Notions of wealth

2008-10-24 00:00

Living in a retirement complex takes getting used to. Houses are close together. Domestic quarrels must be muted. Curtains have to be kept drawn or the neighbours might see one naked (not a pretty sight at our age).

Our complex is better than many. Zebras graze on the lawns. Buck visit. This is not an unmitigated blessing. Buck are partial to bottle brush trees. With a fine but misplaced patriotism they ignore the Australian variety and nibble our Natal Sutherlandia, which in consequence is dwarfed next to its Australian cousin.

Our complex is more spread out than many. Most mornings (except when it is raining or I can think of some other excuse which will satisfy my conscience) the dogs and I jog the kilometre from our cottage to the gate to fetch The Witness.

And, because our complex is still a work in progress, along the road we meet the crowds of young black men and women coming to build. They are not used to dogs. They do not know that Labradors are soppy and harmless. They see a large and lion-coloured dog and they jump off the pavement in alarm. I feel embarrassed. I explain that she only wants love. But we live in different cultures, the workers and I. They do not believe me.

I wonder what they think about building cottages for what they must see as rich old white people. By no means are all of us in our complex wealthy. But the workers mostly live in township houses or in the informal settlements nearby. The contrast must strike them.

And I wonder what our new leaders think about it? Although Jacob Zuma and Kalema Motlanthe have been at pains to say that there will be no changes in our economic policy, I cannot see how that can be. Zuma is indebted to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) for putting him into power.

Motlanthe is an office bearer in the SACP. How can they continue with a capitalist-friendly economy?

People ask why the SACP and the trade union movement do not fight an election under their own banner? Silly question. They know they would not win on their own. I doubt if the workers whom I meet each day belong to a trade union. I doubt if they would vote SACP. They don’t want to be a proletariat. They want jobs, homes, cars and as close to a middle-class lifestyle they can get.

Long ago I had to write an essay on neo-Marxism and education. Neo-Marxist authors were banned under the Nationalist government of the day. With a letter to authorise me, the librarian opened the locked cupboard where dangerous books were kept safe from prying eyes and let me loose on writers like Marcuse and Adorno and even Che Guevara.

I didn’t understand everything they said. I doubt if Zwelinzima Vavi, Julius Malema or Motlanthe have understood everything either. But as a rough summary it went something like this.

Classical Marxism taught that the unfairness and injustice of capitalism, where the few got rich on the unrewarded labour of the poor, would inevitably lead to a time when the poor would rise up and throw off their chains in a glorious revolution. And after the revolution would come a utopia where all would be equal.

But in reality the poor were a bit slow off the mark. They were too easily satisfied with the small extra rewards that the worldly-wise capitalists threw in their way. They didn’t want to be revolutionary heroes. They just wanted enough money to have a drink with their mates in the pub.

So, said neo-Marxism, what was needed was for the intellectuals among the middle class, the students, the artists, actors and playwrights to act as a vanguard, to start the revolution for the workers, to conscientise the proletariat who were too lazy, or too scared, or too lacking in confidence, to take matters into their own hands.

I wonder if that is what is happening here? Most of the present leaders of our SACP and the trade union movement, whatever their origins, are hardly poor and oppressed individuals. Many get large salaries, drive fancy 4x4s and send their children to private schools. In the immortal words of George Orwell: “All are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

The leaders know that the majority of ANC voters, left to their own devices, are not heroic revolutionaries ready to sacrifice all for the cause. But, if my theory is right, as neo-Marxists they see themselves as a vanguard, infiltrating the corridors of power, fighting the battle that the poor are unwilling or unable to fight for themselves. They must stay in the ANC and reform it from within.

Marx’s methods didn’t work in Eastern Europe. They brought a measure of equality, but also poverty, stagnation and inertia. Yet his aims were surely right — the eradication of gross inequality, poverty, exploitation. He was headed in the right direction. He did not have the right policies to get him there.

I have no idea what the SACP thinks is the right method to end poverty and all that goes with poverty in South Africa. Zuma, in his talk-show on SABC some days ago, certainly did not tell us. If

Nzimande has ever told us, I have missed the message. But I do not doubt that their aims also are right, their hearts in the right place.

And as to methodology, I still feel uncomfortable in my privileged white ghetto. But the truth is that the process of building my ghetto has provided jobs for literally hundreds of families. Even when the building process is finished, the complex will still provide dignity and employment for gardeners, nurse aides, domestic workers and security personnel. Not quite middle-class, I grant, but if salaries are fair, there will be money for housing, food and education. Would Marx approve? I’m not sure. Will Motlanthe approve? I’m not sure. But in a rough sort of way it seems to work.

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