A few years ago, American political scientist Naomi Klein advanced a disturbing treatise that South Africa was a “democracy born in chains”. Her shock doctrine did not cover the historical disaster that South African has always been despite its vast resources of gold and diamonds, but she exposed economic agenda after apartheid. There was commitment to neoliberal economic agenda which sought assure foreign investors that a ‘free market’ would prevail in post-Apartheid South Africa. From the onset it was clear that there were incompatibilities between the chosen economic route and the nature of work that was needed to deliver freedom to those who had waited over five centuries for it to come. These clashes that could be responsible for the disastrous situation below the Drakensberg mountains.

The debate about the true character of the post-apartheid South Africa has not been limited to academic circles, but ordinary people have also come out to add their voice. Besides young students who have been vociferous about statues as symbols of apartheid and colonialism, the questions on the South Africa we proudly call home have always lingered. For example, the late reggae icon Lucky Dube’s song ‘Mickey Mouse Freedom’ questioned whether the much vaunted ‘new’ South Africa was still in chains or is truly free. As Dube aptly put it, “We did not start this fire but we’re burning now!”

This article deploys a multi-disciplinary approach to present evidence that freedom for the African majority in South Africa remains an elusive concept. The formerly oppressed and other underclasses, irrespective of their origins, watch as the promise for freedom for all withers. Oppressive institutions from the law and judiciary to public policy drift far away from them each time they demand their freedoms. Instead, these institutions easily find acceptance in certain quarters of the divided community, where the minority has never believed in equality and sharing spaces with Africans. Pitifully, the adoption of Western liberalism means that the black elite has joined forces with the (civilised) elements that do not do not believe “pagans” have rights. The article seeks to add to the argument advanced by Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh that “apartheid didn’t die … it was privatised”.

As the ‘new’ South Africa urges close to celebrating thirty years of democracy, more questions than answers about why its failures outstrip successes always pop up in formal and informal conversations alike. Notwithstanding the collapse and heaps of problems that face the country, especially black people, the storyline is still victorious and triumphant: the lives of black people are better than they were under apartheid and colonialism. This writeup questions if those who are mandated to improve the lives of the forever oppressed could not have chosen anything else other than the low standards in apartheid and colonialism to gauge progress after 1994?

à Low apartheid standards as a yardstick

There are many options that could have been selected, these range from the former east bloc countries in Europe to Canada and South Korea. Lack of ambition and outright treachery have meant least progress when we claim to be moving forward. Unfortunately, politicians, academics and others have succeeded to convince us that black people deserve slightly better than what apartheid offered in the absence of new ideas. Vanessa Malila rejects calling young people Born Frees, because “society is using apartheid as a reference point to identify a post-apartheid generation”. This essentially adds to the argument that the apartheid standard is too low and that it is possibly responsible for short sightedness and extremely low bar that we have set for ourselves.

Born Frees wake up every day without food, education, and jobs; this is more like freedom on a hungry stomach. This begs a question that troubles many people, how can we boast that we are free when the basic needs are not even in place?

A large percentage of the black majority depends on social grants and RDP housing, and scores more survive on slave wages, if employed at all, in the retail sector, domestic work, informal work and odd jobs. The main problem with their recurrent unsatisfactory material condition is that it could spell disaster for the country in the long run. It could lead to people believing false promises or see them engage in behaviours that are wilfully self-destructive like suicide and drug abuse. Economists insist that a job is only about the exchange of labour for wages. However, a sociological interpretation of a job is that it is “about status dignity self-respect the ability to find a meaningful place in society”.

Economists and experts on television and mainstream media roll the numbers on how well stock exchange portfolios, currency and commodities are performing, and how good this is for the South African economy. Rephrasing the words of the Harvard historian Charles Meyer, something that is always concealed from the population is that the ‘new’ South Africa was hooked onto the dangerous Western liberalism which openly advocated for the destruction of production to embracing consumption as a way of life. Today’s economy is more about consumption as it is about debt, it is corporatised as it is over-financialised. Banks and other financial institutions run the show whereas monetary policy is in deep slumber.

Since the mid-1990s, South Africa was asked to forsake interventions in the economy like subsidies of many sorts and other strategies like exchange controls and social investments, to adopt neoliberal economic agenda. Not only did South Africa join the World Trade Organisation (WTO), but it also concluded unfavourable bilateral trade agreements with developed countries and acceded to economic partnership agreements with the likes of the European Union and the United States as well as China. This was to ensure that the country like the rest of the developing world is trapped at the foot base of lobal production – its only relevance to the global economy is consumption and providing raw materials that fuel its marginalisation.

The reality is that the country is now compelled to forever borrow money from the global financial institutions to maintain a lifestyle we cannot afford. These deliberate distortions began to accelerate under Thabo Mbeki with the introduction of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) in 1996. Mbeki came out in 2016 to argue that GEAR was meant to save the country from debt “when it was obvious South Africa would spend more money servicing debt”. What Mbeki omits to point out is that Thatcherism/ Reagenism kick started the ‘democracy [that was] born in chains’ long before economic fundamentalism began to bite in both Britain and the USA. Brexit was a loud bang against free-market policies and so was the rise of Donald Trump to lead the US.

à Searching for solutions in a wrong forest

In his book America: The Farewell Tour, Chris Hedges presents a comprehensive account of what he believes to be the devastating effects of capitalism on the United States and in fact the entire world. We are yet to see a similar criticism that is directed at South Africa which is basically on an unstoppable economic free fall, which the likes of Tito Mboweni think can be plastered with ideas from Harvard economists like Ricardo Hausmann and Robert Lawrence. Many of these economists have no solutions to American problems but, for some reason, they think their ideas are good enough to provide solutions to countries they barely know. Unfortunately, even home-grown economists and (un)thinkers are bred from the same stable as Hausmann and Lawrence. They are all trapped in the politics of free-markets and interventionism; but economics is about solving the problems of scarcity and distribution of resources.

The point that we always forget is that South Africa has always been in the hands of powerful corporate dynasties like Cecil John Rhodes and Ernst Oppenheimer. These corporations hoard all the wealth and resources in South Africa. It the same captains of industry who reached out the ANC in exile to discuss a new dispensation, which on its own was a serious contradiction because the capitalists benefited handsomely from oppressive apartheid laws. However, they knew that the desperate freedom fighters were not in a position to negotiate anything in poor stomachs and that gave them an upper hand to deliver Lucky Dube’s ‘mickey mouse freedom’ to the black majority – as soon as the votes were cast in 1994 the music began.

Individuals were honoured with political positions and BEE handouts, which means they were going to become accomplices as the political rights and freedoms of the previously oppressed were exchanged for cigars, posh cars and expensive whiskeys. South Africa’s corporate state “practices only the politics of vengeance. It uses coercion, fear, violence, police terror and mass incarceration as forms of social control while it cannibalises the nation… for profits.” Unfortunately, there is no way out. Europe is battling the large American technology companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and others because they apparently mop all the wealth and abuse their market position. They pass legislation like the Digital Markets Act which unashamedly point to the intention to break them up to allow smaller players to compete. South Africa looks away every time the dominant market positions of the oligopolies is raised.

That is in true nature of free market fundamentalism which dominates our national economic discourses and thinking. Free markets are favoured over logic and coherent reasoning. Government is not only seen as bad, but it is viewed only as an ‘enabler’ for companies to run circles around communities when extracting value and destroying livelihoods in both cities and rural areas. They are defended as angels because they purportedly bring jobs. In 2018, for example, Cyril Ramaphosa remarked that “we should treat our entrepreneurs as heroes”. He continued to say that “We have become accustomed to…treating our entrepreneurs and businesspeople [badly] and called them all sorts of names. We’ve treated them like enemies and…white monopoly capital – that must end today.”

And when one asks, what jobs and kind of jobs do companies create and where are those jobs? Such questions are met with defeating silence, if not arrogance. The situation, under Western liberal thinking, is such that public institutions are not only cannibalised for corporations and their extensive networks, but they are also lined up to undermine the needs of the people. We have grown familiar with the phrase that ‘government is not the solution government is the problem’. The likes of Sipho Nkosi are invited “to cut red tape across our economy and government”. This is a contradiction to ordinary logic and explains why economic policy is like a thick brown mud that is difficult to filter.

Corporate cannibalism is a dangerous ideology which economic demagogues have embraced as the truth and the only way. Classical economic thinking also permeates our national discourses across the political spectrum to date. Toxic capitalism advances its interests with little or no regard of what is happening in the community around it. Current thinking in economics unfortunately puts Discovery, Naspers and Shoprite on the same continuum as poor families in squatter-camps who are trying to raise children on a substandard wage or no wage at all. The extreme economic positions that country took in the early 1990s, and continues to believe in, are not able to support the freedom that the people yearned for. The opportunities for a better life have been slowly erased as de-industrialisation of major towns and centres goes unabated.

à Le Suicide – a pathology of the economically depressed

Only the blind would not see the calamity in large scale collapse of old mining and agricultural towns as well as industrial centres across the country, which have had insurmountable consequences collapsed communities and the loss of relatively good paying manufacturing jobs, especially for white people. But for the black people who were affixed to these urban centres as parasites, the damage has even been bigger without an economic alternative or responses to their plight. It may be necessary to break down the nature of problems that the communities in Estcourt, Welkom, Kriel and Benoni face today. The once thriving towns are now nests of hornets who have no clue about economic development and how to create production bases. Rurality that does not support livelihoods is expanding at a rapid pace all over the country. An opportunity to end economic dualism was foregone a while ago.

The scourge of addition to nyaope and other narcotics depressants, violence and suicide remain understudied, especially its direct relationship to free-market capitalism which continues to destroy their dream of freedom. Emile Durkheim’s ground-breaking study of suicide called Le Suicide (1897) submitted that the causes of suicide and self-destruction can be social rather than individual. This argument is unlikely to gain favour with the adherents of the dominant individualistic Protestant dogma which dismisses anything and everything that has to do with values that espouse collectiveness or community.

Be that as it may, it cannot be denied that South Africa faces serious challenges with drug abuse, alcohol abuse, violence and other pathologies that exacerbate community decline and lawlessness, which is now blamed on unfortunate African migrants. Expanding on the latter, the imagined problem of migrants is presenting con artists like Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini and his Operation Dudula an opportunity to trivialise the huge problem of poverty and neglect of black communities in South Africa. Others like EEF’s Julius Malema are driven by reasons that are controversial and bordering on self-preservation.

The dark pathologies confronting communities today represent alienation, dislocation, and despair. Thabo Mbeki’s ‘two-nations’ phenomenon has its roots in the 1800s when the present South African state was being gathered, and the birth of the Union South Africa in 1910 as well as the victory of apartheid warlords in 1948 deeply isolated the black population. The 1990s to date deepened the problem further with black liberal elites in charge who are comfortable living with extreme political distortions. They have failed to respond to the cries and mourning about exclusion, poverty, social ills, depravation, and marginalisation.

The ancient-old struggles against land dispossession, hut tax and forced labour were not about feeling good about being black but they were about entrenched of destructive capitalism and its aftermath. When the chance arose in 1994 to integrate most people, economically politically and socially, into a well-conceived system, that opportunity was spurned. Instead, we had faith in a system that did not respond in any way to people’s rights and their grievances. Hence, nobody sees anything wrong with GEAR or the National Development Plan, introduced under Jacob Zuma.

The tragedy that has befallen us is the narrative ‘nine wasted years’ narrative, which distorts the real picture about South Africa’s problems which have a very long history, and which were also misread throughout the democratic dispensation to this day. The steady disintegration of the nightmarish dream of Nelson Mandela of a ‘new’ South Africa means that the pressure becomes worse as the economic situation deteriorates if these conditions go unaddressed. It is obvious that the pathologies, explained above, would certainly explode.

The malfunctions in our society manifest in underage pregnancies, youth violence, school dropouts, underperformance in school, varsity dropouts, poverty among senior citizens and high unemployment for youths, breadwinners, and adult population. Disintegrating societies resort to violence, see in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and parts of Asia as well as in the developed countries like England, France, and the US. The large scale of problems signals how Mandela’s nightmarish vision of a non-racial, freedom for all is quickly dissolving without anyone caring to admit that this is happening.

For as long as we do not concede that the post-1994 dispensation was captured at birth and that freedom is like a distant small cloud, the ‘new’ South Africa’s contraction will continue in the absence of a political dream that will ensure economic emancipation and freedom for the marginalised are realised. Peace will evade us, and misery will follow us. This is not a problem of lumbering politicians who cannot think beyond their stomachs and political survival. However, this worrisome state should concern anyone who wishes to see the ‘two-nations’ disappear in South Africa.

We need to reshape South Africa to start thinking about an economic system that works for everyone. The JSE, large corporations, banks, retailers and miners represent a catastrophic failure and death of what could have been a new era for South Africa. Celebrating an upsurge in share prices, profits, salaries of CEOs and underpaying jobs is misleading amid all problems we have. Also, this does not represent success and is not a correct measurement of economic dynamism and success. We have placed so much faith on economists and politicians who regularly report on employment rather than telling us about the true state of South African life.

The methodology for arriving at current employment rates is disturbing because the notion of employment appears to be ‘fixed’, meaning employment must be reported on even when there is clearly none. Looking at how unemployment is measured, if a person works one hour a week he is counted as employed. The average worker at Checkers works more than 40 hours a week for a paltry salary, which puts him below the poverty line, but he is counted as employed. If individuals have stopped looking for work after, say, four weeks they are magically erased from the unemployment rolls. The data from StatsSA does not count students and the elderly who must do odd jobs to survive. There are many ‘working poor’ who are counted as employed whereas they barely make ends meet.

à Spurned opportunity and regime shifting in economics and politics

The plunging flight has narcissists behind the wheel, they oversee courts, academia, legislative bodies, cultural organisations, and the press. They are in celebratory mood when national political discourse is not rooted and verifiable fact. Facts are interchangeable with opinions truth is whatever you want it to be, which means there is disregard of the reality. For example, media platforms freely propagate or disseminate these lies uncritically and corrode discourse in South Africa. The devils are out and about in newsrooms and social media to spread their vile, but nobody cares calling them to order.

We are at phase where no one is permitted to point out flaws in the institutions that are supposedly meant to ensure a functioning democracy. What is expediently forgotten is that the job of the constitution, court, academia and the press is “to make sure that people speak about a verifiable reality”. What is disturbing is that those institutions have become corrupted weak and destroyed or replaced with systems that promote ideologues who masquerade as news outlets, or reasonable men in gowns. The court system is conflicted in terms of the role it is supposed to play in uplifting the marginalised and ensuring that their voices and freedoms are not dissipated.

Hedges argues that the present conditions create a kind of schizophrenia: “where you may see reality in front of you, but reality is denied…” This is what Hannah Arendt calls totalitarianism, where “large numbers of people felt dispossessed, disenfranchised, disconnected from dominant social institutions.” This prompts a very noble question that is often asked: Whose freedom was this in anyway? The reality is that the ‘new’ South Africa has not delivered freedom but loneliness and despair. In all her words, Arendt has always been more than convinced that “loneliness could makepeoplesusceptible to totalitarianism”.

Millions of people sit and watch while others reap the fruits of their freedom. They are shut out: no jobs, land, education, health, security and other opportunities. They exist in the margins of opulence. It is normal to see Stellenbosch look down on Khayamnandi, Sandton on Alex, Silverlakes on Nelmapius and Mandela, Steyn City on Olievenhoutbosch, and Umhlanga on Blackburn Village. The municipalities of eThekwini and Ekurhuleni have approximately hundreds of informal settlements that suffer from higher rates of fires, natural disasters, and crime than formal parts of the city. These inhabitants are like ‘invisible citizens’, which explains the unpunished crimes meted on them.

South Africa is a violent country against the indigenous population who are forever promised a dream but when they think they are getting close to attaining it the goalposts move. For example, the country’s human rights and labour rights regime could not save workers in Marikana, and the same can be said about Phoenix in Durban. South Africa distinguishes itself a violent society against its marginalised black population, whom political scientist Aubrey Matshiqi characterized as a “numerical majority that is a cultural minority”. Reality is such that the violence promotes ‘volkstaats’ (economically and politically independent enclaves) under right-wing, white groups.

The presence of Afriforum, Solidarity, Cape Movement, DA, FF Plus and others mean that the exclusion of blacks is not only tolerated but encouraged. Economic neo-Nazism is rampant in South Africa where it is disguised as government failure to advance a form of racial purification based on economic superiority. These groups are financially endowed and have the means as well as political clout internally and externally to advance their agenda. Afriforum, for example, manoeuvred its way to the United Nations. They together Solidarity use their economic might to corner the judiciary and public policy to agree to their Aryan race driven programmes like the one-language policy and private institutions.

The dispossessed segment of the South African population watches in awe as the neoliberal black elite empties its political mandate to courts and other non-legislative institutions. Matters of critical importance like land reform and economic/ political/ social transformation are decided in courts rather than in parliament. Today it is fashionable to suppress debate and to avoid accountability using phrases like ‘sub judice’ or ‘the matter has been decided in court…there is nothing we can do’. At that time, the people who did not start this fire continue to burn.

With all said, it therefore does not come as a surprise when people in South Africa start to yearn for what University of North Carolina professor Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja calls the “second independence”. But the problem is that anger could be misdirected away from the endemic systematic issues that belie all the challenges. The economy and freedom have always seen as incompatibles. The grim picture is such that “control of the economy remains rigidly racialised in favour of the 7.8% of the population who are white to the exclusion of the 80.8% who are black African”. Debt to GDP ratio is above 75 percent, meanwhile youth unemployment is 75%.

Who is ready to admit freedom was never delivered to its intended recipients? 

Siya yi banga le economy!