Fuzile Prince Jwara
Pretoria - In South Africa, there has been a pervasive perspective that economic development can best be measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, this analysis is not only inaccurate, but also a misrepresentation of socio-economic realities.
The point that is often overlooked is that GDP only measures the production and consumption of goods in a particular country. As such, GDP alone cannot reflect the socio-economic disparities in South Africa. A better analysis of welfare should be conscious of capital accumulation, for example as offered by German activist Rosa Luxemburg in 1913, and redefined by Marxist geographer David Harvey as “accumulation by dispossession”.
These theories explain how the South African economy can be considered a historically oppressive settler-colonial economy, based on the exploitation of indigenous people and mineral resources for the benefit of colonial and neo-colonial capital.
The South African economy historically relied on cheap black labour through the migrant labour system, whereby labourers travelled from various parts of southern Africa to work in the mines. Even today, the economy, similar to the rest of Africa, is partly based on minerals drawn from the earth using cheap black labour: an “extractive” economy.
Inherently, the class dynamics were simple: indigenous people experienced economic exclusion from owning the means of production, thus forming a racialised capitalism.
A historical class analysis of South Africa enables us to understand the very foundations of the economy as we know it today. There has been minimal transformation of the colonial economy and its labour processes. The migrant labour system remains integral to economic activity, where capital is still concentrated in the hands of the few, mostly white, people.
In post-apartheid South Africa, old colonial structures remain entrenched in economic activity, and in the disparities between those who control the means of production and labourers. However, there is a caveat: the elite class is no longer exclusively white.
One thing endures in contemporary South Africa, the exploitation of workers and extraction of mineral wealth. In this regard, how does one apply the GDP as a reliable measurement of South Africa when our labour force consistently ranks among the most militant in the world?
Better yet, how does a GDP per capita of $7 055 in 2021 (37th highest in the world) reflect well in what is now deemed the most unequal country in the world, with my city of Johannesburg being the most unequal city in the world, according to Euromonitor?
In contrast, six of the 20 richest people in Africa are South African as reported by Forbes magazine: Johann Rupert, Nicky Oppenheimer, Patrice Motsepe, Koos Bekker, Michiel le Roux and Christo Wiese.
Additionally, the richest 20% of the population possess at least 68% of the wealth, which according to the International Monetary Fund is far higher than the world average of 47%. Alarmingly, the top 1% owns 50% of the country’s wealth. This elucidates the racial overtones of capital accumulation in South Africa.
Such extreme wealth inequality is unsustainable. Contrary to popular belief, corporates aggressively undermine workers’ rights in South Africa hence the high labour force militancy.
This can be linked to the neoliberal policies adopted by the ANC government since 1994. Capital strike and much lower corporate taxes have decayed the state’s ability to provide the basic necessities for the people.
Our GDP indicates that poverty and inequality have reproduced and increased in a democratic South Africa.
Going forward, neoliberalism ought to follow the same fate as the National Party – a painful death. The state should be measured on its ability to care for its most vulnerable. A battle the government is not winning. A case of the blind leading the blind.
* Jwara is an MA candidate in Sociology at the University of Johannesburg.
** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.