You have to admire the shameless smarts of Kenny Kunene. In the last two months, the relatively obscure club promoter–unknown before the start of 2011–has assured himself some valuable, free publicity. Who is Kunene? A 40-year old owner of trendy nightclubs with a penchant for bling, extravagant bashes, and eating sushi off half-naked models at his parties. Local media reports his every move since his guests include top ANC and government figures; he now has the honour of being the subject of indignant editorials in South Africa’s press. (One editor was particularly upset that he ate sushi off a white model.)
But Kunene has now graduated from being solely subject matter for the South African press: the “international” (basically British and American) media – including the BBC, The Guardian, and now this week The New York Times – has recently provided us with “analyses” of his excesses. His Bacchanalian lifestyle is usually offered up as a sign of what’s wrong with the new South Africa, and his bling is referenced as a reflection of the growing inequality in the country.
The truth is that there is nothing special in the behavior of the small group of black billionaires or showmen. In fact, in South Africa, inequality will only get worse, regardless of who is on top, or who’s eating raw fish. This is a consequence after all of the economic model South Africa chose to confront these inequalities. And what about the white billionaires who do vile injustices to the bodies of women? Are they only subjects in William Kentridge films? They’ve been around a lot longer, and there’s more of them. In fact, recent research still points out that old racial inequalities stay largely intact: The South African Institute of Race Relations–hardly an anti-white organization–recently revealed that whites still earn eight times more on average than their black counterparts and make up the bulk of the manager and CEOs in that country.
But we could not stop wondering where I had read this whole line about the special characteristics of Black crass-spenders before.
Then I remembered. Political scientist Mahmood Mamdani wrote what is probably the template for a takedown of this kind of sloppy “analysis” way back in 1997–in a review of a (very bad) book on black capitalism:
The conclusion [of Comrades in Business by Heribert Adam, Kogila Moodley and Van Zyl Slabbert] is appropriately titled “The Underclass versus the Liberation Aristocracy”. The authors are clearly worried that their selective vision may be seen as racism: “Criticism of black fat cats without including white fat cats smacks of racism indeed.” But they go on to do just that. “Comparative extreme inequality remains South Africa’s ticking time-bomb”. But they do not see this as reason enough to explore the political possibility of social justice and economic redistribution. One wonders why.
They both bank on “the extraordinary patience of the poor amid extreme affluence” and are clearly worried that this patience may be wearing thin. The optimism stems from the fact that “the underclass is generally not a political threat through organised political opposition”, though “its size in South Africa hugely increases the cost of containing, policing and caring for the outsiders”. And yet, there is reason to worry: “The South African underclass does not suffer from a sense of relative deprivation because rich whites are not necessarily a reference group, but wealthy blacks may well become one.”
It is this last bit of reasoning that underlines the core worry of the authors, that the sight of white fat cats may not stir a black rebellion, but that of black fat cats just may. In a mocking tone, they relate page after page of episodes illustrating the nouveau riche black leadership of post-apartheid South Africa, for whom “anything less than a white bourgeois lifestyle would have appeared unequal”. Though they do not say it in so many words, the authors presume a clear and continuing division of labour between white fat cats as economic entrepreneurs and black fat cats as political supervisors.
This is why white cats can afford to look fat and act greedy; but black cats must at all times look lean and act mean. The old nonracial question, who will bell the cat?, is recast in a racialised South Africa: Who will bell the black cat?
— Sean Jacobs contributed to this post.