Voices

What we can learn from apartheid

2020-02-27 01:02

While the past is a painful place to be, there is some merit in examining how Afrikaner nationalism turned the tide of ‘the poor white’ into a wealthy nation

Everything about stepping forward offers positive implications. Everything worth pursuing is ahead of us.

Regardless of the destination, most people who feel they are on the right track are fairly certain they are moving up, over, ahead or onwards.

Every time we listen to our politicians we get a sense that we are “on the right track” – until you visit the towns and townships where the plight of the people and their daily experiences tell a different story.

Lucy Hawkins, a career adviser at the University of Oxford, argues: “Take a step back and ask yourself: If you could click your fingers and instantly change things to make them better, what would the result be? Getting a clear picture of what ‘better’ looks like, is the key.”

Every time we listen to our politicians we get a sense that we are “on the right track” – until you visit the towns and townships where the plight of the people and their daily experiences tell a different story.

We hope our leaders have taken stock of the failures of the past years through asking and reflecting.

In so doing, we believe they realise the best way to make improvements is to decide three things: What came before, what comes next, and how to get it.

The first realisation, which Finance Minister Tito Mboweni – through his recent tweets – has started mooting, is the fact that political movements do not operate in an economic vacuum.

Whether all their members are aware of it or not, they represent certain economic interests and effectively support one side or the other in that universal conflict of interests which marks capitalist society.

The second is to look back at Afrikaner history and see if we can learn something.

Again, because the legacy of apartheid persists over and above the interest in it, it is a perverse phenomenon.

In 2004 former president Thabo Mbeki, celebrating 10 years of democracy, said: “We have always known that our country’s blemishes produced by more than three centuries of colonialism and apartheid could not be removed in one decade.”

Economists and policymakers need to understand the consequences of apartheid that affect South Africa today.

Economic historians and the task of our leaders today is to discover precisely how policy decisions taken during the apartheid era determined the country’s lack of economic growth in the 21st century.

That is what we call taking a step backwards to move forward.

Veteran US journalist Jim Hoagland wrote an instructive book, South Africa: Civilisation in Conflict, after spending six weeks in 1970 conducting research locally and having studied South Africa before.

Hoagland makes a piercing observation about Afrikaans people after 1910: They “refused to be absorbed into English society and institutions. They … formed their own economic and political institutions to advance Afrikaner interests.”

The causes of the “poor-white problem”, first noted at a Dutch Reformed Church Synod in 1886, were unclear.

Many blamed the inadequate education system, urbanisation, cheap wages or cultural factors; others argued that external events, such as the rinderpest disease or the Anglo-Boer war, added to the numbers of poor whites.

Economic historians and the task of our leaders today is to discover precisely how policy decisions taken during the apartheid era determined the country’s lack of economic growth in the 21st century.

Today, poverty is still at the heart of many policy debates.

A bad educational legacy, urbanisation,labour legislation, culture and tradition, and external factors are still among the factors said to be the causes of poverty.

Escaping a poverty-stricken veld, hundreds of thousands of wretched Afrikaners poured into towns, searching for employment.

This is the phenomenon historians call the “poor-white problem”.

Fortunately for them, the 1910 political deal with Britain had placed Afrikaners in the driving seat of the state.

Their leaders had the means to implement policies designed to dig the Afrikaner out of poverty.

Indeed, this is where we find ourselves today.

While black people hold the political power, we seem to fail to implement policies to dig us “out of poverty”.

Our people are pouring into towns and cities looking for employment on a daily basis.

Brand SA reports that we are urbanising rapidly (2015). The UN estimates that 71.3% of the population will live in urban areas by 2030, nearly 80% by 2050.

The urban population is growing larger and younger. Two-thirds of young people live in urban areas.

We need to understand that the “poor-white problem” inaugurated a new phase of industrialisation, based mainly on three things: Cheap electricity, cheap steel and cheap finance, according to Hoagland.

For cheap electricity, they created what was then known as Escom in 1922; for cheap steel, they established Iscor in 1928, and for cheap finance, they founded the Industrial Development Corporation in 1940.

By the 1950s poverty was almost a thing of the past among Afrikaners.

According to Stats SA (2015), more than half of South Africa’s population (55.5%) lives in poverty.

However, there are certain groups who are more vulnerable to poverty.

When looking at the poverty headcount by sex, using the upper bound poverty line, adult males and females experienced a headcount of 46.1% and 52%, respectively.

Adult females experience higher levels of poverty when compared with their male counterparts, regardless of the poverty line used.

It’s a known fact that the apartheid state implemented job-reservation policies.

Key among these was to employ young, unskilled whites on the railways.

The SA Railways and Harbours Administration was established in 1910 by the amalgamation of all the provincial railways – about 11 000km of track.

It managed SAA from 1934 to 1997.

Escaping a poverty-stricken veld, hundreds of thousands of wretched Afrikaners poured into towns, searching for employment. This is the phenomenon historians call the “poor-white problem”.

The policy injunction bringing this about was as a result of the industrial depression of the government leading to the “civilised labour” policy.

The intention was to ensure that the European minority, Afrikaners in particular, did not sink below the level of the non-European workers.

The finance minister and the president can make these immediate changes to improve employment and fight disparaging poverty levels in the country.

Some of the state’s priorities for economic development have been disastrous.

There are clear examples of programmes that have worked before in this country and sustained the apartheid state.

Sanlam/Santam, Absa, Naspers, BHP Billiton, Pepkor, Venfin, Remgro and KWV are examples of highly successful businesses started by Afrikaner entrepreneurs during the time of Afrikaner nationalism.

Afrikaner empowerment history makes for interesting reading.

It reminds one that it is possible to turn around the economic fortunes of the previously marginalised.

Asking that we look back is not an easy call, but when it is done properly, it can produce miracles of economic development.

Whether, in the climate of global economic downturn and neoliberal triumphalism now, it can manage to maintain its equilibrium is something that remains to be seen.

But I am quite certain that if we are to realise a developmental state, the state will need to define its essence and not be far behind economic development.

Read: Ramaphosa: To deny apartheid is treasonous

The Afrikaners used nationalism as a tool: The “ruling class needs nationalism not only to cover up the stark inequalities characterising society” but also for the ruling class to “own internal cohesion and discipline”, suggests Thandika Mkandawire (2010), a Malawian economist.

Mkhandawire makes a crucial point that state-driven development should not be an end in itself; but rather a stepping stone to further growth and development.

We continue to characterise ourselves as a developmental state but fail to use the state as an instrument for attaining particular goals – in this case “catching up”, rapid economic transformation and growth.

The Freedom Charter defines the essence of the revolutionary trajectory but it’s clear that we have detoured so much that clear isn’t clear enough.

We need to be clear on what better means before we sloganeer “a better life for all”, or worse, “a goodstory to tell”.

The economic history raised here and the urgent need for the “catching up” process is by no means assumed to be a linear process.

It is here submitted that we can learn from our past to promote growth and development.

Maxon is a public servant and social commentator


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March 29 2020