More than profit generators

2013-05-07 00:00

SOUTH Africa’s black bourgeoisie has more than doubled in number since 2004, according to a University of Cape Town (UCT) study released last week.

It went on to suggest that this growth at the time when the white bourgeoisie hardly grew in size was good news for advertisers and marketers. At that point I paused and wondered what has gone wrong among economists that they see human beings as nothing but consumers.

As I thought about this, my mind cast back to my sociology class at the University of Durban-Westville, back in 1993, when Dr Ashwin Desai would lead us through the darker side of capitalism, the reduction of human beings to instruments for making profit, either as cheap labour or consumers of goods manufactured under harsh conditions. He cautioned that neither white nor black capitalists see human beings as capable of exercising agency for their own and society’s good.

They both plan how to pay the human beings who do the hard work as little as possible, while accruing, through their sweat, hefty profits for shareholders. He cautioned as the Convention for a Democratic South Africa’s (Codesa) negotiations were happening that until this model of human relations was tampered with, there would be no post-apartheid. Indeed, we regularly read stories involving black and white business executives that suggest that we have not yet reached a post-apartheid time.

The fact that we now have 4,2 million black people who earn decent enough salaries to live relatively comfortably from month to month should be a signal that millions of people are escaping poverty. This means an increase in the number of people who have shouldered the responsibility to educate the less fortunate in their extended families, to put food on their table and help orphaned relatives. There were only 1,7 million such people in 2004, according to the study, and their impact on livelihoods was obviously limited, but now, given the general estimate that one working black person supports at least three others, there are likely to be over 12 million among the poor who have better opportunities than would have been the case.

The increase in the black middle class may also suggest that affirmative action and empowerment measures are making a modest but significant difference in changing the shameful racial profile of our middle strata. It can be estimated also that this class will increase the pool of potential future business executives, senior government officials, shareholders and business owners, and thus the Employment Equity Commission would report better news than it did two weeks ago, when it reported that the upper echelons of our business remain dominated by white males, with white females continuing to be the biggest beneficiaries of transformation.

The 4,2 million-strong black middle class also means there is a sizeable number of people to add to the quality of our politics, should they be mobilised. Among these would be better councillors, municipal managers, MPLs and MPs, and there is a greater chance for serious progress in transforming people’s lives. Middle-class citizens with consciousness tend to have public interest at heart and be less prone to corruption. Mass politics is good for inclusion, but the bourgeoisie is poised to imagine innovative policy solutions and to manage sophisticated governments and economies.

All successful societies have had an active and mobilised middle class involved in politics and general societal endeavours. In our case, it is largely demobilised, being caught up in the consumerism and crass materialism that the UCT researchers want them to be trapped in further. This is especially true of the black middle class. With small exceptions like the Black Management Forum, it has yet to become significantly mobilised as active agents for societal and political transformation.

So, the UCT study must be good news for political parties thinking seriously about our next phase of development, which will require strategic thinking and high-quality thought leaders and managers. They should think about how to harness their special capacities as a middle class born out of the living legacy of apartheid for imagining a better, more prosperous, peaceful and united South Africa. It is sad that educated professors at UCT fail to see this human side of the story and choose to speak on behalf of capital.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.

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