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On South African identity1

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					ch ar l es s i m K i ns




                          On South African
                          identity
                                                                1




                                                         When old age shall this generation waste,
                                                         Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
                                                                    Than ours, a friend to man…
Charles Simkins                                                                                           Keats
is the Head of the        Patina, as any antiques dealer will tell you, is all the things that have happened to
School of Commerce,       an object since it was made. It individuates, since each object has its own history,
Philosophy and            and it embodies the conditions of survival. The object itself connects us to an
Applied Ethics at St      earlier age, different social conditions, a different aesthetic, and it steadies us, as
Augustine College,        ‘now’ becomes a moment in a great unfolding history.
the Catholic university
in Johannesburg. He       Certainly, a steady, historically informed and largely descriptive perspective needs
has published in the      to be added to the often frantic and highly normative debates of the moment about
                          Identity. What drives these debates? Disappointment and anxiety.
fields of economics,
demography and
                          One immediate cause of disappointment is not hard to find – it is close to being
liberal thought and
                          global. The Great Recession struck our labour market in early 2009, with aggregate
was the Helen             employment dropping from 13.8 million in the last quarter of 2008 to 12.9 million in
Suzman Professor of       the third quarter of 2009. Here is the cause of restlessness from below, manifesting
Political Economy at      itself in strikes and increased demands, backed by revolt, on the often low limits of
the University of the     capacity of local government to deliver.
Witwatersrand for
seventeen years.          There is a corresponding fiscal source of disappointment. The dominant sentiment
                          at the Polokwane conference of the ANC was that monetary and fiscal policy
                          had been too tight. More money for the new administration was expected. But
                          it never arrived. The Great Recession drastically cut tax revenues, so that without
                          any adjustments on the revenue side, the budget deficit soared to levels above
                          anything discussed at Polokwane. And the medium run expectation is that there
                          will be fiscal tightening to prevent the national debt to GDP ratio rising above 50%,
                          the level thought prudent as an upper limit in developing countries.

                          Deeper and more serious than these conjunctural reasons for disappointment is
                          a longer term failure. Economic historians speak of the ‘great modernising work
                          of the Meiji oligarchs’. They were powerful people who saw, in the late nineteenth
                          century, what was needed to make Japan a modern nation. And they did it.
                          Power and wealth were harnessed to a higher objective. South Africa has had
                          its modernising oligarchs. It has a few still, but old wealth has its work cut out to
                          survive and new is heavily focused on augmentation. And political power seems
                          increasingly to be conceptualised as a means to the accumulation of wealth. The
                          wilder side of Wall Street finds its counterpart here.

                          Hence the anxiety. It has three sources. The first starts from above. One has only
                          to look to the immediate north to see what no holds barred accumulation by a few
                          can do to a whole society: stolen elections, infringements of human and property
                          rights, hyperinflation, beatings and murder of political opponents2. And at home – if

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I mistake not – behind the flamboyant activities of the ANC youth league on land
reform lie the desires of older counterparts to acquire choice farms not necessarily
at market prices. Just what is it that keeps us from the slippery slope?

The second source of anxiety starts from below. A democratic society is built from
a set of institutions. The minimal set guarantees openness, competition and regular
testing of opinion through elections. The minimal set underpins the dominant
conception of democracy in the United States. Europeans characteristically add
the institutions of social citizenship to the minimal set as essential to democracy. It
is not surprising that we went the European route in the 1996 Constitution. What
is surprising is that the implications have been so poorly understood. For what is
required, above all, is the careful creation of institutions on which ordinary citizens
can rely. They must be fit for purpose and incorrupt. They must develop rather
than decay.

So one reads with some dismay the report of the
ministerial committee on the National Student
                                                               State led development is essential, it is
Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS)3, whose origins lie in
a fund established by the Independent Development              promised, but it is not delivered to the
Trust in 1991. The aim of the fund was to establish            required standard.
a loan fund for poor students arriving in increasing
numbers in institutions of higher education. Where
are we twenty years later? Let the report tell us:

•	 The	Committee	could	not	find	any	[NSFAS]	board	policies	other	than	a	2007	
   investment policy…Among the immediate consequences of the absence
   of a comprehensive policy regime is that NSFAS operates with inadequate
   organisational and systemic checks and balances.4
•	 The	lack	of	continuity	in	the	office	of	the	CEO	has	limited	the	organisation	in	its	
   ability to respond strategically to the challenges facing NSFAS. The organisation
   has had three CEOs and two acting CEOs during its ten year existence [i.e since
   the IDT scheme became NSFAS].5
•	 The	processing	of	NSFAS	loan	agreements	does	not	meet	good	governance	or	
   audit requirements.6
•	 The	 present	 NSFAS	 premises	 are	 inadequate	 for	 the	 administrative,	 safety,	
   security, office accommodation and other needs of NSFAS.7
•	 The	Committee	found	that	NSFAS	has	no	information	technology	governance	
   structures.8
•	 During	 the	 Committee’s	 visit	 to	 NSFAS,	 it	 was	 evident	 that	 it	 has	 no	 safe	
   document storage system, with loan agreements and other documents stored
   in cardboard boxes stacked in offices and passages, vulnerable to fraud, fire
   and theft.9

And there is more. It is a paradigm case. Here is an institution whose job it is to
disburse billions of rand per year in support of human capital formation among
students from poor families and what do we find? — A lack of commitment at the
top, no development of policy in response to circumstances and management
which appears little short of chaotic. State led development is essential, it is
promised, but it is not delivered to the required standard. It can’t be if the top
positions are filled by people ever eager to move on to something better.

The third cause for anxiety is the increasing preoccupation with identity in recent

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decades, a trend pushed along by the collapse                     Christian mission, education and above all economic
of communism in its heartlands. A marker was                      development. It was apartheid that wanted to freeze
Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, but more radical             the frame as a justification for racial separation and
has been the construction of accounts of social                   territorial division. Ideological misuse and loss of
circumstances connected to particular identities10.               practical function vitiated social anthropology, which
These accounts are usually constructed against the                in any case was due for a merger with sociology.
‘other’ — patriarchy, heterosexual, white America, the            While there has been innovative work on a limited
globalised economy. The struggle between identities               range of themes over the years, South African society
clogs the universities, leading to seriously incomplete           remains markedly under-described. What are the
education and can, at their worst, make certain                   main features of contemporary rural sociology? What
things unsayable. It was the rough treatment that she             is ‘youth culture’ like among young people who have
received on a factual point she made at a seminar on              lived most of their lives in post-apartheid South Africa?
the ‘Black Athena’ thesis11 that led Mary Lefkowitz               What unites and what divides the middle class? We
to write her Not out of Africa: How Afro centrism                 don’t really know.
became an excuse to teach myth as history. South
African scholars will find the terrain familiar. The worst        Things are not helped by a preference for theory,
is when whole societies are caught up in myth which,              not to mention normative ‘correctness, over solid
because it is a myth, becomes murderous.                          empirical work in the social scientific disciplines in
                                                                  South Africa. In an earlier period people got into their
So what does the experience of the last hundred                   Model T Fords and went to have a look; now we
years have to offer at this new time of peril?                    mostly theorise. The current unwillingness results in
                                                                  a deficit in our knowledge and understanding of how
It takes some stretch of the imagination to realise               identities are formed; indeed it fails to provide a map
how raw and incoherent the South African project                  against which identities can be defined or chosen.
was at the time of its inception in 1910. The territory
was defined by conquest and settler expansion with                It should also be remembered how precarious the
some frontiers closed less than twenty years ago.                 South African economy was in the early years. In
While migrant labour was already an institution, most             1910, public debt was 90% of GDP, mainly because
people lived from agriculture and travelled small                 of the war a decade earlier. And the economy
distances from where they were born. Neither of the               immediately ran into one head wind after another:
nationalisms — which were to play an increasing role              the First World War and high inflation, the post war
in defining political identity as the century wore on —           recession, the gold price crisis, the 1922 strike and
had yet been organised at the national level.                     the Great Depression. The best period for growth was
                                                                  between 1924 and 1928. Real income per head was
And while the new government was swift to move                    probably no higher in 1932 than it had been in 1910.
on the land tenure question, it was slower to                     The great expansion of the economy took place
understand the sociology in the territory it ruled.               between 1933 and 1975. In the 1960s, growth in real
Some unnecessary blood was spilled, until a local                 per capita income exceeded 3% in some years. Then
tradition in social anthropology was developed                    things took another dip as the table shows:
which, by the 1940s, had produced world leaders
                                                                                          Average annual growth rate
in the field. Van Warmelo’s massive annotated                      Period
                                                                                           In real income per capita
bibliography, Anthropology in Southern Africa in
                                                                   1975-80                             0.7
periodicals to 1950,12 shows that the achievements                 1980-85                            -0.9
of the Hunters, Schaperas, Hoernles and the like in                1985-90                            -0.5
the 1920s to 1940s were grounded in extensive 19th                 1990-95                            -1.2
century studies. You can deconstruct the colonial                  1995-2000                           0.7
gaze as much as you like, but its results between                  2000-05                             2.2
Union and 1948 were largely benign, reducing costly                2005-09                             2.0
confrontation.                                                                              Source: South African Reserve Bank


The anthropologists saw clearly that what they                    Three five year periods of negative growth in income
were describing was changing under the impact of                  per capita meant that South Africa did not get back to

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its 1980 real income per capita level until 2004. So, taking the century as a whole,
for only just over half of it did we see an advance in living standards. Our march
towards modernisation never goes fast for long and there are long falters. We are
decades away from mopping up our labour surplus. At our median growth rate
over the period 1950-2005, it will take us 70 years to reach where Portugal, the
poorest west European country, is now.

And yet, useful things have been done in economically difficult periods. The
foundations of South African manufacturing were laid in the period between 1918
and 1932. Business was able to make a number of useful contributions in the late
apartheid period, laying some of the foundations of the immediate post-apartheid
settlement, for instance in housing policy. The question is now: from where, and from
whom, will the next round of innovative thinking – the next layer of economic identity
– come? Perhaps the National Planning Commission will inform us in due course.

A remarkable feature of South African life has been
cultural production by initially very poor urban
                                                           A remarkable feature of South African
communities. A distinctively African urban musical
tradition was visible by the 1940s, with performance       life has been cultural production…we
sites spilling out from the townships. It has been         are, in economic parlance, a high leisure
growing ever since, with dance and theatrical
traditions growing alongside. Eclectic in its inspiration  preference society.
by sources as diverse as African-American music,
traditional rural music, western popular music and the church music, this tradition
is capable of high voltage, mellow and mobilising music by turns. Its energy
derives from the energy that most South Africans devote to their leisure – we are,
in economic parlance, a high leisure preference society. There is nothing wrong in
that, of course; the economic engine can work just as well with these preferences
as with more austere preferences. But this does mean that our gross national
product under-measures our welfare, since it does not count in leisure, except to
the extent that it is provided by marketed services. In other words, we should be
happier than our GDP per capita indicates.

In fact, a study by Richard Layard13, put the happiness index (the average of the
per cent of people who say they are happy and the per cent of people who say
they are satisfied with their lives) at 68 for South Africa, a bit below the trend line of
happiness plotted against GDP14. This can be explained by the very high level of
inequality in South Africa, which characteristically reduces happiness a lot. Were
inequality lower, South African happiness would lie well above the trend line.

Equally remarkable is the capacity of poor communities to organise themselves.
This capacity can be found right across sub-Saharan Africa. It must be there since
many countries descend from time to time to abysmal levels of governance, yet the
population continues to grow. It can be the key to survival in very harsh circumstances.
Right now I have a doctoral student analysing the results of a survey in an area of
Zimbabwe consisting of old commercial farms surrounded by villages on land in
communal tenure. The owners of the commercial farms saw the land reform coming
and split them up into 25 acre lots for sale at modest prices and people in formal
employment and with a bit of spare cash bought them. Initially the motive was often
to have a ‘place in the country’, with a bit of cultivation if part of the extended family
wanted to live there and do that. However, hyperinflation and unemployment meant
that the lots became the main source of livelihood and as it did, farmer specialisation

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and local trade sprang into existence. As shelves                 now take considerations other than inflation into
emptied and stocks of essentials disappeared, co-                 determining monetary policy? What is the next
operatives to obtain these from neighbouring countries            move to be in health policy? Can the leader of any
(Botswana and South Africa) emerged, along with the               of the ANC’s organisations do what she or he likes?
utilisation of links to these countries to supply migrant         It is anybody’s guess. And just who in national and
labour to pay for these imports. And along with the flows         provincial government is allying themselves with
of migrant labour and goods, currency transactions                whom, and to what end?
had to be organised, presaging the multiple currency
arrangements in Zimbabwe at this very moment.                     Under these circumstances, which policies are
Currencies move around southern Africa in ways not                available to the government?
predicted by the relevant central banks.

It is clear that there is an astonishing story here of how        Affirmative action type policies have
a community moved to avert disaster, both responding              the counterfinal outcome of weakening
to market signals and overcoming collective action
problems – state failure countered by community                   ‘identification with the nation’ (crucial to
organisation. Of course, not all communities were                 nation-state based identity) among the
able to adjust in this way: full urban communities and
                                                                  non-preferred groups(s).
(particularly) informal settlements have been harder
hit. ZANU-PF has found the rural areas easier to
control politically, partly through an adapted version            The first is continued reliance on nationalist sentiment.
of the Shona pungwe15, which has in recent years                  This will become a declining asset if people are unable
taken the form of compulsory and lengthy community                to link it to real improvements in their lives. Quiet
chanting of ZANU-PF slogans, followed by beatings                 disaffiliation and active resistance will follow. The most
of identified members of the opposition.                          likely response will be to try and bind the constituency
                                                                  back in by upping the stakes, a trend we have seen
How do all these layers play out in our political system?         from parts of the ANC recently. But upping the stakes
Our closed party list system was the concession                   will have an impact on the economy, not all of it positive.
to consociationalism; minority groups would have                  Trotsky once observed that what is politically rational
less parliamentary representation in a first past the             is not necessarily economically rational. We may be
post single member constituency system. But the                   in for a period which once more establishes the truth
cost of that system is deficiency in representation;              of that dictum. Anything (and particularly exclusivist
no area has an MP whose political fortunes depend                 nationalism) that undermines civic belonging with its
on constituency approval. The artificial creation                 correlative duties and obligations, will undermine the
of constituencies has done little to change the                   well-being of the political order. Even bellicose speech
position and can do little, in the absence of personal            can have a negative effect. Affirmative action type
accountability. Representation at local government                policies have the counterfinal outcome of weakening
level is more direct. Half the elected representatives            ‘identification with the nation’ (crucial to nation-state
are ward councillors. But the link between people and             based identity) among the non-preferred groups(s).
representatives is vitiated by lack of capacity in many           As Thomas Sowell16 has pointed out, the effect of
local authorities.                                                such policies is to produce a ‘double disincentive’.
                                                                  The ‘preferred group’ doesn’t need to work hard and
Moreover, the political system has become more                    to reap rewards commensurate with its efforts; the
opaque. The Mbeki administration placed priority                  ‘non-preferred group(s)’ are not rewarded, however
on government coherence and communication of                      much they try. Such policies (and even presaging
‘message’. Following the Polokwane revolt, the                    rhetoric) render feelings of belonging among non-
Zuma administration has found it expedient to have a              preferred groups very fragile.
larger galaxy of ministers and deputy ministers, with
much less effort devoted to coherent communication.               The second is bread and circus politics, of which the
Indeed, on any issue, one can expect two or three                 World Cup is the most prominent current example.
or four ministerial heads to pop up and say different             This will be helped by South Africans’ leisure
things. To what extent does the Reserve Bank                      preference, which implies a taste for circuses. Bread

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and circuses were originally the policy of the Caesars:                                  the desire for consumption rises. And the only form
they did not betoken democratic consent, but an                                          of available consumption is leisure, leading to lower
attempt to legitimise authoritarianism.                                                  application. Uncertainty makes things worse and
                                                                                         leads to a ‘lucky breaks’ mentality17; if contacts, if luck
The third is faction management. This is the                                             are more important than anything you can know in
predominant activity of the Zuma administration. The                                     determining the outcome of your life, then the labour
main aims of faction management are (a) to prevent                                       of learning anything will seem like a pointless exaction.
the factions from tearing the organisation apart (b) to                                  Certification is desired, fetishised even, for the system
prevent the factions from tearing you apart and (c)                                      requires it, but knowledge and the development of a
to play the factions off against each other so as to                                     plan of life to use and extend knowledge are in the
prevent any from becoming too powerful. Output to                                        background. It leads to an unsustainable situation
the electorate is secondary in the mode. Pervasive                                       because certifications are valued in the market place
uncertainty is what it produces.                                                         by the skills that they embody and by the anticipated
                                                                                         steadiness of their application, while the motivation to
   …if contacts, if luck are more important                                              acquire these skills is weakened.

   than anything you can know in                                                         The perspective here has been one of high modernism.
   determining the outcome of your life,                                                 Is that the problem? Does postmodernism offer
                                                                                         more? Consider the following passage:
   then the labour of learning anything
   will seem like a pointless exaction.                                                      [Postmodernism] posits an end to history, an end
                                                                                             to art and an end to ‘the subject’, whose individual
The fourth, and least likely on current form, is                                             and collective action makes meaningful change
evidence-based policy development to improve the                                             possible. Even the postmodern utopia is one which
economy and living standards. There certainly have                                           cancels movement by emphatically privileging
been achievements on this front in the last fifteen                                          space over time. Utopian postmodernism is thus a
years, but the political system is now battling to                                           vision of a neo-tribal paradise in which spatially set
assemble the necessary will and concentration.                                               forms of life carry on experiments, each in their own
And the administrative apparatus on which policy                                             culture. In this vision, however, communication is
implementation must rely, is often very weak. Cadre                                          impossible between tribes.18
deployment means that political faction may go
all the way down in implementing agencies. And                                           Leave aside the uncanny parallel with the theory
administrative weakness is widespread.                                                   of apartheid. The real problem is that this vision of
                                                                                         pleasurable play fails to focus on the pattern of global
The consequences can be felt in the peculiar problems                                    accumulation which shapes and re-shapes forms of
of educating the young at the moment. One of the                                         life and identities. Making out economically has, in
incentives to learn is an imagined place in the labour                                   fact, become increasingly important in South Africa as
market where the learning will be applied. High youth                                    expectations of comfortable or better life styles have
unemployment, however, renders more tenuous and                                          become widespread. But tribal introversion is all but
delayed in time the relationship between effort and                                      universal. And yet, resource strategies in East Asia
reward. If the motive for investment is weakened,                                        may deposit the next layer in our complex identity.

NOTES                                                                                    12 Published by the University of Witwatersrand Press in 1977.
1 I am indebted to Professor Raphael de Kadt for very helpful comments on a first        13 Richard Layard, Happiness: Has a social science a clue?, Lionel Robbins
   draft.                                                                                   Memorial Lectures 2002/03, Lecture 1:19.
2 The last, of course, not unknown in South African political history.                   14 Happiness rises with income per capita until a level of $15 000 is reached.
3 Published on the Department of Education’s website.                                       Thereafter there is no correlation.
4 (p xvi)                                                                                15 See Joshua Hammer, The reign of thuggery, New York Review of Books, 26 June
5 (p xvii)                                                                                  2008.
6 (p xvii)                                                                               16 Thomas Sowell is an American economist, philosopher, political commentator,
7 (p xx)                                                                                    social critic and author. The author is referring to his book: Affirmative action
8 (pp. xx-xxi)                                                                              around the world: An empirical study (2004).
9 (p xxi)                                                                                17 ‘Greatest thing since Noah/only does to show-a/anyone from anywhere can
10 An assortment of feminist, queer, and ethnic minority identities come most               make it if they get the lucky breaks’ – Joseph and his amazing technicolour
   readily to mind.                                                                         dream coat.
11 i.e the idea that Greek thought was essentially unoriginal, relying on older          18 (eds) Scott Lash and Jonathan Friedman, Modernity and Identity, Blackwell,
   Egyptian, and hence African, sources.                                                    1992: 1-2.

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