The constitutional compromise of 1994 is one part of the problem. The other is a ruling party navigating its own limits for change, writes Malcolm Ray.
In the late 1970s, a group of mainly white intellectuals were expelled from the ANC for challenging the party line. The group, led by Martin Legassick, argued that the ANC was a working-class organisation with a middle-class leadership and policies.
Within the ANC, it was Thabo Mbeki who led the attack against the group, arguing that the ANC was a broad church whose overriding strategic imperative was the struggle for democracy.
Somewhat prophetically, it was Legassick who argued, shortly after his expulsion in 1980, that if race and class were functional equivalents of apartheid, democracy - in the absence of an overhaul of the material basis of apartheid - would legitimise racial inequality.
More than three decades later, at a workshop convened by his foundation last Sunday, Mbeki gave full force to this challenge when he argued that the rising spectre of racial inequality and racism demanded urgent and critical reappraisal of the whole enterprise of nation building and socio-economic transformation.
But if Mbeki’s rationalisation of the 1994 settlement as a necessary compromise in an unfavourable balance of forces is anything to go by, such an endeavour requires, first, that nation building and policy-making be examined in the terrain of public debate and policy initiatives to uncover popular assumptions that are increasingly informing “common sense” knowledge on these subjects.
Second, and in many ways more problematically, nation building has to be located within the broader context of the ruling party’s history if we are to grasp the significance of debates on the constitutional imperative of social justice and equality.
In Mbeki’s view, the issue comes to down to how much of the 1996 constitution remains “transformative”.
Yet we may equally ask, how much of the constitution is rooted in the ANC’s preconceptions of democracy?
In 1996, then-minister of justice Penuell Maduna said the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act was a “historic bridge” by which the country could “leave behindâ€¦ a deeply divided society characterised by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice, and commence the journey towards a future founded on the recognition of human rights, democracy and peaceful coexistence”.
Overlaying this legislation were constitutional elements of a form of “substantive” nationalism in what was de facto an engineered harmony between rival power blocs rather than existing social forces.
It is partly in this sense that the ANC advocated “individual’s rights” as an essential condition for the post-liberation nation.
In a discussion document prepared for its 1997 national conference, the ANC reasoned that “we must seek to provide individuals with the space to express their multiple identities in ways that foster the evolution of a broader South Africanism as their primary identity”.
In other words, individual relations (rather than historical tensions between social forces) were fashioned on a discourse of forgiveness - and social cohesion classically consecrated on the notion of a social contract.
It was within this engineered harmony that a black business class slowly evolved through the 1990s, and along with it a complicated array of “deracialised” post-liberation identities that saw the “bridges” to which Maduna alluded in his 1996 address to Parliament, being built - but between the hegemonic economic interests of different skin colours.
For not a few wealthy whites, journalist Lin Sampson wrote in 1997, a well-ordered transition would mean “pushing the past out of sight and into the dark recesses of time”.
Certainly, for white Afrikaners in the National Party (while it existed) and neo-liberals in the Democratic Party (now the DA), democracy was a mere institution - not yet a nation that some held to exist.
Along with these developments, the non-retributive thrust of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission meant, on a more fundamental level, that no white South African felt obliged to offer reparations.
Nor did a single businessman apply for amnesty.
The problem lay less in the constitution as a product of compromise than in the ANC’s own conception of democracy as a deracialised form of capitalism, articulated in the Freedom Charter and embodied in the 1996 constitution.
The preamble to the constitution sets out the need to heal the divisions of the past between the colonisers and colonised through affirmation and redress.
Yet, according to Ivor Chipkin in his 2007 book Do South Africans Exist? “the colonisers by and large were allowed to retain ownership of the factors of production and their wealth in exchange for universal franchise and some form of redress”.
Seen in this perspective, it had become apparent by the time the government of Mbeki was nominally invested with power, in early 1998, that South Africa was in danger of becoming a social concert of black and white elites (on one level), and a social glut of poor outsiders on another.
For if race and class appeared to have become, simultaneously, as Legassick predicted in 1980, a function of social inscription beyond liberation, then the fractured communities frozen in 10 ethno-national identities during colonialism and apartheid would yet have to remake themselves out of a vast culture (and a vast economy) of misrecognition that had been entrenched as much by liberal advocates of “deracialisation” among the white propertied classes as by apartheid.
All this reflected a growing realisation in the ANC, by the time of the Mbeki presidency, that BEE and its corollary, “deracialisation”, had been an essentially “elite” phenomenon.
Full membership and rights, at least by the new millennium, were being asymmetrically accessed by money and consequentially with nation-building, camouflaged by individual rights mediated by market forces.
By the time the administration of Jacob Zuma took office in 2009, artificially frozen racial identities were dissolving into social inequality.
For the black majority today, the failure of the economy to create jobs for youth, as the National Planning Commission (NPC) cautioned in its 2011 report, “directly threatens the delicate balance between the constitutional imperative for redistribution and the need to escape the shadow of the past and build inclusivity for all - black and white”.
According to the NPC: “The constitution is South Africa’s foundation, that which binds the nation.
“Yet factors such as crime, corruption, poor values and ethics, unequal experience of the law and unrealised rights undermine this foundation.”
The question this begs is: can we speak of nation building as a generalised form of transformation?
The simple answer is not in the form in which it was historically understood and articulated by the ANC. Racism is no longer institutionalised; all South Africans have the franchise; and a democratic constitution has put an end to legal discrimination.
Yet, according to the 2010 Development Indicators Report, race and citizenship status largely parallel social inequality.
In other words, social status and persistent racial hierarchies are directly correlated with national identity and citizen status.
In this perspective, although most members of poor communities continue to live as citizens in a democratic state, they tend to be only conditionally citizens of the nation-state.
Thus the ANC’s theory of internal colonialism, in which white “colonisers” dominate and exploit the black colonised under a proto-fascist dictatorship, does not neatly account for the exclusion of one section of the nation from opportunities within a matrix of equal constitutional rights beyond liberation.
In its full sense, the internalised and induced reproduction of socio-economic relations (in so far as they are related to persistent racial hierarchies of power) in no way dissolves the historical contradictions inherent in the national question.
At best, they neutralise the national question by refracting the fundamental fault lines through the elite discourses of BEE - and lately, radical economic transformation.
And here it’s worth reminding ourselves that democracy, in the ANC’s historical perspective, has meant deracialised capitalism.
* Ray is a policy analyst at Africa Empowerment and senior research fellow at the University of Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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