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Ethics, politics and inequality

Console Tleane. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Console Tleane. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Published Jan 24, 2022


Console Tleane. Picture: Oupa Mokoena


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As the apartheid government entered the last stage of its crisis of legitimacy around 1984, there emerged suggestions for a National Convention to facilitate a negotiated settlement.

Some components of the liberation movement called for “Death to the National Convention”, as the rallying cry of an article in the 1985 edition of the journal Frank Talk sparked debate.

The 1989/90 edition of Frank Talk carried another article titled Pretoriastroika: Who Benefits? The article questioned the motives and seeming willingness of the apartheid regime to enter into negotiations with the liberation movement and warned in part: “Pretoriastroika is an attempt to give the soul of apartheid-capitalism a human face: it is of benefit only to the ruling class and its imperialist backers”.

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It is now history that the warnings against a negotiated settlement were ignored. Instead, with the support of local and international capital, liberal academics, and the mainstream liberal media, those keen on negotiations were regarded as pragmatists, while those posing critical questions were labelled unrealistic warmongering hardliners.

To say that almost every word in the warnings by the hardliners have come true would be an understatement. All the statistics and qualitative reports issued by official and non-governmental organs show that the condition of black people presents a depressing state of post-apartheid South Africa; from the ownership of the economy through to education, housing, health services, safety, and a range of other indices.

On the other hand, white privilege remains intact. As one activist often puts it, “1994 took away white guilt and left black dispossession and poverty intact”.

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It is against this background that we must read Ethics, Politics, Inequality: New Directions – State of the Nation, edited by Narnia Bohler-Muller, Crain Soudien and Vasu Reddy.

While the editors and some of the authors may not agree entirely with this review the book points to the crisis that the post-apartheid state is facing on many fronts. It builds on a body of academic literature, some critical and others less critical, but all providing analysis of post-apartheid South Africa.

Many books, academic journal articles, and popular mainstream and activist media articles continue to be published showing the deficiencies of post-apartheid political economy.

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Anchored on the notion of the need for care, Ethics, Politics, Inequality: New Directions – State of the Nation focuses on six areas: politics, ethics, and the state; political economy; society; well-being and identity; culture; and the country’s relations with the world.

The first part focuses on the role of the state and its ability to drive development, considering the electoral system that many suggest is flawed as it denies direct representation for communities, challenges with regard to lack of access to land by women, and an assessment of the leadership qualities of successive post-apartheid presidents.

What this section lacks in analysis is to situate the deficiencies of the system as a reflection on the crisis of the capitalist system, which is essentially about elite rule and interests and never about uplifting the under-privileged.

The deficiencies of the first part are complimented by part two, which addresses the political economy of post-apartheid South Africa. Examining the issues of socio-economic rights, corruption, the minimum wage, and efforts to introduce progressive taxation, different authors adopt what one may regard as Neo-Ricardian and Neo-Keynesian considerations with an emphasis on the need for the minimum wage and an interventionist state that aims to reduce the tyranny of an unmonitored private sector. These demands however fall short of recognising the fact that Milton Friedman-inspired policies have a tight grip on world governments, including South Africa, who seem helpless against the ravages of the market.

The negative effects of market-rule are demonstrated in parts three and four, where food insecurity, the failing right to education (pun unintended), crumbling healthcare services whose embarrassing low point was Life Esidimeni, and the ever-recurring claims of anti-immigrant sentiments within certain working-class communities (itself a sign of the precarity of both the immigrant and the locals), are highlighted.

As radical sociologists and anthropologists would argue, culture is a window into the history and political economy of a society. The section on culture demonstrates this axiom. The prevailing conservative approach to issues of sexual orientation is but a reflection of a society whose revolution and ability to shed off parochial views was deferred.

The society’s culture is also captured through film-making, with a focus on Yesterday, Jerusalema and District Six as motion pictures that depict poverty, gendered oppression, crime and the ever-present challenges of race and racism.

Finally, the country is located within an international space that is faced with challenges of rising right-wing politics, shrinking productive forces, and trade wars, all in the era of Covid-19. The outlook remains bleak. This raises issues about the positioning of South Africa in world affairs, including its self-positioning and use of soft power to mediate some of the conflicts on the African continent.

In all these, the notion of Pan-Africanism is revisited; whether it may be a vehicle to address some of the challenges that the continent is facing. The continent’s emerging centrality in world affairs and the prospects of its growing influence to shape world affairs is examined, with hopes of influencing a different global state of affairs. South Africa would have to play a critical role in this positioning.

One thing lingers as one concludes the book. Until those with influence stop tinkering with the system and embark on efforts to bring about fundamental change, there may never be an end to debates about inequality. Frankly, these debates have become an orgy of intellectual exchanges with no solution in sight, let alone signs of alternative thinking.

Analysis that avoids the history, impact and continued manifestation of the negotiated settlement and resultant transition will always provide answers that avoid the real issues. Calls for ethics will unfortunately fall on rocky ground.

· Ethics, Politics, Inequality: New Directions – State of the Nation is published by HSRC Press. It can be bought from bookshops and online outlets and retails for R300.

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