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Prisoners of the Past: South African Democracy and the Legacy of Minority Rule
Prisoners of the Past: South African Democracy and the Legacy of Minority Rule
By Steven Friedman
Wits University Press, 2021, 232 pp
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In July, two of South Africa’s largest cities—Johannesburg and Durban—descended into civil unrest and mass looting. In the deadliest week of political turmoil since the end of apartheid in 1994, 337 people were killed, and millions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure and property was destroyed. 

For almost five days, I worried about my family as I watched television and social media footage of people breaking into shops and raiding them for food and other basic items. I live in Australia, but my relatives are split between the areas hardest hit by the unrest. Even in places that were unaffected by the violence, panic buying caused food shortages, and news of the looting set off class anxieties. When you live in a society as unequal as South Africa, the sense that the country might explode at any minute is always palpable. 

In the midst of the chaos, a short video of a tiny boy, aged eight or nine, rail thin, and wearing faded clothes, made the rounds on social media. He had been stopped by two women—both strangers expressing motherly concern—as he walked out of a shop that had just been looted. The women asked the boy what he had taken, and he held up a small plastic bag for their inspection. Inside were a few pairs of underwear, new shoes, and a few T-shirts. He had been heartbreakingly frugal, taking only what his conscience would allow. Visibly moved, the women sent him on his way, his little frame disappearing into the darkness. 

The scene spoke volumes about the crisis gripping South Africa. Driven by the sudden availability of items that are unaffordable for most people, the turmoil reflected the stark inequality that has long divided the country, and it laid bare the economic precariousness that characterizes most people’s lives. People took what they could as quickly as they could, sometimes trampling others in the process. But they did not act out spontaneously: a faction of the ruling African National Congress (ANC)—mainly supporters of the jailed former president Jacob Zuma—appears to have instigated the unrest in a bid to destabilize the government. The attempt at insurrection failed. Instead of a revolution, the week turned into a large-scale grab for goods. There were no marches or demands, no manifestoes, and no calls for the president to step down or the ruling party to vacate office.

It was easy to see these events as a metaphor for the rampant corruption that has come to define South African politics. The country’s democracy is not on the brink of failure, as some Western commentators have opined. South Africa has regular free and fair elections, a noisy public sphere, an independent judiciary (indeed, too independent in the eyes of some in the ruling party), and sophisticated media—all of which remain intact. Yet the ANC has failed to meaningfully improve the lives of most South Africans, even as many within its ranks have grown rich. And so decades after attaining political freedom, many South Africans have been left to wonder when—or if—they will ever get economic justice.

This paradox is the subject of Steven Friedman’s new book, Prisoners of the Past, which asks why South Africa’s multiracial, left-wing government, which has been elected again and again with an overwhelming majority and a strong mandate for change, has failed to transform the apartheid economy. A well-known South African columnist and academic, Friedman writes with the nuance and insight of an insider. His answer is that the post-apartheid order established in 1994 suffers from many of the same problems as the old order it sought to replace. 

The political theorist Antonio Gramsci once wrote of Italy during the chaotic interwar period, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” The strength of Prisoners of the Past is its insistence that even though South Africa is exhibiting many morbid symptoms, the country’s real problem is that the old is not dying. Friedman examines the resilience of apartheid South Africa, showing how the old order has repeatedly prevented the new one from delivering on its promises of racial justice. 

THE OLD ORDER LIVES ON

Soon after the antiapartheid activist Nelson Mandela emerged from prison in 1990, people began to refer to his brand of charm as “Madiba magic,” an affectionate nod to his clan name. As South Africa hurtled toward the end of apartheid, the phrase reflected a collective belief that Mandela could conjure the nation’s freedom out of thin air.

National and global adulation helped shape the narrative of South Africa as a place where something otherworldly had happened: peace had settled on the land not because of compromises and negotiations but because of goodwill and Madiba magic. Today, as people debate how much or how little has changed, it is easy to forget the immense effort that ANC leaders made to present the transition to Black South Africans as a real break with the past while reassuring white South Africans that the changes would not affect their pocketbooks or their lifestyles.

To a large extent, the ANC has kept its promises to white South Africans even as it has broken many of its pledges to the country’s Black people. By protecting the rights of white property holders, the transition to democracy ushered in what the legal scholar Mogobe Ramose has called the “constitutionalisation of injustice”—that is, a constitutional order that “reflects the conqueror’s view that injustices which occurred a long time ago should not be rectified.” 

The ANC has kept its promises to white South Africans even as it has broken many of its pledges to Black people.

This was partly by necessity. South Africa could have easily descended into civil war, and it very nearly did in 1993, when Chris Hani, one of the ANC’s most popular leaders, was assassinated in his driveway in view of his 15-year-old daughter. But Mandela calmed the nation, urging restless Black youths not to retaliate against white people. After the tumult of the 1980s, when the apartheid government kidnapped and murdered activists and segregated Black communities exploded in violence, neither the ANC nor the white National Party, led by President F. W. de Klerk, had an appetite for continued bloodshed. The ANC was focused on the transition: on writing a constitution, extending the franchise to all citizens, and holding free and fair elections. And so the political settlement its leaders negotiated with de Klerk’s government prioritized moving on—which at the time seemed like a prerequisite for peace.

But in Ramose’s view, the decision to wipe the slate clean conflicted with the tenets of African philosophy and, in particular, with the notion of molato ga o bole, a Sotho proverb that holds that debts do not expire with the passage of time and can be resolved only through redress and restoration. Another leading South African academic, Joel Modiri, has described South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution as “a form of reiterative violence in the sense that the fundamental injustice of the old order was preserved in the making of the new order.” 

Friedman rejects these views, which root the current crisis in legal strictures, arguing that the fault lies neither with the constitution nor with the negotiations that produced it. Instead, he contends that the old order has lived on because of “path dependence”—a phenomenon famously described by the economic historian Douglass North as “the powerful influence of the past on the present and future.” Throughout his book, Friedman draws on North’s ideas to argue that economic policies in South Africa were “created to serve the interests of those with the bargaining power to create new rules”—who, since the end of apartheid, have been a new and tiny multiracial elite. In other words, Friedman shows that the country’s economic institutions are primarily “the product of who holds power; they may survive even if they are inefficient, as long as they serve the interests of power holders.” 

ENDURING ECONOMIC ELITES

Friedman spends considerable time examining how elites have guided South Africa’s economic trajectory. In the 1990s, he recounts, the white political elite maintained its grip on the economy even as it lost political power by accommodating a small number of new Black businesspeople. Predictably, these new Black economic elites were closely aligned with the ANC. And when the ANC passed new affirmative action laws mandating that all large financial transactions include partnerships with Black-owned firms, its leaders stood ready to benefit, being the only Black people with whom white elites had had previous professional interactions. 

Among the biggest beneficiaries was Cyril Ramaphosa, who acted as the ANC’s chief negotiator during the transition to democracy, led the team that drafted the new constitution, and now serves as South Africa’s president. Ramaphosa worked closely with members of the old white guard in the early 1990s and was able to convert his political networks into lucrative financial relationships within a few years of entering the private sector in 1996. Forbes has estimated that by 2015, his net worth had soared to $450 million. 

Ramaphosa’s path to riches has been well trodden by other members of the ANC, but it says as much about South Africa’s past as it does about its present. As Friedman points out, although the current president cannot be compared with the rapacious European settlers who arrived in the Cape of Good Hope in the mid-seventeenth century, his stratospheric ascent was enabled by the same patronage and corruption that elevated the previous era’s elites. Jan van Riebeeck, the founding father of South Africa’s Afrikaner community, was sent to the Cape by the Dutch East India Company in 1652 after being found guilty of abusing his position at the company to pursue private interests. More than two centuries later, the mining magnate Cecil Rhodes was forced to resign as prime minister of the Cape Colony over allegations that he gave a government catering contract to a friend.

Protesting in Johannesburg, July 2021
Yeshiel / Xinhua

By the 1980s, Friedman explains, the apartheid regime had effectively elevated corruption to state policy. It came as little surprise then that when the ANC took office, members of the white economic elite sought to cultivate personal bonds of criminality with the new political leaders. In mapping this lineage of elite corruption, Friedman charts the continuities between the old order and the new, illustrating the powerful ways in which path dependence has warped the country’s economy.

At times, Friedman depicts path dependence as an inevitable and seemingly unwitting process, the outcome of the march of history rather than of deliberate contestation. Yet there was nothing accidental about the economic approach taken by the ANC. Beginning with Mandela’s release in 1990, the white-dominated business sector was vocal about its jitters. The ANC had many internal debates about how best to manage these fears, but political and market realities ultimately backed the party into a corner: had it threatened to redistribute land and seize bank accounts in order to pay reparations, the economy would have crashed, and the apartheid generals would never have agreed to stand down.

At other times, Friedman overstates the nefarious intentions of Black elites. For example, he claims that there was an “unspoken consensus” between Black and white elites “to leave things largely as they were, not because the new political elite feared a backlash if it sought to change them, but because it wanted to leave them intact.” Elites may have converged on a similar set of objectives over time, but the notion that the new Black leaders simply weren’t interested in changing the status quo is an oversimplification. In order to escape apartheid, Black South Africans had to promise not to seek full compensation and redress. White economic impunity was the price of Black political freedom. 

“THE ANGRIEST GROUP”

Once the ANC assumed power, many of its leaders believed that in due course, they would be able to work around the white elite. Their aim was to build a strong Black middle class that would drive economic growth. But partly because of the path dependence Friedman describes, this goal was never realized. 

Instead, the middle class grew painfully slowly—and eventually, it stopped growing altogether. Estimates of the size of the Black middle class vary, but most studies put it at less than a quarter of the Black population. And even this modest share may be in jeopardy: a 2020 report by the University of Cape Town’s Liberty Institute of Strategic Marketing showed that the number of middle-class South Africans fell by more than half between 2017 and 2020—from 6.1 million to 2.7 million.

As overall economic growth has stagnated and unemployment has remained stubbornly high in recent years, the new middle class has grown restless. Friedman calls the Black middle class “the angriest group in the society.” As he points out, “they enjoy qualifications and opportunities which their parents and grandparents were denied but they experience many of the same racial attitudes as previous generations endured.” As a result, their anger is often directed at racial injustice, even when they seem to be protesting other issues: whether the immediate concerns are about land, higher education, or anything else, racism is almost always the underlying concern of the Black middle class. 

South Africa is only slightly more racially integrated than it was before the end of apartheid.

Poor South Africans, who constitute a much greater share of the population, seldom articulate their demands in purely racial terms. But middle-class narratives of racial injustice continue to dominate because of South Africa’s history. As Friedman explains, “Racial bias, even when it is subtle, is noticed quickly by those at whom it is aimed because Black political actors (and some whites sensitive to racism) are attuned to the many varieties of racial domination.” By the same token, however, “antennae which might detect threats to the poor may not work at all because their interests have always taken a back seat to the central problem, racial domination.” As a result, the vast majority of South Africans often end up as “spectators to bitter ideological battles about them which never include them.” 

Poor South Africans fare even worse in the country’s economic battles. Friedman shows how whereas the middle class and the elite have a stake in the economy, the lower classes—and especially the unemployed—are excluded from the formal economy altogether. Over the last few decades, the share of people living below the $2-per-day poverty line has remained stubbornly high, and inequality has increased: South Africa is only slightly more racially integrated than it was before the end of apartheid, and it is even more economically unequal. 

In the early 1900s, W. E. B. Du Bois argued that the problem of the twentieth century would be the color line. He was right, of course: in South Africa, as in so many other parts of the world, race was the predominant justification for the oppression of Black people. More than a century later, South Africans have begun to understand that while the color line still matters, the poverty line has become more salient as the country has been dominated by a new multiracial group of economic insiders. As the Trinidadian writer C. L. R. James, whom Friedman aptly quotes near the end of his book, put it in 1938, “To neglect the racial factor as incidental is an error only slightly less grave than to make it fundamental.”

The way forward, in Friedman’s view, is to look backward: South Africans must once again sit across the table from one another to negotiate a new deal—not a political deal, as they negotiated in the 1990s, but an economic one, to ensure the country’s riches are shared more evenly among its poorest citizens.

Under the present circumstances, there is reason for skepticism about how such an arrangement might be negotiated: the economic insiders have so much power, and the outsiders (most of them poor and Black) have so little. Still, cynicism has no place in South Africa’s future; its people simply cannot afford it. Friedman’s call for a new economic pact might feel distant, but for the excluded majority, it is a tantalizing possibility.

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