The New York Times “debates” South Africa’s future

I have no idea why I was thrilled to see a debate on the chief maladies of post-apartheid South Africa on the New York Times’ website. I honestly should’ve known better, but I just get excited whenever the Times covers South Africa, even if they only ever write about Mandela, xenophobia, and capital flight. The “debate” turned out not to be contentious at all; instead, each author was asked to name the “the biggest challenges that South Africa faces in its struggle for democracy.” There is a notable critique of patriarchy from Rachel Jewkes of the South African Medical Research Council, as well as a fairly unobjectionable contribution from the founder of the country’s best-known anti-xenophobia organization, even if more room was given to the successes of the ANC than actually addressing the consolidation of anti-immigrant sentiment over the past half-decade.

Eusebius McKaiser, a well-known radio and newspaper commentator, lambastes those who would proclaim post-apartheid South Africa to be post-racial. While I admit to not being a McKaiser fan, he at least spends his limited space tying apartheid geography to the national question by way of material inequality. And yet, as with most contributors to the discussion, the point is shockingly understated.

Where are the debates that actually occupy a central place in South African political discourse? How is there no talk whatsoever on the future of labor after Marikana? What about the question of nationalization, from the Freedom Charter to Malema, that’s been a central focus of debate over the past couple years? And above all, how in the centenary year of the 1913 Natives Land Act, the legal relegation of black South Africans to 13 percent of the country’s land, is there no mention whatsoever of debates over land redistribution?

Even if the contributors mentioned above are relatively ineffectual, at least they aren’t actively pernicious. But when the debate turns to class, the Times recruited three economists whose columns belong in the business section. Most laughably, there’s a piece by UCT economist Haroon Bhorat in which economic inequality is mapped onto large firms and unionized labor on the one hand, and the informal sector and unemployed on the other. The problem? Overregulation of labor markets. Of course. Pulling a Hernando de Soto, Bhorat calls for “inclusion” of the unemployed and informal sector, not through redistribution or comprehensive job creation programs, but through deregulation. In short, this is a call for the informally employed to be redefined as “micro-entrepreneurs” and celebrated as the solution to South Africa’s unemployment woes.

Or take Stellenbosch economist Julius Agbor. The key, he argues, is to attract foreign capital into the light manufacturing sector so as to soak up large pools of unskilled labor. What goes unstated of course is that now, as has been the case historically, this unskilled labor reserve is entirely black. As we’ve seen in the mining sector, semi-skilled and unskilled black labor consigned to perpetual poverty wages – even while unionized – is hardly a solution. When the focus remains on attracting foreign investors and preempting capital flight instead of on actively facilitating job creation and ensuring a living wage, we know where Agbor’s loyalties lie.

Apparently they lie in the same place as those of Rhodes economist Gavin Keeton, who argues that South Africa’s economic maladies are the result of greedy unions:

If this leads to prolonged strikes, lost mining production will weaken economic growth further. If union demands are granted, the wage increases would cause mines to close. Thousands of jobs could be lost in a country where unemployment exceeds 25 percent.

His solution? An immediate turn toward business unionism in collaboration with business and the state. The CEO and CFO of Gold Fields took home R45.3 million and R20 million last year, respectively; the same positions at AngloGold Ashanti earned R43.2 million and R36 million. Or check out last week’s headline: “Platinum giant Amplats books profit despite strikes.” But apparently those actually working the mines need to shut up, accept their sub-subsistence wages, and get back to work in order to safeguard “the long-term economic viability of a sector that remains critical to South Africa’s long-term well being.”

If the Times thinks these empty nods to race and gender and the regurgitation of the business line on economic growth constitute debate, they’re living under a rock. Less than a year after Marikana, this is what was deemed worthy of inclusion?

Further Reading

A worthy ancestor

The world is out of joint and Immanuel Wallerstein, one of its great public intellectuals, has left us—albeit with tools to battle the dying kicks of capitalism.