Historic ironies litter our 20 years of freedom

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German philosopher Georg Hegel invented the concept “the cunning of reason” to explain the great ironies of history. He thought it elucidated how and why great historical figures and actors often did and could not anticipate the consequences of their actions. Outcomes are often at variance with their authors’ intentions.

South African history is replete with such ironies and perhaps our 20-year experience of freedom should be viewed from the perspective of historic irony.

In a 1997 discussion paper on “The National Question”, I suggested South Africa’s democratic breakthrough was an “unfinished revolution”. Implicit in “unfinished revolution” is the image of a “finished revolution”. The implementation of the Freedom Charter was that “finished revolution”. More important, I stressed that a revolution is never a moment, but a process that unfolds over time. The idea that we are in the midst of a work in progress has taken hold. Mark Gevisser titled his biography of Thabo Mbeki A Dream Deferred, again underscoring its inconclusiveness.

The greatest irony of South African history is that having called industrial capitalism into being, the white capitalist classes and their political representatives have never accepted the sociopolitical outcomes it produced — a common society in which whites and blacks are not merely mutually dependent, but are inextricably intertwined by the centripetal forces generated by capitalism.
By the cunning of reason, it devolved on the opponents of white rule to become the most consistent proponents of modernity and the multicultural, multilingual, multiracial, multifaith society that it produced. Liberation movements became the torchbearers of an open society, based on the principles of liberal democracy associated with the emergence of capitalism in Europe.

The challenge facing their political leadership was devising strategies that could result in unity of purpose and collective action, despite the differences among and within the oppressed communities to be mobilised. To do this, they emphasised the shared political status of all blacks as colonised people.

Unity among the oppressed communities had to be striven for in continuous political and ideological struggles inside the liberation movements and through mass struggles in the wider society. The oppressed learnt its virtue from their own political experience.
Though incomplete, the revolution has wrought impressive sociopolitical changes. It cast open the doors of opportunity to black South Africans. One very visible consequence of democracy is the rapid growth of the African middle and upper strata. However, the profile of this relatively wealthy stratum of Africans conceals two realities. The first is that democracy has benefited the white minority disproportionately — 87% of whites are now in the upper-income brackets — Living Standards Measures (LSM) 5-10.
South Africa’s gross domestic product has trebled from $136bn to $385bn since 1994. The absolute numbers of those in LSM bracket 5-10 has virtually doubled from 13.8-million in 2001 to 25.5-million in 2010. The numbers of those living below the poverty line has been reduced to 9% of the population. The deracialisation of the welfare system has seen an increase of those receiving social grants from 2.4-million in 1994 to 16.1-million last year. Access to electricity has risen from 58% in 1996 to 85% in 2011. The quality of life of most South Africans has improved since 1994.

The second reality concealed by these statistics is the growing disparity between the incomes of the wealthy and the poor, who are overwhelmingly black. South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world.

By the cunning of reason, the consequences of even an incomplete victory are that the broad national coalitions, comprising various class forces that the liberation movements mobilised during the struggle for freedom, have become less tenable. Perhaps this is what explains “the crisis of legitimacy of the African National Congress (ANC)”. The most recent polls suggest, however, that the ANC could attain 63% of the vote — exactly what it polled in 1994 — if elections were held now.

The statutory abolition of racism has transformed the country’s political culture. The political traditions, principles and values associated with the liberation struggle have become hegemonic. The ANC should indeed be flattered that the main opposition party feels the need to imitate it.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) has at last come to terms with the reality of majority rule: that it is only by addressing the issues and aspirations that emanate from that majority that it can remain politically relevant. The Employment Equity Amendment Bill bun fight in the DA tells us that.

In two important strategy documents the ANC adopted 10 years apart, lies a powerful plea for social justice: “The correction of the(se) centuries-old economic injustices.” Namely: “Our people are deprived of their due in the country’s wealth; their skills have been suppressed and poverty and starvation has been their life experience.” After 19 years, we still have a huge social deficit, expressed in the Gini coefficient, the yawning gap between the rich and poor. Moreover, poverty is racialised and highly gendered.

South African democracy is still under construction, but its foundations are sound. The national debate is about the edifice we are building on it. From our dying past, our future is becoming!

– This piece first appeared in Business Day on 28 November 2013.

– By OPINION: Z Pallo Jordon