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.