780 11.05.2014 ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe shares a moment president Jacob Zuma as the ANC celebrates the party's victory in the 2014 election at Library Gardens. Johannesburg. Picture: Itumeleng English

The ANC must learn from the history of white South Africans to understand how to build wealth, writes Prince Mashele.


It is very easy for people to drown in the illusion that they are making history when they are actually not. The ANC says: “We have a good story to tell,” implying that South Africans – under the ANC-led government – have for the past 20 years been making history.

Is it true?

It would be impossible to answer this question without understanding how white people made history in South Africa before 1994. The Frontier Wars (fought between 1779 and 1879) were essentially about clearing natives from their land to make space for white settlers.

While some historians contend that this is what redefined South Africa, the making of history “proper” was triggered by the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in 1867 and gold in the Witwatersrand in 1886.

We say history proper because it was from this point onwards that the social character of South Africa acquired an economic logic that has since operated unendingly.

The Randlords, a group of white mine owners who organised themselves into a powerful cartel, constructed a social hierarchy that remains intact in mining today.

This group was led by Cecil John Rhodes.

What did they do?

As early as the last quarter of the 19th century, the Randlords decided that, in the economy, a white man would be at the top of the social hierarchy and that a black man must permanently supply cheap labour in the service of the white man.

In the context of historic animosity between the English and Afrikaners, Cecil John Rhodes and his fellow moguls conspired to exclude Afrikaners from economic benefit, but a political deal was eventually cemented in 1910, allowing all whites to exploit black labour.

Since then blacks have continued to be used to propel production in mines owned largely by the English and in farms and firms owned mainly by Afrikaners.

This meant that waking up each day, black men had to be loaded onto trains, buses and taxis to go and work in mines, farms and factories owned by white people.

To guarantee perpetuity in this arrangement, whites – from Rhodes to Verwoerd – made certain that black people were never given a good education.

Chiefly the aim was to prevent black social mobility, and to maintain the material conditions for white supremacy.

Racism was a psycho-social tool to mobilise the collaboration of the vast majority of whites in the construction of an economic scheme that guaranteed them an elevated social status.

Standing in 1994, looking back over the past 342 years, what appeared clearly was a historic process that placed whites at the top and blacks at the bottom.

Given this, the evaluation of the historical significance of the past 20 years cannot be reduced to the dramatic triviality of counting RDP houses or the number of households that now have electricity.

The serious business of history proper must be about the deconstruction of the economic logic designed by Cecil John Rhodes and his ilk.

As already pointed out, the reality before 1994 was that every morning blacks had to catch trains, buses and taxis to go and work for white men.

Twenty years into democracy, do the people of Soweto, Mdantsane or Kwamashu still wake up to go and work in white-owned mines, farms or factories?

What of the millions of unemployed black people; do they hope to find work in companies owned by black capitalists?

Where are such companies, and what do they manufacture? This brings us to the ANC’s illusion of history.

Since there are now a few BEE millionaires, who made money from minority stakes in white-owned companies, the ANC is misled to see “a good story” that does not exist.

The truth is that Cyril Ramaphosa’s rise to the millionaire’s paradise has done nothing to alter Cecil John Rhodes’s logic – that in the mines, black men must work underground untrained and underpaid.

It would indeed be hard to find evidence of the contribution of Ramaphosa’s new millionaire status to economic growth in South Africa.

The only new thing is that, following Ramaphosa’s entry, the boardroom at Lonmin has diluted its lily-whiteness, even though the black entrant exudes no signs of discomfort about the shooting down of black workers. On their part, poor black people get nothing from Ramaphosa’s wealth.

He flies his family and friends in his private jet. The poor see a plane in the sky, not a good story to tell.

The ANC’s illusion of history is also generated by the palpability of the black middle class, largely a post-1994 phenomenon. It is true that, in the main, members of the black middle class do not work for white men; they work for the state and its extensions.

This is what makes black bureaucrats feel they are part of the “good story to tell”.

The true story to tell, though, is that bureaucrats do not produce wealth.

They, as Walter Rodney points out, “squander the wealth created by the peasants and workers by purchasing cars, whisky, and perfume”.

The irony is that, 20 years into democracy, the cars, whisky and suits purchased by the black middle class are not made by Cyril Ramaphosa. They are made in Germany, Scotland and Italy.

This means the escape made by a few black people from the white man’s reservoir of cheap labour has simply converted the escapees from labourers to consumers.

Just like Ramaphosa’s rise to the millionaire’s paradise, the black middle class change of status from labourers to consumers left Cecil John Rhodes’s economic system unchanged.

The “good story to tell” illusion also arises from the exuberance of the black politicians who now sit at the helm of state power.

Imagine the feelings of a former liberation struggle fighter who, suddenly, finds himself living in a palace worth more than R246 million in Nkandla.

The head of such a politician can very easily generate phantoms of “good stories”, forgetting that, concretely, nothing has changed in the lives of the majority of black people.

It should by now be plainer that history is not reducible to a mere piece of new labour-relations legislation, nor can it be thought of in terms of Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) houses, water and electricity.

History proper entails the fundamental redefinition of social relations.

This is not done by dishing out a dose of good stories.

It does not matter how energetic storytellers may be, blacks are still the suppliers of cheap labour to white-owned mines in Marikana, to farms in the Free State and factories on the East Rand.

Instead of wasting time manufacturing good stories, the ANC would serve itself well by learning from what white people did in South Africa.

The most important lesson is that black people are not the first to experience poverty and unemployment in our country; whites, too, were once poor and unemployed.

Historians coined the phrase “poor white problem” to describe the terrible penury that afflicted white people from the late 19th century well into the 20th century.

Today, poverty as a percentage of white society is 0.8 percent. How did they do it?

Four factors were at play: (1) state support; (2) productive work; (3) education; and (4) cheap black labour.

The English employed these measures to eradicate poverty among themselves.

They worked hard to build mines from scratch; they used state power to support their businessmen; they gave their citizens quality education and they exploited black labour. The Afrikaners, too, worked to establish commercial farming, the steel industry and other ventures.

Their businessmen were supported by the state, including the building of good schools for Afrikaner children.

And, indeed, the Afrikaners exploited black labour. What did the ANC do over the past 20 years?

It preached the gospel of the easily-gotten good life.

This gave rise to BEE tycoons and a large pool of social grant recipients.

This is how the spirit of hard work among blacks was suffocated.

The ANC also used state power to distribute tenders, thereby producing a new class of unproductive and rapacious tenderpreneurs. Regrettably, the party also did very little to improve the quality of public education for blacks.

The worst thing is that BEE tycoons cannot even create jobs for the masses of unemployed black people.

Twenty years into democracy, the vast majority of black people still hope to find work in mines, farms and factories owned by whites. This might remain unchanged for the next 100 years.

If the ANC continues to wallow in the delusion of “good stories”, history will appear like trees to a child in a moving car – a motion that does not exist.


* Mashele is co-author of The Fall of the ANC: What Next.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent