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Unless post-independence South Africa sees success as ‘lifting the widest number of the black majority out of poverty, in the shortest time', it will fail as a country, William Gumede writes in Pambazuka News. And it ‘will join the club of developing countries that just muddle along, with a small political and economic elite in charge, and a poor majority trapped in poverty, from which a small numbers occasionally join the ranks of the rich'.

Almost every developing country that has become rich since the Second World War has done so by lifting the majority of people out of poverty collectively and not the elite only. In fact, the developing countries that have been successful since the Second World War, particularly those from the East Asian developmental states, have done so by empowering the widest number of people – at the same time, not just an elite. Those developing countries where only a small elite became prosperous, have as countries stagnated.

Even the post-Second World War Western European reconstruction was premised on a social contract which was based on lifting everyone from poverty together, and not only a few lucky ones. In fact that has been the basis of the Western European welfare state: It was based on the fact that everyone in society must be looked after, not only the political, economic and cultural elite.

Sadly, it is now clear that since 1994, the economic dividends of South Africa’s democracy are only benefiting a small elite – the old pre-apartheid white establishment, which has now been joined by a small black elite. The overwhelming majority of black South Africans remain trapped in grinding poverty.

The gap between rich and poor in South Africa is now so wide, that research by Haroon Bhorat, University of Cape Town economics professor show that the country has now officially become ‘the most unequal society in the world’. This ever-deepening divide between the affluent and destitute is not only anymore just between blacks and whites, but also between a minority of rich blacks and the majority poor blacks.

The tragic story in Africa since independence is that almost every African liberation and independence movement that came to power, only a small elite have benefited from the end of colonialism or white-minority rule. Sadly, many of those who got rich after independence and liberation were mostly those who were connected to dominant leaders, factions, families, regional or ethnic groups of the liberation or independence movements. The post-independence elite who have become rich have done so mainly by exploiting their struggle credentials and ‘political connectivity’, while the overwhelming majority of those less connected, but who have most probably sacrificed more during the struggle, starve.

Furthermore, in most cases the old colonial or white-minority elite, even if they have opted out of public life, struck economic alliances, even if grudgingly, with the new elite, giving up shares in companies in return for being allowed to retain their prosperity.

The even more tragic story of African liberation and independence is that ordinary members, supporters and activists of these movements have allowed a small minority of those who struggled in the liberation struggles to get rich overnight.

When only a small elite becomes rich, and if that elite has control of political power also, as is the case in South Africa and in other African post-independence societies, the issues of the poor are unlikely to be determinedly pushed. National and provincial cabinet ministers, mayors and councillors, live in huge mansions in exclusive suburbs, drive R1m cars, surrounded by bodyguards, cutting through the traffic in VIP entourages. Their electricity, water bills, children’s school fees are subsidised by the state. At the same in the private and parastatal sectors, both the old apartheid-era elite and new black elite, pay themselves huge salaries, bonuses and perks, even if the companies they run are failing spectacularly.

To imagine that the new elite will somehow support a basic income grant for every poor family that lives in devastating poverty is just foolish. This new black liberation and independence elite retain their legitimacy by either giving patronage to selected groups, or to just enough poor people, to prevent widespread social rebellion at the injustice of only a small elite benefiting from the fruits of liberation.

In every African country the leadership has sustained this disgusting inequality by keeping on spouting liberation rhetoric and slogans, and professing in public their ‘commitment’ to the poor. Furthermore, they usually control the information of their conspicuous consumption from reaching the majority of the movement’s members and supporters. They often deflect scrutiny by blaming colonialism, apartheid, imperialists or individuals, parties or organisations linked to the pre-liberation old order.

Alternatively, the post-independence new rich portray members, activists and supporters who criticise this inequality as in league with the ‘colonialist’, imperialists, or white-minority, or as ‘reactionary’, alleging they are somehow oppose to the advancement of the poor. Or critics will just be muzzled through using state institutions such as the security apparatus, police, intelligence services, tax authorities, to muzzle critics with struggle credentials who cannot be dismissed.

The African independence elite have always seen success – not as lifting the widest amount of people out of poverty, but how a ‘struggle’ individual can ‘accumulate and display the most wealth’. Those who cannot do so are seen as having ‘failed’. Yet, unless we measure success as lifting the widest number of the black majority out of poverty, in the shortest time, we will fail as a country. And will join the club of developing countries that just muddle along, with a small political and economic elite in charge, and a poor majority trapped in poverty, from which a small numbers occasionally join the ranks of the rich.


* This article first appeared in the Sowetan.
* William Gumede is co-editor with Leslie Dikeni of The Poverty of Ideas.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.