The Dispossessed: Lessons from Post-Apartheid South Africa

On new paradigms and old ideologies

South Africa’s triumph over apartheid nearly 30 years ago was one of the most dramatic events of the 20th century. Peaceful coexistence, reconciliation, and the creation of viable democratic institutions are among the many achievements of the post-apartheid period. Yet, after 30 years, this praise appears to have been misplaced. Post-apartheid South Africa is the world’s most unequal society. Economic prowess remains deeply connected to race, with the more expensive residential areas being almost exclusively white and the shantytowns Black. 

According to the World Bank, the wealthiest 10 percent of South Africans own more than 90 percent of the country’s total wealth, while 80 percent own almost no wealth. This division is compounded by the fact that the overwhelming majority at the bottom of the class pyramid are Black. While there has been an increase in the number of poorer white South Africans in the last 30 years, the economic picture remains mostly unchanged in terms of race. Whites largely make up the middle and upper classes, while Blacks remain poor.

In other words, apartheid never really ended in South Africa – it merely transformed. Constitutional apartheid gave way to economic apartheid, with the outcomes largely remaining the same for the majority of the population. The white minority in South Africa lost political power in 1994 after centuries of exploitation, yet retained control of the economy. Those who look to the South African anti-apartheid struggle as a blueprint for ending similar oppressions – chief among them, the struggle in Israel/Palestine – are doing themselves a disservice by ignoring the shapeshifting endurance of apartheid and its economic manifestations.

Indeed, in the current one-state reality in Israel-Palestine, similar transformations are already taking shape and being accelerated by the outgoing Trump administration. Given the seismic shifts away from the two-state solution in 2020, it’s time for fresh thinking and debate about how South Africa has failed to address economic apartheid, and what that means for Israel-Palestine. 

In a new series for +972 Magazine, I explore how post-apartheid South Africa can and should inform future developments in Israel/Palestine. With so much attention placed on the connection between apartheid South Africa and Israel, valuable perspectives on the failure of democratic South Africa to reverse inequality have been missed. The first article in the series went live today and I encourage you to read it. Below is an excerpt that ended up on the cutting room floor in which I explore how the fascinating concept of racial capitalism in South Africa is vital for creating new paradigms in Israel/Palestine. 

The Long Arm of Racial Capitalism 

One of the central purposes of South Africa’s apartheid system was to consolidate economic power in the hands of the few. While white supremacy was a defining component (and shouldn’t be underplayed), the ideology itself was a vehicle to achieve a specific financial end. In many ways, apartheid South Africa was more concerned with cheap labor for its mining operations than promoting a belief in white superiority.

In his diagnosis of racial capitalism – a lens that describes a great deal in both post-apartheid South Africa and present-day Israel-Palestine – the American academic Cedric Robinson writes that capitalism uses systems of oppression like apartheid to evolve and maintain dominance. Since capitalism was created in an environment already infused with racism (that is, Western Europe), it is only logical for the system to grow dependent on slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide. In his magnum opus, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Robinson notes that “the historical development of world capitalism was influenced in a most fundamen­tal way by the particularistic forces of racism and nationalism.”

All have not embraced the application of racial capitalism in South Africa. In an unsigned 1979 essay titled “Neo-Marxism and the Bogus Theory of ‘Racial Capitalism’” that appeared in the journal Ikwezi: A Black Liberation Journal of South African and Southern African Political Analysis, the unnamed author argued that the idea of racial capitalism was an attempt by European Marxists to co-opt black liberation struggles in southern Africa. The author attacks the work of two white Marxist writers, Martin Legassick and David Hemson, explicitly noting that they “marginalize the black worker as the subject of South African history by replacing him with a universal working-class subject with equal claim to the spoils of and struggle against apartheid and global capitalism.”

The Ikwezi piece isn’t entirely accurate since Legassick and Hemson repeatedly note “that modern manifestations of racism were historically contingent on the shifting regimes of capital accumulation in South Africa and the response of the South African state to it.” Instead, the early disagreement over racial capitalism highlights a period of deep division between Trotskyite and Stalinist strains of Marxism in the South African liberation movement. This might sound like inside baseball but this division, especially in the ANC, has always fascinated me. 

So what’s the connection between racial capitalism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? In a phrase: It’s all about the economy. As Israel moves away from the two-state solution and entrenches the present one-state condition, economic inequality will emerge as the primary driver of disenfranchisement for those who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. This isn’t a new idea but it will accelerate under the status quo of the Biden administration. The struggle over economic equality in post-apartheid South Africa is a critical blueprint for inquiry. It’s time to think outside of the box. 

Some things I read recently

The Unrivalled Poetry of East German Football Team Names

The Colonization of the Ayahuasca Experience

The Settler Logics of (Outer) Space

How Paul Celan Reconceived Language for a Post-Holocaust World

A final thought

“The constant lure of ‘clicky’ content is already making it harder to focus on the pursuit of meaning, whether that pursuit involves learning calculus, or writing poems, or simply paying attention to your dinner companion.” – Jenny Judge, Who Wants a Frictionless Future?