Apartheid was infamous for promoting the separation of different races in every possible way. Its spatial settlement policies dictated where people could live and where they could not. This legacy is still evident today: Soweto is black, and Sandton is white. However, since the 1900s, there have become “grey” areas, meaning previously white-only areas that are now mixed. Others have become black and host many foreign migrants from the continent.
Generally, the upper layers of the apartheid racial hierarchy, particularly Indians and Whites, have opted for isolationism. In this case, isolationism refers to the legalised forms of apartness manifesting in politics and economics. Their stance has been to remain apart from the affairs or interests of other groups. Consequently, they have no appetite to mingle at a social level with other races, nor do they want to move into the areas that were reserved for blacks or the so-called Coloureds.
The new form of apartheid derives from the remnants of the past. Apartheid policies afforded opportunities to a tiny minority comprising whites and others but simultaneously denied millions of similar opportunities and access. The economic and cultural outcomes from apartheid are such that the white minority is culturally and economically dominant. The black majority exists in the periphery of the well-off, racially demarcated, socially defined and economically opulent enclaves dominated by the likes of Sandton, Umhlanga, Camps Bay and so on.
Thus, apartheid produced racial divisions as it produced economic divisions. The barriers to separate people are now concealed through property prices, top-end institutions like schools and universities, and living standards. It is now accepted that a poor person from Alexandra cannot simply move to Sandton or Bryanston. A person from Thokoza cannot relocate to Brackenhurst. The apartheid policies are gone, yet the status quo remains. Academic Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh argues that this new apartheid is “a privatised, decentralised, self-replicating vestige of the apartheid state”.
This background probably points to the obvious, and many people will use democratic jargon to justify these deep divisions in the so-called South African society. Fair enough, people have a choice of where they want to live. Others will argue that blacks should have created or made their areas livable. In most cases, the ANC is often scapegoated for many problems it did not create. The ‘peaceful settlement’ of the 1990s, which forbade corrective actions like reparations and reparations, helped to strengthen the rule and power of the minority over the majority. It is, therefore, necessary to explore how the minority maintains its dominance even under black control in South Africa.
Without stretching the discussion too far, the positioning of educated and professional blacks under the new dispensation rarely gets the attention of scholars and analysts, significantly how they contribute to maintaining the vestiges of apartheid. Former president Jacob Zuma called them ‘clever blacks’ (political aloofness), marketers referred to them as ‘black diamonds’ (buying power), and they prefer to see themselves as the erudite class. Most literature talks about the ‘black middle class’, supposedly in reference to the same group.
I argue that the black middle class is an extension of apartheid thinking rather than an occurrence that sought to transform South African society. This group resembles Australia’s Stolen Generations. Tracing from the Aborigines Protection Act 1909, the racist Australian authorities “had wide-ranging control over the lives of Aboriginal people, including the power to remove Aboriginal children from their families under a policy of ‘assimilation'”.
The assimilation policies claimed that the lives of natives would be significantly improved if they became part of white society. The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families produced The Bringing Them Home report 1987 which estimated that “at least 100,000” children were removed from their parents.
Similarly, after 1994, scores of educated and professional blacks have been ‘removed’ from their places to white areas. This engineered internal migration implies that it deprives black communities of some of its best brains and competent individuals who could contribute to their development and upkeep. In his book ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’, Trinidadian scholar Walter Rodney argued that Western colonial capitalism suffocated socio-economic productivity in Africa. A similar phenomenon is taking place in South Africa where economic domination and expansionism policies have resulted in a ‘drain of wealth’, in the words of Indian economist Dadabhai Naoroji. They also produced or exacerbated the problem of unequal development where one side gets more affluent, and the other gets poorer. Rodney’s logic suggests that the two sides are interconnected and symbiotic in the sense that “the two help produce each other by interaction”. A dysfunctional and poor black community is necessary to prop up the economically superior white community, which has been happening for over five centuries. The contemporary capitalism of liberals, which claims to protect human rights and be concerned about people’s lives, provides the newest rationale for sustaining the divisions in South Africa.
The South African system was rigged from the start to produce an outcome that is wholly beneficial to one side. This must be contextualised by drawing from historical texts under colonialism and apartheid.
A document titled ‘The Poor White Problem in South Africa: Report of the Carnegie Commission’ (1932), a study of poverty among white South Africans, “made recommendations about segregation that some have argued would later serve as a blueprint for apartheid”. This report identified the cleverest blacks as a potential threat to whites. Further, it argued that the most competent blacks would provide stiff competition to whites and also increase white poverty if given opportunities. The policies of job reservation and unequal education under apartheid must be understood against this backdrop. Apartheid was an economic system to advance whites at the expense of the black majority.
Almost forty-five years later, in 1977, Ernst Oppenheimer came up with the Urban Foundation, an initiative that aimed to reverse the recommendations of the Carnegie Commission in 1932. Instead of looking at the intelligent blacks as a threat, Oppenheimer and other wealthy whites argued for developing a robust capitalist class to cushion their ill-gotten economic gains. Hence, the Urban Foundation went against apartheid policies and channelled investments to black areas, education and jobs. This period resulted in the recognition of black trade unions, the development of new upmarket settlements in townships and the building of educational institutions like Mangosuthu Technikon in Umlazi.
The ideas developed by the Urban Foundation later provided the starting point for the ANC’s transformation agenda after 1994. Such things as black economic empowerment and affirmative action were byproducts of creating a vibrant capitalist class that Oppenheimer and his colleagues envisaged in the nineteen seventies. These ideas proved helpful since the ANC had no solid economic agenda, and even the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) was not as good as it often claimed. This vacuum then re-centred the old white capital in the economic agenda of the post-apartheid South African state.
What the end of apartheid did was produce one country with many economies. 1998, former president Thabo Mbeki came to a very disturbing conclusion that “neither were we becoming one nation”. These were early signs that the character of South Africa was not changing. Mbeki debunked the “miracle” myth and did not end there. A few years later, in his ‘two nations’ speech, he said South Africa was like that double-storey house “without a connecting staircase”. The upper level has a modern economy which draws all the cleverer blacks.
The lower level of the house has an economy where the poor are perpetually trapped and people are illiterate, without skills and have no access to clean water. Most interesting is that most individuals characterised as the black middle class come from these poverty-stricken areas. Thus, black areas have experienced a phenomenal brain drain in the past thirty years, which does not promise to stop.
Unfortunately, brain drain due to internal migration, specifically from black to white areas, is the least studied in South Africa. Unlike in the former Soviet Union (i.e., kolkhozes and sovkhozes) and China (see the liudong renkou, or “floating population”), the phenomena of internal migration and labour movements from black areas to white urban centres remain less understood. Internal migration has been treated as only affecting the poor. Hellen Zille’s comments about “education refugees” from the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape did not do justice to attempts to understand what may be happening in South Africa. Poor blacks are treated as the ‘scum of the earth’, whereas educated ones receive slightly better treatment.
The reason for extending better treatment to the black middle emanates from their exploitability and conditioning as supporters of white cultural and economic dominance. Disguised as the integration of races, the aggressive assimilation of blacks to white culture and establishments has been rife under democracy than in any other time of South Africa’s chequered past. Their success is entirely independent of their families and communities that raised them. To cover for this unusual but deliberate situation, mainstream discourses blame the government and not the systematic extraction of wealth (including people, capital, labour and other resources) from black communities.
University of Johannesburg’s Grace Khunou once referred to the ‘precarious middle’ to denote the confusing space the black middle class finds itself, i.e., “often you are not different enough to be seen as middle class at home (black township or rural village) nor are you white enough to be middle class in terms of full access to privilege that defines the white middle-class experience.” Nonetheless, the situation of the black middle class can be amply explained using the core- periphery model of Immanuel Wallerstein. Firstly, the white establishment is the core with a dominant capitalist class that exploits black settlements (periphery) for labour and resources. Secondly, the periphery is underdeveloped, as described above. Finally, the core and the periphery are separated by the black middle class that shares the characteristics of both yet is as hapless as the underdeveloped periphery.
The reason for this state of affairs is that the very fragile black middle class exists at the behest of the powerful white economic and political classes, not the government as such. The white establishment offers them capital (loans and mortgages), a refuge in white areas, jobs and salaries, socialisation, pseudo freedoms (e.g., Black Twitter and social media), meaningless political affiliations, etc. This population class floats and has no value besides serving the master. South Africa derives no long-term benefit from its existence. Still, white capital sees some value in the black class as providers of labour, markets and useful fools for protecting its dominance. White companies do not promote blacks for altruistic reasons but know that the system would be incomplete without them.
Sociologist Xolela Mangcu believes that race transcends class: “I would have to announce that I am a professor before I am treated with respect.” While this view is true to some extent, Mangcu appears to overlook the psychological conditioning of the members of the black middle class, which drives them to yearn for acceptance and better treatment because they are unlike “them” (blacks in the periphery). Assimilation is a currency that middle-class blacks do not mind chasing, even in cases where it is evident that they are being played and ill-treated. This stolen generation does not mind existing in the shadows of the white superstructure, despite its “revolutionary” speak.
In the end, there are Blacks and blacks in South Africa. The capital letter Black refers to individuals with better incomes and some access to white infrastructure, including capital, culture, language, institutions, and settlements. The other black denotes the periphery and its inhabitants – poverty, low wages, neglect, unemployment, and many socio-economic ills. Interestingly, the Blacks think they have solutions for the “other”. Such things as the vacuous idea of a ‘township economy’ and freebies more than illustrate that the peripheral blacks are on their own and that they will not reap any benefit from the famed freedom and democracy.
If Australia managed to sort out the messy affair involving the stolen aboriginal children, South Africa’s stolen generation is unlikely to be reclaimed. It is gone for good. Black families and communities raised children that have since been absorbed in the world that oppressed them for centuries. Now serving as a buffer between the black periphery and white core, the black middle class is comfortable with its ill-defined middle status for as long as it continues to get crumbs from the wealthier core. The black middle class has dismally failed to develop its discourses but prefers the ‘mainstream’ debates to preserve their space as good blacks as well as to ensure proximity and access to white infrastructure.
The black middle class is one of many reasons South Africa will never change: its interests overlap with those of the white core but are far removed from those of their families and communities in the periphery. The stolen generations are defenders of white capitalism and exploitation of the black periphery.
Siya yi banga le economy!