South Africa: 'World Class' for the Few, 'Third Class' for the Rest

by Dale T. McKinley

South Africa’s rulers’ pretensions to world rank have more to do with their own narrow class aspirations than with broad questions of social justice and democracy. The land of Mandela is a classy place for the upper classes, but a world of deepening poverty for the majority.

South Africa: 'World Class' for the Few, 'Third Class' for the Rest

by Dale T. McKinley

This article previously appeared in Pambuzuka News.

South Africa is the most unequal society in the world.”

“A council member told me we are too dirty to fish there … they are putting on a party to tell the world it is a beautiful country, but poor people are being trampled on.” That’s what Durban fisherman Khalil Adam told a journalist after hearing that he and thousands of fellow fisherfolk had been barred from Durban’s piers just a few months before South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

And, what was the reasoning behind Durban officialdom’s decision to cynically deprive local fisherfolk from earning their livelihoods? They wanted the beachfront to look “world class” for all those FIFA fat-cats, well-heeled soccer tourists and fans and of course, a global TV audience whose view of South Africa’s holiday paradise wouldn’t be ruined by “dirty” fisherfolk trying to make a living. In this “world,” there could be no room, no access for the poor and working class, just for the capitalist/wealthy classes; in other words; “world class” for the few and “third class” for the rest.

Over the last few years such a “world class” view has become an integral part of the discourse and practice of South African society. Here are some of the more pertinent examples.

One of the most-oft sung “world class” hymns in our country (and abroad) is about the hyper-democratic and socially progressive South African Constitution. But, what kind of “world class” standard is being adopted when it actually comes to the implementation as well as promotion and protection of the myriad political and socio-economic rights contained therein? Despite the consistent and ever voluminous claims by the ANC and the government of achievements on this front, the fact is that South Africa is the most unequal society in the world, has one of the highest serious crime rates globally (with the most vulnerable – women, children and the poor – being the greatest victims) and is experiencing a gradual but consistent undermining of many constitutional rights through a creeping social conservatism under the guise of selective “morality,” constructed “tradition” and manipulated “nationalism.”

When public employees blow the whistle on corruption they are more often than not disciplined, harassed, lose their jobs and sometimes their lives.”

Likewise, we are regularly told that we have “world class” pieces of legislations such as the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), the Protected Disclosures Act (PDA) and the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (PEPUDA). Yet, the record of their application reveals a woeful gap between promise and practice. When it comes to access to information, the combined refusal rate – under PAIA - of private and public entities is more than 60% over the last several years. When public employees blow the whistle on corruption they are more often than not disciplined, harassed, lose their jobs and sometimes their lives. As for equality before the law and dealing with unfair discrimination, just ask a protesting activist from Abahlali baseMjondolo or a rural widow trying to access what resources are lawfully hers or former miners dying of silicosis and manganese poisoning how the “world class” law is working for them.

We also have, according to the industry and government, a “world class” mining sector. Indeed, it is so “world class” that there is obviously no reason to question the desperately low salaries that most mine workers receive, the often criminal practices of mining corporates when it comes to working conditions, or the environmental destruction that is wreaking havoc on the land and poor communities in and around mineral-rich areas.

Then there’s our “world class” water infrastructure. Unfortunately, for those living in many small towns, rural communities and informal urban settlements (in other words, where the poor majority of our society live and work), there are regular water-borne diseases, a bucket system that is expanding (not contracting) and residents being forced to pay before they consume – through the pre-paid system – as opposed to the urban wealthy, corporations and government departments who not only enjoy quality water but are allowed to consume and then pay (or not).

And, how can we forget our “world class” Information, Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure and network? The problem is however, that the majority simply cannot afford to enjoy these facilities because they do not have the funds to pay for the airtime, the data etc. What we actually have is a digital apartheid, a country where the insiders such as big business, senior politicians and government officials/bureaucrats as well as most of the middle class can enjoy the “world class” infrastructure while the rest have to decide whether to spend their paltry social grants or incomes on cell phone time (to call a doctor, to talk to their kids teacher) or on food and transport.

What we actually have is a digital apartheid.”

Of course, there’s the more recently celebrated “world class” transport infrastructure (e.g., Gautrain, Rea Vaya, airports, tolled freeways etc.) when poor communities have hardly any paved roads, cannot afford options like the Gautrain and will never see one of the new or upgraded airports let alone actually use them. The e-tolls, which ANC General Secretary Gwede Mantashe, recently described as a “funding mechanism for world class infrastructure” is but the latest example of the crass, politicized and disingenuous (mis)use of this term. While the corporates and well-to-do comfortably speed down the new highways, with the squeezed middle-class grudgingly following behind, most of Joburg’s (poor) citizens will fork out more of their already meager incomes on transport, continue to travel on crumbling roads, swerve around ever deepening potholes and open sewerage and risk their lives on daily taxi commutes.

On the financial front, we are saturated with claims of our “world class” banking industry. And yet, the majority of South Africa’s population have little to no access other than through exploitative high-interest short-term loans. While we supposedly have a “world class” stock exchange, it is dominated by a few large corporations and select black capitalists alongside politically connected individuals and consortiums. As for the workers, they are simply told to trust their pension fund administrators and investment company directors as they play roulette on the stock market with workers’ hard-earned money.

Most of Joburg’s (poor) citizens will fork out more of their already meager incomes on transport.”

Lastly, what about South Africa’s “world class” agricultural sector? Because it is largely centered on private, corporatized agriculture geared towards servicing capitalist market needs and demands, combined with the abject failure of the ANC government to carry through with meaningful land redistribution and support for small-scale and collective agriculture, the result is that food prices have skyrocketed and more and more of South Africa’s agricultural sector is shifting to non-food production. In turn, this has catalyzed an increasing food crisis amongst the poor. Further, the government has allowed bio-industries to literally get away with the theft of South Africa’s natural seed/food sovereignty (and in the process lay down a layer of secrecy over what exactly we are eating). All the while, the wealthy, upper middle classes and fat cat government bureaucrats feast on an ever-expanding buffet of high-end food products subsidized by public funds.

So here’s the question to ask: what kind of “world” is it where the term “world class” fits appropriately? It certainly is not a world in which the capitalist class and their small minority of middle class and political hangers-on ride the “world class” gravy train while telling the rest of humanity to cram into the third class carriages. Rather, it should be a world where we aim for everyone to be able to access and enjoy not only the basics of life but a clean environment, adequate and healthy food, public infrastructure and services and lived equality before and application of the law. That is the kind of world that can be truly “world class” because it would encompass all who live in it.

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist. This article was first published by South African Civil Society Information Service.

1 Comment

Realpolitik blunted Nelson Mandela's essential heroics

As a European(white)-Canadian who spent close to a decade living, working and travelling across the U.S., as a lifelong and vocal opponent of any kind of bigotry, and as a lifelong supporter of massive economic reparations both for the descendants of the African slaves whose blood, sweat and tears laid the foundation for Amerikkka's enormous eventual economic might and of massive economic reparations also - in both the U.S. and Canada - for the descendants of the aboriginals from whom this entire so-called "New World" was stolen, I viewed Nelson Mandela as one of the few human beings - either living or dead - who deserved the status of hero. To me, a hero isn't some great athlete or entertainer or politician or corporate CEO or some other "empty vessel" celebrity. A hero is someone who makes great personal sacrifices - oftentimes risking their own life and liberty - to help deliver social justice to others. Nelson Mandela was such a man. His courage and integrity were impeccable. His achievements were enormous. But I humbly and respectfully suggest that the enormity of his achievements was greatly reduced by a force even this great man could not defeat - realpolitik - the power of the extremely wealthy, extremely corrupt and extremely psychopathic "captains"of multinational corporate capitalism. For a while after Nelson Mandela finally won his freedom and became the first democratically elected president of South Africa, I felt a sense of betrayal in the failure of the ANC to nationalize the diamond industry and allow the entire population to share in its enormous profits. But I came to understand that if Mandela had tried to go further he would almost certainly have been assassinated or otherwise incapacitated, similarly for the ANC in the years since. Until such time as the Other99% - the poor, the working class and the middle class - across the U.S. and Canada and around the world - regardless of race, colour, creed (or lack thereof), ethnic or national origin, gender, sexual orientation, age and/or physical and/or mental disability or infirmity - unite as one and nurture the harmony necessary to create the mighty coalition needed to defeat the common enemy - the Top1% - the limits to how much even a hero of such great stature as Nelson Mandela will be very severely restricted. And if I might humbly and respectfully make another observation, I would submit that as important as it was for Nelson Mandela to promote "reconciliation" between oppressors and the oppressed, I believe he neglected an ingredient that I believe is indispensible to true and lasting "reconciliation" - and that is "reparation". And until just "reparation" has been made to the victims and the descendants of the victims of South African apartheid, as also to the decendants of the victims of the European(white)-American genocides against the ancestors of today's African-Americans and of today's North American aboriginals, social justice will fall far short of having been achieved. www.WRISEUP.COM