Are rich blacks the new whites?

Frans Cronje on the latest targets of the alliance's racial resentment

Whereas prosperous white South Africans are often denigrated by the Government and the African National Congress (ANC), the new black elite are often portrayed as an example of progress in our society. That has been a peculiar distinction for the Government and the ANC to maintain. There is now some evidence to suggest that attitudes in the ruling alliance may be shifting.

Two statements were released this week that amounted to separate critiques of the black elite. Both emanated from within the ruling alliance. If the attitudes inherent in the critiques catch on within other areas of the alliance, prosperous black South Africans should be concerned.

The first statement was released by the Young Communist League (YCL) on 1 November. The statement followed an address by the treasurer general of the ANC, Mr Mathews Phosa, wherein he denied that the State would nationalise mining companies. The YCL replied via a long statement the pertinent extracts from which read as follows:

"We are aware that Cde Phosa remains a man with substantial business interests. We know that the elite fraction in the ANC co-opted by Capital are finding it difficult to implement the Freedom Charter in its progressive form, not because it is not viable, possible and noble, but because new economic interests are entrenched amongst our leaders and Cde Phosa is not immune from these interests. We are not blind to the fact that many of our leaders are mining bosses; and nationalization and socialization of the mines will deny them opportunities to be filthy rich and to rip off the poor. ... Cde Phosa's comments or utterances feeds to his new found stature of being a golden-boy of imperial and white monopoly capital dominance of our economy. We call on Cde Phosa to remember these profound words by Mao Tse-tung, "In the great leap forward movement, some will fall by the wayside, some will become revisionists. But some will join the enemy camp". We hope these words will accord Cde Phosa an opportunity to revisit his ideological orientation and understanding or ‘join the enemy camp'."

Two days later, on 3 November, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) called for the assets of the one-time politician, then businessman, and now human settlements minister, Mr Tokyo Sexwale, to be nationalised. Numsa was equally critical of the wealth accumulated by a number of other black businessmen saying that the union wanted the "nationalisation and eventually the socialisation" of private wealth. Numsa suggested that white people had "co-opt[ed] connected politicians to join exploiters" and that a failure to revise this problem would amount to auctioning the "revolution to the highest bidders in the market".

The two statements have the makings of an effective political campaign. It would be very easy for factions in the tripartite alliance to suggest to the poor that they are poor because their own people sold them out. They could suggest that black South Africans who have become prosperous did so by sidling up to ‘the whites'. They could also suggest that wealthy black South Africans got wealthy by ‘stealing' the assets that should belong to ‘the people'. They are therefore greedy and deserve political sanction.

In both tone and content these two political statements resemble very closely those usually reserved to describe white South Africans and their interests in the country. Wealthy whites, and even those in the middle classes, are often portrayed by the ANC as having interests that conflict directly with the aspirations of the poor.

Wealthy black South Africans and the more prosperous parts of the black middle class are on the other hand often regarded as being a positive indicator of progress made by the country. This has been a peculiar distinction for the government and the ANC to maintain as successful and prosperous people, regardless of race, have the same interests and must make a similar contribution to the country. Segregating the relative benefits of the one from the other makes very little sense.

The statements by the YCL and by Numsa suggest that elements within South Africa's cumbersome governing coalition are beginning to come to the same conclusion. Unfortunately rather than identifying the benefits inherent in having prosperous sections of both black and white society the change in attitude appears to be leading to a denigration of black prosperity. If this is an attitude that catches on in other factions of the governing alliance then wealthy black South Africans should beware. So too should the wider black middle classes.

While names like Sexwale will be the first to come in for criticism it may only be a matter of time before the relative prosperity of the broader black middle class catches the attention of the likes of the YCL. The protected political space that the black middle classes have occupied may then come crashing down to an extent that they come to be regarded as the ‘new whites'.

Frans Cronje is deputy CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations. This article first appeared in the institute's weekly online newsletter SAIRR Today.

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