On several occasions over the past 25 years or so, South Africans have experienced something akin to what engineers may describe as a “bending moment” – the moment at which an external force is applied to a structure, causing its main beams and trusses to bend. This works well as a metaphor, only.
A political economy is a lot more complex and has to be seen as a totality of all human endeavours, economic, non-economic and, lest we forget, history. A political economy is that vast array of human elements that cannot be understood in fixed material terms, but in terms of the relations that bring people together or tear them apart.
Consider, for example, a lease agreement between a home-owner and a tenant. The agreement shapes privileges and opportunities between them – it defines their relationship. To resolve problems between the two, there is a need to look at the contract that binds them, or that tears them apart, for that matter.
South Africa’s political economy is especially fractured, and has been held together (tenuously) since 1994 by a lattice-work of compromises and reconciliations that transferred what were purely political privileges, by purposeful apartheid policies and laws, into purely economic privileges today.
I am often reminded of this when I drive eastward between George and Wilderness, in the Western Cape. As you snake left around the bend at Dolphin Point, Wilderness Beach stretches out into the distance in all its misty splendour. I am reminded, always, that the privilege of owning property along this ocean front was never purely economic, or driven by market forces in which everyone had equal opportunities. There were deliberate policies and laws that prevented some people from buying and owning property along Wilderness Beach.
The same is true about many other tracts of land that defy description for their breathtaking beauty, not to mention access to resources of the land and sea.
Put bluntly, the best property in the country was preserved for whites by politics. Today, purchase of these properties is expected to be made through “market prices” – with everyone having an equal opportunity to do so, provided, of course, that they can afford to pay for it.
This illustrates, in part, the differences between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes that is integral to the work of more open-minded economists like Amartya Sen.
The bulk of mainstream economics is dominated by crude “cost-benefit” analyses or “supply-and-demand” simplicities that would have us believe that there is no history of injustice, that everyone can participate in market transactions equally, and there never have been purposeful policy interventions and enforcement at the bedrock of inequality.
Whether we like to hear about it or not – some of us apply the crudest of cognitive dissonance when these things are discussed – the laws that secured property rights were enforced, often violently and with no regard for families or communities. During the 1960s my grandfather had an old Victorian house in Grahamstown, close to the main street, but he was forced out because my family were “Malays”. Only whites could live in the centre of Grahamstown.
This happened to hundreds of thousands of South Africans during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. I make this point only to demonstrate that the fount and matrix of privilege in South Africa were set during the colonial period by purposeful social policies, and enforced from 1948 onwards by the security forces of the apartheid state. There was no market-based “cost-benefit” analysis in the allocation of land, or property ownership. Indigenous people were proscribed, at the outset, from equal opportunities and privileges.
What am I getting at? Well, with “radical economic transformation”, South Africa faces yet another “bending moment”. If this transformation proceeds from restorative justice (bringing the historically privileged and the non-privileged together to mediate restitution – with full disclosures and admission of guilt, so to speak), South Africa may simply bend. We may, then, start to build social cohesion. If, however, it is driven by revenge and a solution is sought through rapine, we may break.
What is cause for concern is an apparent hardening of positions. Some groups are emboldened, as it were, and are “fighting back” to protect ill-gotten gains and hide behind laws – the very laws that hold together the lattice-work of compromises and reconciliations – to protect their privileges. Other groups have simply scooped up the crumbs from high tables to secure their own privilege.
Whatever changes we may wish to see – and whatever radical economic transformation may mean – today they can only be made in the context of what we inherited, and we inherited an iniquitous system based on privilege and exclusion.
The decision before us, ultimately, is whether we want to bend or whether we should, necessarily, break in order to move forward.