Mission betrayed

The New Apartheid, a new book by Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, seeks to define a generational mission in South Africa. Instead, it shrouds our existing one in complete opacity.

Housing near Manenberg High School. Image credit Angus Willson via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

South African academic, political commentator and occasional musician, Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, has written a second book: The New Apartheid. Since his 2017 debut Democracy and Delusion (which won a prestigious South African literary award), Mpofu-Walsh has made a quick ascent as a public intellectual. By 2013, his star was already rising and Mpofu-Walsh was named as one of the Mail and Guardian’s “Top 200 Young South Africans.” Now, he boasts a YouTube channel with 25,000 subscribers, makes regular appearances on podcasts and national talk radio, and has variously been described as “one of the most gifted writers of his generation.” Mpofu-Walsh is the son of Dali Mpofu, one of the country’s top lawyers and a grandee of the Economic Freedom Fighters, South Africa’s third-largest political party. The New Apartheid was published in late July, only a few weeks after the country was gripped by violence triggered by the arrest of ex-president Jacob Zuma (whom his father represented in the countless legal proceedings to contest the Constitutional Court’s order of contempt). The book is now a bestseller.

Like in Democracy and Delusion, his new book’s overriding concern is South Africa’s nagging racialized inequality and its myriad ills. However, whereas Mpofu-Walsh’s task in the first book was comparatively modest, aiming only to disabuse South Africans of the myths of progress and stability that fully came undone following the tenure of Jacob Zuma, The New Apartheid (hereafter TNA) is notable for its ambition. Mpofu-Walsh’s objectives are theoretical and programmatic:

South Africa needs a way to define its crises that captures their historical roots, their present complexity, and their future trajectories in a single frame. Only once we identify the problem can we define liberation. By defining the new apartheid, I have tackled this task and, in so doing, sought to define a generational mission.

The idea of a “generational mission” originates in Frantz Fanon, and it is unsurprising that Mpofu-Walsh sees his own one as being in need of clarification. In Mpofu-Walsh’s summary from elsewhere:

When the “Must Fall” movement emerged in 2015, it shook the ANC’s “Rainbow Nation” rhetoric which had dominated South African politics since the end of apartheid. The Fallists exposed continuities between South Africa’s disappointing democratic present and its monstrous apartheid past, turning these issues into the country’s central political debate. South Africa’s universities, their colonial monuments and financial barriers, became prisms through which apartheid’s afterlives were sharply refracted.

But since the end of the “Must Fall” movements, there has been scant effort from its organic intellectuals to develop and apply “Fallist” arguments beyond the confines of the campus. As a former activist in #RhodesMustFall while a doctoral student at Oxford University, Mpofu-Walsh’s intervention is notable in this regard. It eschews the often turgid prose of the decolonization discourses usually associated with Fallism for straightforward argument, and adopts mostly a sociological register rather than a literary or philosophical one. This occurs, in significant part because Mpofu-Walsh dispenses with decolonization altogether as a political and analytical template. Instead, he argues for  “The New Apartheid” as the proper object of critique.

“Apartheid did not die, it was privatized” is the “simple thesis” that Mpofu-Walsh promises to pursue in TNA. At face value this is indeed a simple thesis. It contends that, under democracy, social hierarchies are shaped more by market forces than legal statutes. Or in Mpofu-Walsh’s slightly off kilter phrasing “privilege is now policed by price rather than prose.”. With these bearings, Mpofu-Walsh would appear to be departing the Fallist paradigm altogether and placing himself firmly in the grooves of a more conventional Left critique of the post-Apartheid regime, centered on the capitalist economy.

But this is not at all the path that the book takes. No sooner is Mpofu-Walsh’s simple thesis introduced than it is made considerably more complicated. In order to get at the privatization of Apartheid, he contends, we have to account for the way that it was also “de-legislated, digitised, fractalized, internalized, deracialized and de-territorialized.”

The book’s substantive chapters consequently span a bewildering array of themes and sub-topics. The first, on Space, explores the persistence of informalized segregation in urban areas,  the rise of student protests, the continued influence of traditional leaders, the emergence of a dual legal system and the failures of land reform.

The second chapter, titled “Law,” critiques the constitution’s conception of justice, argues that “private law facilitates privatized apartheid” and then swings into an analysis of the negotiated transition. A third chapter on “Wealth” examines the National Party’s early turn to neoliberalism, changing structures of ownership and finance post-Apartheid, the capture of the ANC by big business and the contours of recent macroeconomic policy. The fourth chapter on technology begins by comparing current forms of “digital categorization” (e.g. facial recognition) to Apartheid-era systems of surveillance. It then describes potential sources of bias in the algorithms of major digital platforms before launching into a headspinning disquisition on the “privatization of the self,” which touches on everything from genetic editing to the increased use of glass in corporate architecture to Adam Catzavelos. A final empirical chapter, “Punishment,” looks at why South Africa has such a persistently high crime rate and then examines various injustices and disparities in policing and incarceration.

Laboring under a delusion

As can be seen TNA achieves impressive scope. But it does so at the expense of coherence. The “simple thesis” that was supposed to steer the book quickly gets lost. Very little of it’s substantive material directly examines how private institutions reproduce stratification—a fact that is partially obscured by Mpofu-Walsh’s tendency to use ‘privatization’ as a metaphor for everything. The only thing that seems to tie the book’s diverse thematic chapters together is that they each explore ways in which South Africa remains connected to, or resemblant of, its past, and the injustices that result. Although even this vague delimitation fails to encompass much of the book. While novel and interesting in its own right, most of the chapter on technology has either nothing at all to do with inequality, or explores iniquities that are of a relatively a minor nature, like algorithmic bias, which makes their enlistment in the framework of neo-apartheid highly questionable.

For the most part Mpofu-Walsh traverses well-mapped territory. His substantive chapters lean heavily on summaries of existing research and descriptions of everyday instances of segregation and inequality. The broadcaster Eusebius McKaizer noted this in an interview with Mpofu-Walsh, commenting that some sections of TNA, like that on space, may be received as “trite” by many readers. Mpofu-Walsh naturally disagreed, arguing that this would be the case only for “people of a certain intellectual sensibility.” But it’s not obvious that he’s right and the comment seems revealing of a bigger problem with the book— namely that it proceeds from a serious misreading of the public temperament and the state of the public debate in South Africa.

The New Apartheids main antagonists are “rainbowists” and “constitutional triumphalists” of various stripes—people who naively believed that South Africa’s liberal constitution would magically deliver South Africa from its dark past and mend its glaring social divides. But Mpofu-Walsh never really elaborates these positions in any detail, nor does he identify their proponents. Indeed we are not provided a single citation for any work that could be taken to be canonical of “constitutional triumphalism” in the way he describes it. He seems to believe that these views are widespread, even hegemonic, and in urgent need of disillusioning—but he provides no evidence to this effect.

The truth is that this kind of naïve optimism, which might have been a feature of the early transition phase, has long since faded. “Rainbowism” is nowhere to be found in the public sphere. It’s hard to think of a single significant public intellectual, or major recent work, that could be seen as strongly associated with it. For some time now, South Africa’s continuing inequalities and its deepening crises have been too enormous to be held together by that paper-thin narrative. The Marikana massacre unravelled all myths of South African exceptionalism, if there was any doubt. The Fallists put the final nail in the coffin, and Mpofu-Walsh’s first book functioned as its belated eulogy.

This means not only that TNA wastes considerable space on unilluminating descriptions of inequality, but that it deprives itself of a proper framing. The guiding question the book asks is why the liberal constitution failed to cure inequality in South Africa. But did anybody ever really think it would? Mpofu-Walsh does nothing to motivate this as a compelling social scientific puzzle. He doesn’t explicate any theory that would lead us to expect that the constitution would have had that effect. Nor does he show why our existing stock of theoretical knowledge is inadequate to answer the question he nonetheless poses. By failing to locate himself in any bigger debate, Mpofu-Walsh sets himself up to be jousting with strawmen.

The New Apartheid contains flashes of important insight. But all too often, when Mpofu-Walsh ventures off the well-lit path of existing scholarship and offers his own analysis, the limits of his non-expertise in the diverse subfields he broaches become readily apparent. This is what befalls the chapter on law, which opens by criticizing the constitution for its inadequate conception of justice. Mpofu-Walsh’s main gripe is that the constitution neglects to explicitly mention “racial justice” or squarely acknowledge apartheid. He compares it unfavorably with the slightly more radical language found in other constitutions around the world. But he seems unable to bring the argument home and actually spell out what difference would be made were the constitution to be reformulated along the lines he recommends. What judgements or legal precedents would this have a bearing on? How would this new wording have impeded South Africa’s slide into a “new apartheid”? Actually it wouldn’t have at all, according to Mpofu-Walsh on the very next pages. Having expended all this effort quibbling over lexical minutiae he then bizarrely calls into question the whole exercise by noting, not incorrectly, that “power, not constitutions, determines a society’s character.” The second part of the chapter tries to show how apartheid remains implanted in private law, but it founders on serious misreadings of the history and functioning of South Africa’s multi-faceted legal system, as pointed out in a detailed critique by two specialists.

The chapter misleadingly titled “Wealth” covers crucial material, necessary for understanding how capital’s power was reconstituted in the democratic era through the transformation of financial and business institutions. However, Mpofu-Walsh does little more than provide a few decontextualized facts culled from a handful of papers on these topics, without showing in any way how they relate to the broader themes of the text. A lengthy middle section promises to unpack the “privatization of the ANC,” by which he means the integration of ANC elites into the corporate sector, and the latter’s increasing sway over the party as a whole. But the analysis is quickly derailed by a lengthy excursus on the controversy surrounding the financing of Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2017 ANC presidential campaign. Political, rather than strictly analytical motives might account for this diversion. The so-called “CR17 saga” has been one of the main cudgels wielded against Ramaphosa by his factional enemies in the ANC, led by former president Jacob Zuma. Mpofu-Walsh was previously an outspoken critic of Zuma who he pilloried in a widely circulated rap song, “Mr President.” But his position appeared to shift around the same time the EFF made its own pivot to Zuma’s “Radical Economic Transformation” (RET) faction, driven by a shared complicity in state capture. “Mr President” disappeared from YouTube and Zuma was invited onto Mpofu-Walsh’s online talk show for a fawning interview, followed soon after by another key RET figure, public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane.

Radical Economic Transformation views are inflected elsewhere in the chapter, which advances an interpretation of elite politics resemblant to “white monopoly capital” theory in all its crudest and most reductive forms. In the wake of the transition, white capitalists, he argues, integrated black people into “reliant” and “subservient” roles within their own corporations in order to prevent them emerging as future competitors. The result has been racial “guerilla war” raging in South African boardrooms, with black capitalists perpetually outnumbered and hence forced to be “policy-takers” rather than “policy-makers.” No evidence is provided for any of these claims. It’s trivially true that white capitalists acted out of self-interest in handing over board seats and ownership shares to aspirant black capitalists. They did so primarily to secure a connection to the new political elite, and to help to legitimize the revived market economy, rather than out of fear of future competitors.

But it does not follow from this that black capitalists have found themselves either subservient to or deeply at odds with their white counterparts. The tendency to see black corporate leaders simply as tokens and fronts for race-washing smacks of its own kind of racism because it portrays them as mere dupes. In fact they are mostly powerful elite operatives themselves, often with substantial political as well as economic capital, who have been able to strongly influence the terms of their own integration into the corporate system. Forthcoming research by one of the authors of this review shows that black people now comprise just under 40% of the directorship of the largest 125 corporations and are generally concentrated in bigger firms and more centrally located within the network of interlocking directorates—long seen as playing a central role in socializing class leaders. They have also come to dominate the leadership of the most important business chambers in the country.

There have been some important conflicts over the pace of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), mostly during the early transition phase, and of course the same interpersonal racial tensions that afflict every corner of South African society no doubt play out frequently within corporate board rooms. But nothing like a “guerilla war” has ever erupted between black and white corporate leaders. Where war has engulfed the South African business community, firm type rather than race has been the main dividing line. Major conflicts have pitted corporate business associations against those that represent smaller, mostly black owned business as well as professional groups. But black corporate leaders have tended to be guided in these conflicts by their shared material interests with their white counterparts rather than racial fealty—a fact Mpofu-Walsh’s analysis likely finds hard to digest because of its inclination towards race reductionism.

The only really original part of the chapter argues that a “privatized Keynesianism” has dominated ANC economic policy. “The point of Keynesianism, in its original iteration,” Mpofu-Walsh contends “is to incur debt with the strategic control of the state.” South Africa’s is a “privatized Keynesianism” because we lack a large state-run banking nexus like that found in contemporary China or like the Reconstruction Finance Corporation that existed under FDR’s New Deal. Consequently, South Africa’s sovereign debt is largely held by private financial institutions and thus “dictated by private interests.”

This argument unfortunately makes little sense owing to a straightforward confusion between two very distinct things – state-run developmental banking and active fiscal policy. Keynes himself was in favor of both but it’s the latter that we refer to, at least in policy settings, as “Keynesianism.” It betokens a strategy of using state expenditure to smooth out the business cycle and maintain the economy at its productive frontier. When the economy is at a low ebb, Keynesian policy mandates that the state inject demand by spending more than it takes in in taxes – i.e. running a deficit. Other than in rare cases, when states have sought to monetize their own debts, deficits are funded by issuing liabilities to other ‘sectors’ of the economy – in other words borrowing from households and businesses, both domestic and foreign. Keynesianism in this sense is always privatized and South Africa is in no way exceptional. Meanwhile, the main function of state-run development banks is to incur private (rather than public)—they have no role in providing “strategic control” over sovereign debt, whatever exactly that means. They in fact have nothing to do directly with fiscal policy (and thus nothing to do with Keynesianism), other than the fact that capitalization and subsidization by the state may impact its expenditure line, usually in minor ways.

There’s plenty of room for reasonable debate about whether ANC fiscal policy has generally amounted to ‘austerity’, as Left critics charge, but to characterize the latter as in any way Keynesian is completely misleading. The National Treasury has maintained a broad commitment to balanced budgets across every democratic administration so far, even if it has frequently been frustrated in its objectives. Mpofu-Walsh’s habit of shoe-horning everything into the metaphor of “privatization” gets him in trouble frequently throughout the text. He uses it as a prism through which to understand the ANC’s neoliberal turn as a whole. But this again becomes a source of serious confusion: of the three major pillars of a Washington Consensus economic regime—privatization, liberalization and (macroeconomic) stabilization—privatization was the one that was least pursued in South Africa. Of course, there have been important instances of privatization under the ANC but the party avoided following the neoliberal playbook to its fullest extent because it hoped to use state-owned enterprises as vehicles for black capitalist accumulation.

(Mis-)Theorizing the new apartheid

The book’s concluding section delivers its theoretical payload. Mpofu-Walsh claims that what has been elucidated over these six sprawling empirical chapters is a theory of “the new apartheid” that allows for a unified account of the all of the major social ills facing contemporary South Africa—including inequality, unemployment, and racism. He’s not at all shy in how he measures his own accomplishment. Where other thinkers of the post-Apartheid period have fumbled around trying to explain these problems in isolated ways, TNA overcomes partiality, showing them all to be “symptoms” of a single underlying cause. South Africa’s “real enemy” is the “the new apartheid.” He seems to regard this intervention as heralding something of a paradigm shift in South African social science and calls other researchers to follow down the path he has opened up, apply the framework of “the new apartheid” to “explain” other domains of the social world, and “meet this novel social moment with a correspondingly ambitious social theory.”

And neither is this an achievement that will resonate simply in the scholarly realm. Defining a “central social problem,” Mpofu-Walsh argues, is typically a process that takes generations. Apartheid, for example, took “eternities of debate, struggle and reflection” to become legible to its victims and opponents (a claim which would surprise  those who led the rapid scaling up of resistance after the National Party’s 1948 victory, leading to the mass defiance campaigns of the 1950s). But Mpofu-Walsh has spared the current generation from that vexing struggle. By “defining the new apartheid,” he claims, he has in turn “defined liberation” and thus “sought to define a generational mission.”

The irony here is that the one thing the book never does is define “the new apartheid.” The term occurs roughly 150 times throughout but in none of these instances do we find accompanying sentences that tell us precisely and concretely what it refers to. We are provided with a somewhat messy definition of the old apartheid in the early pages of the book, but no guidance as to how to get from this to the new apartheid. Indeed, it’s not even entirely clear what category of thing the latter is supposed to refer to. In the main, Mpofu-Walsh seems to think of it as a social system of some kind—a set of interlocking and related institutions that govern social interactions in such a way as to produce the “symptoms” the book describes—inequality, racism etc. But on other occasions we are told, inter alia, that the new apartheid is an “algorithm,” a “virus,” a “species of neoliberal domination” and “fractalized” elements of the old apartheid which “clone themselves throughout the body politic.”

The obvious problem here is that without a clear understanding of what it is that we are theorizing, there can be no theory. Theorization is intimately bound up with causation. To provide a theory of X, typically means to provide a causal account of how X came to be or, alternatively, to provide an account of the capacities that X has to act as a cause of some other phenomena in which we have an interest. Thus in the dominant Realist paradigm in the social sciences, the task of developing a theory, and hence of explaining, is synonymous with the identification of “mechanisms.” Mechanisms are simply the powers that things have, by virtue of their properties, to bring about some state of the world—to cause something. Unlike in the hard sciences, mechanisms in the social world are never attached to covering laws that operate in nomological ways. Instead, they are typically an aspect of institutions that influence and constrain the purposive actions of (groups of) individuals.

To provide a theory of a social system like “the new apartheid” we need a clear specification of the discrete set of institutions of which its comprised, and then some explanation of how these institutions collectively regulate human behavior such as to act as causal mechanisms for the relevant outcomes. Mpofu-Walsh cannot provide such an account for the new apartheid because the term for him means everything and thus nothing. Throughout the book when causal powers are ascribed to the new apartheid this is done without specifying any actual mechanisms. There are of course accounts in the book – usually surface level and well known – of how other institutions operate causally to generate disparities between racial, gender and class groups. But what the book fails to do is spell out clearly how these things are related to the ‘new apartheid’ and hence what the latter adds to the explanation of SA inequality.

In a number of instances in which we encounter clear causal arguments we find ‘the new apartheid’ being used in a very different way to what the theoretical framing of the book would lead us to expect. Rather than being associated with the causal institutions, the term is applied to their effects. Here what Mpofu-Walsh seems to mean by ‘the new apartheid’ is simply the inequality itself. This would in fact be a definition more aligned with other scholarly works that make use of the same term. In the broader literature that partly inspired TNA, ‘the new apartheid’ is generally used to refer to a certain social condition, a continuation of racialized inequality in the “new” South Africa. It’s treated as a dependent rather than an independent variable.

Perhaps the best way we can understand what went wrong in the theoretical chapters of the book, then, is  that they were tripped up by a basic confusion of explanans and explanandum. The book seems to make more sense if we treat ‘the new apartheid’ not as the system of institutions responsible for persisting inequality, but simply as the inequality itself. It is in that case the thing to be explained rather than the thing that does the explaining. But then the book’s contribution is terminological and not theoretical. The New Apartheid does not explain South African inequality in new ways, it simply re-describes it as “apartheid.”

To say this doesn’t in itself imply that nothing at all has been accomplished here. Applying historical terms in novel ways to contemporary cases can be a valuable exercise if it is used as an occasion for careful substantive analysis of the comparability of two social phenomena. This requires the theorist to engage carefully in both analogizing and dis-analogizing—drawing out both the likenesses and distinctions of the cases under study. But TNA does not motivate its terminological innovation through rigorous comparative argumentation, sociological or otherwise. Instead, it does so on the basis of ad hoc and essentially personal reasons. Mpofu-Walsh gives three rationales for the use of the term: (1) because the “scale of inequity merits the weight of the word” (not elaborated on); (2) because its “not surprising that apartheid lingers in South Africa a few decades after 1994” (indeed!); and (3) because the author himself has been a victim of racism. This leaves in tatters any hope that TNA would go beyond the sloganeering of the decolonial movement and ground the latter’s political motifs in the kind of scientific analysis that can actually guide strategies for social change.

Race and class in the making of South African inequality

The rather harsh conclusion that becomes impossible to avoid at this point is that the book’s theoretical pretensions are effectively substanceless. In fact, not only does TNA fail to explain South African inequality—it contributes actively to its mystification. It does so by consistently obscuring the role of capitalism in the outcomes it describes. That might seem like a surprising fault to find in a book whose leitmotif is that “apartheid was privatized.” But this just highlights how subtle the erasure is. It happens even as class and capitalism are silently implicated in most of the important substantive claims that the book makes. Except the correct attribution is never made. Instead capitalism’s effects are assigned to the new apartheid and thus implicitly to white supremacy and to racism. The term appears a grand total of eight times throughout the text, six of which are in the references and index.

As a result, TNA not only fails to provide answers, it fails to pose the right questions. If we are to make any headway in actually understanding how and why inequality assumes the racialized forms that it does in contemporary South Africa then one of our central challenges is to separate out what Mpofu-Walsh conflates. We have to parse the race-neutral effects of market generated inequality from the effects of racism as such. Or framed differently, we have to distinguish the relative influence of racism’s historic effects from its present and ongoing effects. The starkly racialized class structure that the New South Africa inherited was the result of systemized exclusion and oppression running back centuries. But active discrimination has never been necessary for that racialized structure to persist.  If every white in South Africa had awoken on the 28th of April 1994 as a born-again non-racialist, that wouldn’t in itself have guaranteed any flattening of inter-group disparities—simply because life chances under capitalism are so closely governed by inherited resources.

Of course, whites in general never underwent any Damascene awakening of any kind. Their hidebound attitudes were largely preserved along with their property rights. And this has meant that in addition to their inherited disadvantages, black people have had to contend with active prejudice at every point along the economic pipeline: in hiring, wage setting and promotion. Coming to a meaningful understanding of the causal structure of inequality in South Africa requires us to get some measure of this prejudice. It requires us to understand when and where discrimination occurs, what magnitude of disadvantage it incurs and how it falls differently on various social groups. What we would hope to arrive at is some quantitative picture of how different inequality looks in our actual, discrimination-rife world relative to what it would have in the counterfactual world of born-again Rainbowists.

Regrettably, despite ballooning interest (from an already high base) in the sociology of race in the wake of Rhodes Must Fall, the current state of research on these topics allows us to say precious little. This is partly due to the fact that the mystifications in which Mpofu-Walsh trades have become endemic in discussions of racism in South Africa. Even among “experts,” racial disparity is commonly treated as equivalent to racism itself —as the outcome of the analysis rather than its starting point. Rhodes Must Fall must itself field some of the blame for this, unfortunately, acting as it did as a conduit for French-American post-structuralist fads that have tended to unmoor the study of racism from its concrete, material realities. In their wake, a justifiable interest in lived experiences has come to completely eclipse the social scientific study of racist institutions and their general, society-wide effects.

Consequently, our grasp of discrimination in South Africa can only be impressionistic. Anecdotally and through common sense, we know it’s systemic. We can surmise that it occurs unevenly across sectors. It’s likely worst in private businesses and somewhat moderated in listed companies, which are subject to institutional and regulatory pressures. If anything, it is likely negative in the public sector.

We also know that it has been partly offset by “positive discrimination”—affirmative action and other BEE policies. We know that while these have never reached the “broad base” that they claim to target, they have had important redistributive effects, aiding the creation of a moderate black middle class and a smaller but hyper-wealthy elite. We know that, as a consequence, intra- rather than inter-racial disparities have been the main driver of headline inequality for the last several decades. We know, furthermore, that economic discrimination is overwhelmingly something that affects the middle and upper classes. This is a simple upshot of the fact that labor markets are highly segmented and the working class is almost entirely (Biko-)black. Working class people experience racism in many other forms and in other spheres of life, but they rarely experience discrimination in economic opportunities simply because there is no counterparty against whom they can be disadvantaged (although inter-black discrimination between, for instance, coloureds and black Africans may be more common).

We know, therefore, that to focus exclusively on discrimination would give us a highly distorted picture of the dynamics of inequality in contemporary South Africa. Indeed, it would cause us to miss the main action. For however deplorable it is that discrimination perpetuates an unequal distribution of opportunities amongst better-off South Africans, it is simply obvious that the far greater injustice in our economic system is that the vast majority of the population will never have any access to those opportunities. They will remain trapped in the lower rungs of the class hierarchy, in poorly paid jobs if they’re lucky, and in permanent unemployment if they’re not. And it is not the connivance of racial gatekeepers that will keep them there. It’s the ordinary workings of a sclerotic and largely unfettered regime of peripheral capitalism. This then is one reason—though not the only one—why until recently class was an indispensable analytical lynchpin for anyone articulating a vision of social emancipation.

But class is nowhere in Mpofu-Walsh’s frame of reference. Instead it’s clear that both his analytical and political approach fit far more comfortably within the parameters of privilege politics. Privilege theory understands inequality in terms of gradations of access to resources and opportunities. It focuses on how possession of one or some of a shifting bundle of attributes—like income, education, for example— facilitates greater access by one group over another. The problem with privilege theory is it does not quite tell us what the problem is. It simply tells us that some people have access to more social goods than others, without establishing any causal relationship between the excess of one and the lack of the other. What privilege theory fundamentally takes issue with, then, is not advantage and disadvantage per se, but the fact that certain advantages are unearned. This is evident in the idea of “white privilege”, the notion that white people accrue advantages in life by virtue of their whiteness, meaning that they are in some sense not deserving of them. What needs correction then, are the unfair obstacles in people’s way that prevent them from acquiring advantage, or the unfair assets that maintain people’s pre-existing advantage.

This is the spirit of Mpofu-Walsh’s complaint that “White people are still absent from townships, informal settlements or the former Bantustans,” and that “White South Africans often maintain gross overrepresentation in centres of economic privilege, even though Black South Africans are the overall numerical majority.”  Passages like this testify to what Mpofu-Walsh sees as the cardinal wrong of the new apartheid. Class distinctions in themselves are not so much the issue. The starting point for Mpofu-Walsh is that since one racialized group is disproportionately represented in society’s upper echelons and another in its lowest rungs, this is evidence of the fact that race still determines upward social mobility and it is this that is unfair. Once the vestiges of apartheid are out the way, once the new apartheid is dismantled, then we will truly give everyone equal opportunity to succeed (and for those who are former beneficiaries resting on their laurels, the opportunity to fail).

In Democracy and Delusion (“Myth Six: Racial Justice is Unjust), Mpofu-Walsh makes this argument more pointedly—contending that economic policy is insufficient if it only seeks redress. It needs also to “account” for those who have been the beneficiaries of injustice. “We can only achieve a true reversal of apartheid when unjustified white advantage is as much an object of concern as black disadvantage has become”—Mpofu-Walsh’s admonition is directed at those who insist on race-blind, class-focused mechanisms of redistribution (which, as an aside, would almost exclusively benefit black people). “By raising the income of a black South African or by giving them a good education,” he argues, such mechanisms “may have [accounted] for black disadvantage, but [will not have] accounted for white advantage.” It is not clear what the latter entails. It is even less clear why the racial character of what Mpofu-Walsh accepts as chiefly a problem of material and economic distribution must be emphasized. Still, he insists on its primacy: “Of course, class, gender and religious stigmatisation have also played a role in conditioning South African oppression… Race need not play the only role in rectificatory justice in South Africa, but it must occupy a central one.”

The continued commitment to race-centrism in TNA leads him into difficulties for a simple reason: when the historical regime that explicitly grounded the economic order in racial hierarchy ceases to be, race will inevitably become less significant in shaping that economic order. But Mpofu-Walsh’s refusal to accept this leads to all manner of confusion. “Apartheid was ‘deracialised’ in a narrow sense,” he contends. “Some Black South Africans can now participate in its spoils, though most still experience the vast disproportion of its evils. Apartheid used racial identity to include and to exclude; the new apartheid still excludes by race, but no longer strictly includes by race.”

What does it mean for the new apartheid to still exclude by race, but no longer strictly include by race? The empirical reality Mpofu-Walsh is straining to accommodate in his framework has to do with the homogeneity of South Africa’s majority black working-class, and with the diversity of its middle and upper strata. The conclusion Mpofu-Walsh should have arrived at, but could not (lest the integrity of his project be fatally undermined), is that race is no longer a reliable proxy for class.

Specters of capitalism in ‘The New Apartheid’

By pushing class and capitalism out of his analysis, Mpofu-Walsh ends up with a thoroughly muddled understanding of how social difference is produced and reproduced in post-Apartheid South Africa. But the abandonment of those categories has even bigger consequences: it ensures that TNA fails to explain not only how contemporary systems of inequality work, but where they come from. As attested by South Africa’s own very strong traditions of materialist scholarship —both Left and liberal—it is simply impossible to understand the broad historical evolution of systems of domination and control without rooting one’s analysis in processes of economic change. This is what is sometimes called the “dynamic asymmetry” in capitalism’s causal relevance. It might be accurate to see capitalism as just one element in a complex of interacting and mutually conditioning systems—patriarchy, apartheid, etc.—that collectively govern the social totality. But the evolution of the complex as a whole, at least across broad historical phases, tends to be propelled by the motive forces of development endogenous to the capitalist economy itself.

Hence, we cannot come to any adequate account of why Segregation gave way to Apartheid unless we are prepared to trace out the consolidation of capitalism in mid-20th Century South Africa, and the processes of urbanization, interest group formation and state modernization to which it gave rise. And similarly, we cannot understand the intractable crises that beseiged Apartheid itself from the late 1970s, leading to the democratic transition a few decades later, without adverting to the ways that advancing industrialization and shifting dynamics in the world economy created new agencies from below and reshuffled political coalitions from above. What TNA fails to appreciate, in other words, is how Apartheid itself was constituted and de-constituted in the nexuses of global and local capitalist accumulation. And that what actually happened in the mid-1990s was not that it died and magically re-birthed itself in some new form, but that capitalism simply endured and proved itself compatible—as it has throughout history—with regimes of formal equality, universal suffrage and anti-discrimination.

Once again Mpofu-Walsh thus fails to find a way out of the theoretical cul-de-sacs of the decolonial left. “White supremacy,” in their framework, appears as a transhistorical essence, springing mysteriously from the cultural matrices of Western society, that explains the perdurance of racial domination across centuries but is never itself explained. “Apartheid” in TNA is similarly mythologized. Rather than providing a clear, sociologically-grounded account of how it achieved its afterlife in the democratic era, Mpofu-Walsh resorts to abstruse metaphors—insisting that we view the new apartheid as a “virus” or an “algorithm” somehow embedded in the DNA of our society and capable of self-replication.

All of this gets at what is most concerning about the turn away from materialist analysis by a new generation of thinkers and activists who nevertheless continue to claim the mantle of emancipatory politics. For it is the same qualities that give capitalism facility as an explanatory device that make it indispensable as a political category. Capitalism proves so useful in explaining the motions of history because it points us both to where power is concentrated in society and to how it is likely to be used. What it reveals most profoundly are the unique sources of power accorded to those who own and control the means of production, and thus determine flows of investment, employment, and output. That control leaves the rest of society trapped in a dependence relationship, which fundamentally constrains avenues for social change. It is this analysis—of the power structure under capitalism—and not a special concern for the injustices of class over other forms of oppression, that is the real basis for “class primacy” on the Left. Radical theories of class show that transformative change is impossible without challenging the rule of capital.

Mpofu-Walsh’s theory of power, one he shares with many Fallists, is rather different. It is taken from Foucault and it emphasizes dispersion and diffusion: power exists in every pocket of society, “behind the walls of private enclaves, within the borders of mobile screens, in the abstract world of algorithms, in shopping malls, and in the seemingly quotidian domain of private contracts.” This is of course true, trivially so. Power is indeed everywhere, and there may be many contexts in which that is an important fact to highlight. But if our goal is to set out strategies for transformative change then focusing on diffusion is unwise for very obvious reasons. Power may be everywhere but not all power is equal. The power to rebuff a major piece of legislation by threatening to withhold investment is not the same as the power to bar someone from a gated community. In practice, the focus on diffusion usually functions to frame struggles over privilege and access as more radical and transformative than they actually are.

Where TNA stands most exposed, therefore, is in its prescriptive matter. Notwithstanding his own earlier declamations against the constitution’s impotence, Mpofu-Walsh’s only plan for confronting the new apartheid is to call for a new constitutional convention. He seems somewhat unclear in his own mind about what exactly this convention should hope to achieve. He races through a grab bag of possible amendments, some of which—like setting limits on provincial devolution—would be welcome. Others— like introducing tricameralism and diluting proportionality—would be seriously damaging. It’s not at all obvious, however, how any of the proposals would directly challenge the new apartheid and Mpofu-Walsh doesn’t spare the effort to explain how they might.

The whole exercise feels so bizarre because just a few short chapters earlier we were emphatically told that “power, not constitutions, determines a society’s character.” Yet in reverting suddenly to his own version of “constitutional triumphalism,” Mpofu-Walsh casts aside all of the conventional strategies for amassing and exercising popular power. Neither protests (“even if [they span] the length and breadth of the country”) nor new political parties will help to dislodge the new apartheid. Neither will “grand policy shifts.” Instead a mildly amended constitution is expected to do this of its own accord. This is all the more alarming because Mpofu-Walsh immediately goes on to issue a prescient warning: that a constitutional convention could be easily hijacked by authoritarians. But having just repudiated politics as such, he leaves us with no clue as to how such an outcome might be avoided. It’s hard to know what to make of all of this other than to see it as the frankly risible denouement of a train of analysis that has become completely untethered from the realities of power in a modern capitalist society.

That inequality and racism managed to survive the advent of a liberal constitution intact is no great mystery. The reason they have done so is not, as Mpofu-Walsh somehow manages to conclude, that “democracy is not democratic.” It’s that the democracy we actually got is a capitalist democracy. By obscuring this behind “the new apartheid,” Mpofu-Walsh has us fighting a phantom. And as Cabral told us, people lose energy fighting shadows; to win we have to fight the material reality that produces the shadow. Far from defining a new generational mission, Mpofu-Walsh has only shrouded our existing one in complete opacity.

To break out of its current stasis the Left in South Africa has to be prepared to re-think all its received wisdoms. But if we take the road TNA is showing us, we will get nowhere.

Further Reading

Mobilizing in disorder

Post the looting and failed insurrection, what would it mean for the South African left to undertake a populist political strategy? And should it look to South America for inspiration? A long read.

When the war is over

In his new book, the Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani argues that breaking cycles of violence requires collective action. He finds hope in the unfinished project of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle.