older unionised workers, if such choices have to be made.

This is the kind of ideological rigidity the nation’s leaders will have to overcome if they are to pragmatically address economic apartheid. The key lies in better education, not only of the populace it seems, but the elite.

Follow Brent on Twitter.





  • Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary Coloured (Human & Rouseau, 2007) and Reports Before Daybreak (Umuzi-Random House, 2011). He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003. Follow him on Twitter or visit


Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary...

Leave a comment