AFTER 30 YEARS, a middle-class election

by Apr 25, 2024Amandla 92, Feature

Amandla! interviews Moeletsi Mbeki 

Amandla!: You said recently that “Democracy during the years 94 to 2024 can be characterised as the period when the African Middle Class consolidated its hold on power.” Could you expand on that a bit?

The founders of the ANC were a middle class created by British colonialism.

Moeletsi Mbeki: Many people in South Africa don’t understand the nature of African nationalism. Andre Odendaal’s The Founders is one of the most important books of the past few years. He went back to the middle of the 19th century to identify who the founders of the ANC were, what social classes they were. Very briefly, they were a middle class created by British colonialism. In the 19th century, it started off as a peasant class, collaborating with the British against sections of the indigenous communities in the Eastern Cape. In return for their collaborating with the British, they conquered land, which the British distributed amongst them as private property. That’s where private property started, amongst the Africans, mainly the Khoi and sections of the Xhosa.

Together with education, new technologies in agriculture and Western medicine, this led to the emergence of a Westernised, Christian middle class amongst the African population. In 1853, the British promulgated the Constitution for the Cape Colony: if you could write your name and you had 25 pounds worth of fixed property, you were able to vote. There was no discrimination on the basis of race. And it was that middle class that drove the struggle for equality.

Then, after the discovery of the minerals, especially of gold, the British mining companies were no longer interested in a peasant class. They were interested in a labouring class. So, they started to reverse what the British government had done in the middle of the 19th century and reduce the number of people who could vote. And that was the origin of African nationalism—to defend the Cape Constitution of 1853, which the mining companies were opposing, because they wanted a proletariat.

A!: Now, if we fast forward to the 1980s, we see an ANC which contains a variety of class forces. It’s no longer just that middle class and hasn’t been for a long time. How is it that the interests of that middle class prevailed?

MM: The mistake I think everybody made (and the Communist Party was one of the culprits in this) was to think that the ANC was no longer a middle-class party merely because it formed alliances with other social groups to fight apartheid. The Communist Party and other leftist forces thought that the ANC had ceased being a middle-class party and had become what they called a multi-class party. Well, it never was anything like that.

And Mandela was very explicit in the Rivonia Trial and after the adoption of the Freedom Charter in the late 1950s. He was always explicit that this is a party to create and to advance the interests of what he called the “Non-European Bourgeoisie”. In the Rivonia Trial, he was clear that the ANC is against socialism. It admires capitalism. It admires the British Constitution and the American Constitution. And it is fighting to remove racial discrimination, not to change the socio-economic system of South Africa. But nobody listened.

Mandela pointed to the coalition between the UK, the United States and the Soviet Union to fight fascism during the Second World War. This did not make the British and the Americans communists. He actually used that example. So many people mistook the alliance to fight apartheid, which was driven by the ANC, for change in the class character of the ANC. It wasn’t anything like that.

A!: To what extent was the subsuming of civil society formations and the SACP under the ANC, through the Tripartite Alliance, key to this process?

MM: It was very crucial, because it actually neutered politically the working class, and in particular the black working class and civil society in general. It was critical to the consolidation of control by the middle class to have the trade unions in particular under their wing.

If you remember, the trade unions had come up with their own policy before the 1994 elections, called the RDP. It was a policy which was more working-class oriented. Because it didn’t have the infrastructure on the ground to fight the elections, the ANC adopted that policy to fight the election. Once it got into power and established itself, and then finalised the new constitution, it jettisoned that policy and replaced it with a policy that was worked out between the middle class, the banks, the World Bank, and big business. That was the Growth, Employment, an Redistribution (Gear) policy.

A!: The trade union leadership that facilitated this process, which you have described as so destructive of the labour movement: were they naive, or were they cynical?

MM: Well, it’s a combination of both. Just to give you an example: when I joined Cosatu in September 1990, one of the things I realised was that Cosatu had a lot of money – subscriptions from their members and pension funds.

So I recommended to them that they should set up a commercial bank, along the lines of the cooperative bank in the United Kingdom. The President of the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) actually offered for free to set up a commercial bank for Cosatu, but Cosatu rejected it. And they worked against it; and it never got off the ground. Yet a very few years later, these guys became partners of black economic empowerment companies. And they became very wealthy – people like Jay Naidoo, Jayendra Naidoo and Alec Erwin.

A!: What about the broader global trends? We’re looking at a world dominated by neoliberalism for the 25 years before 1994. We have growing financialisation, the general uncontained power of monopoly capital. What about those factors in terms of constructing what we have?

MM: Yes, of course, those were parts of the broader trend, especially for a very Westernised economy like the South African economy and a minerals-driven economy, which was dependent on selling minerals to the London Metal Exchange. But you know, the first person who phoned me to tell me that Gear was the wrong policy for South Africa was not Jay Naidoo. It was the Japanese ambassador. He called to tell me that Gear is not suitable for the level of development of our economy that the Washington Consensus is not a workable model for an economy at our level of development. So, the capitalist countries understood where the Washington Consensus could work and where it couldn’t work.

A!: Yet 28 years later, broadly speaking, macro-economic policy is the same. It hasn’t changed. Why is that? You don’t have to be a revolutionary or anti-capitalist to consider that this is not the correct economic strategy for this country. What is it, then, that drives the ANC continuously down this same road, which appears to be having extremely poor results?

The Tripartite Alliance actually neutered politically the working class, and in particular, the black working class and civil society in general. It was critical to the consolidation of control by the middle class to have the trade unions in particular under their wing.

MM: No, the road the ANC is driving down has very positive results…for the African middle class. Remember, you have to understand what type of middle class we’re talking about. We’re not talking about a Western type of middle class; we’re talking about a colonial type of middle class. The colonial middle class did not have the production capacity of a Western middle class, or the economic knowledge and expertise, or the assets. It was a colonial middle class, which was an administrative class implementing the policies of the colonialists. So their mode of livelihood was through state employment.

The economic policies of the ANC have expanded enormously this bureaucratic middle class, which benefits enormously from taxing the rest of the economy. It hasn’t worked for the working class, and for sections of the capitalists, but it works for the African middle class who control political power, who control the state. They use the state to enrich themselves through high salaries on the one side, and through corruption on the other.

A!: As you indicate, it doesn’t benefit the working class and the poor. The toll that this project has exacted on the economy and society is huge. As you have said, they are in a shambles. How severe is that shambles? What are the con ours of that shambles?

M: One of the most important contours of the shambles was the destruction of the manufacturing sector in South Africa. For historical reasons, starting with the First World War, South Africa had to develop an import substitution industry, like Iscor, the steel industry, the electricity industry and so on. The African Middle Class destroyed that industry and replaced it with imports. For example, the state-owned steel company (Iscor) is today owned by an Anglo-Dutch multinational, ArcelorMittal. But ArcelorMittal is only interested in importing steel from its global infrastructure, not in making it in South Africa. The middle class, who are not interested in production, don’t care. They just charge a tax on what is imported and this goes into subsidies for themselves. In 1990, manufacturing in South Africa was more than 20% of GDP. Today, it’s sitting somewhere around 11%. They de-industrialised the economy. But they don’t care about production capacity. They care about the capacity to produce taxes. And the economy does produce taxes. 

A!: So manifestly, none of this is in the interests of the working class. In fact, it’s against their interests. And yet, 30 years later, Cosatu is going to go out and campaign for the ANC.

MM: Yes, but you know that just shows you that merely being working class doesn’t make you a socialist. But to be fair to the working class, in 2011 there was a big survey of Cosatu shop stewards, and they said that Cosatu should set up a Labour Party, because they could see that the ANC was not advancing the interests of the working class. But the Cosatu leadership didn’t do it. Why they they didn’t do it, you would have to ask them.

A!: In this situation, it’s hard to see a way through even to achieving some measure of stability. Substantial parts of the infrastructure of the country have deteriorated dramatically to the extent that it impedes the functioning of capital. From the array of parties in front of us, even if the ANC gets less than 50%, as it may, it doesn’t look like there will be any significant change in economic strategy. So how do you see the next period after the election?

Our present policies will continue. Because what gets forgotten is that all our parties in South Africa are actually middle-class parties. We don’t have a party of the capitalists. And we don’t have a party of the working class. We only have parties of the middle class.

The ANC is actually a party of the so-called Black or African Middle Class. The DA is a party of the Wasps—the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant middle class. But what is beginning to happen is that the capitalists are now taking over the parts of the infrastructure of the economy that they want—electricity generation during the green transition, the railways, the ports and so on.

A!: One last question. In this devastation, what should we be doing now? And how can we arrive at a situation, in five years’ time, where we have a credible party that represents broad working-class interests, the interests of not just workers but the broader working class and the poor?

MM: Well, in my view there is one class which you are missing in your equation, and that is the capitalist class. What the ANC and its middle-class elites are doing is making South Africa uncompetitive globally by their lack of spending on human capital.

But the capitalists in South Africa need to be competitive. In the past two or three weeks, the South African banks have been issuing their company reports. And what came out was that they are now making most of their profits outside South Africa, in Africa. What is going to happen is that the Asians are going to start competing against our banks in Sub-Saharan Africa. The same with manufacture of processed foods, which we sell into the southern Africa region. And because we have an unproductive labour force relative to Asia, they’re going to knock out South Africa.

So the capitalists themselves in South Africa are realising that the way in which the middle class are running the economy is also working against them. Will the capitalists find it in them to work with the poor and with those sections of the working class that are left in manufacturing? A big part of our working class now is in state employment, in partnership with this administrative middle class. The rest of the working class has shrunk enormously and has become very disorganised. The outsiders in our power game, who are not benefiting, are the private sector working class, the poor, the informal sector, the unemployed, the young people (young graduates increasingly) and the capitalists.

Those are the outsiders who are not benefiting. How are these going to work together? Well, that’s an interesting problematic for South Africa. Will they be able to act together?

Moeletsi Mbeki is Chairperson of the South African Institute of International Affairs, an independent think tank based at Wits University in Johannesburg. 


The road the ANC is driving down has very positive results…for the African middle class.

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