by Weizmann Hamilton, 2017

On 8 May 2017, working class discontent exploded in the coloured township of Eldorado Park, south of Johannesburg, and spread rapidly to coloured townships to its north, south, east and west. Although the protests came to be dominated by the housing question, this was in reality a rebellion against the misery of working class life in general, marked by overcrowding, mass unemployment, poverty, poor service delivery, corruption, drug-related crime, gangsterism and violence against women and children.

Despite the fact that the protests in coloured townships are fuelled fundamentally by the same class issues as in black communities, the political narrative is dominated by race. The feeling is widespread in coloured communities that whereas under apartheid they were not “white enough,” under democracy they are not “black enough”.

A new breed of coloured nationalists has emerged such as the Indigenous First Nations of SA Advocacy group (Ifnasa), Patriots for Equality and KhoiSan Traditional Leadership structures promoting contradictory notions of coloured and KhoiSan identity. Some argue that coloureds are descended from the Khoi and San and others completely reject “coloured” as a label imposed by colonialism and apartheid. They are nevertheless united in accusing the ANC government of ignoring the plight of coloureds/KhoiSan. They claim that only blacks have benefitted under the government run by an ANC that framed its historical mission as the “liberation of blacks in general and Africans in particular”.

Coloured Marginalisation?

What is the situation facing the black majority today? According to Stats SA’s 2017 Poverty Trends Report (covering the period 2011-2015) “the proportions of black Africans and coloureds living below the Lower Bound Poverty Line (LBPL) … increased from 43,4% to 47,1% for black Africans and from 20,2% to 23,3% for coloureds”. The LBPL for 2015 is R441 per month. Below this level, people have to cut down on food to be able to buy non-food items like electricity. In 2015 out of every 100 blacks, 47 lived in extreme poverty compared to 23 coloureds out of every 100. In both absolute numbers and per head of population, blacks make up a significantly greater proportion of the poorest of the poor compared to coloureds.

If these statistics tell us anything it is that it is working class “Africans in particular” that have felt the sharp edge of marginalisation. What then is fuelling the sense of coloured marginalisation? The reasons are rooted both in the post-apartheid experience as well as colonial and apartheid history.

The greatest indictment against the champions of coloured nationalism is their indifference to the plight of the black majority today. To challenge social deprivation on the basis that it is coloureds that are “marginalised”, is not just factually incorrect it is politically reactionary. Engaging in this bizarre “Oppression Olympics” blinds the followers of these ideas to the suffering of the majority of all population groups, inflaming racial suspicions and animosity.

Class divisions clearer post-apartheid

The most striking fact of post-apartheid inequalities is that superimposed upon the continuing disparities between whites on the one hand and all other population groups on the other, is the massive increase of inequalities within the black, coloured and Indian populations themselves. According to a report produced by the University of Cape Town’s School of Economics, by 2010 the Gini Co-efficient (a measure of inequality) had declined within the white population, but it had increased significantly amongst all other groups. The highest level of inequality is now within the black population with the top 10% owning 98% of the wealth.

Almost half of South Africa’s dollar millionaires – those with a net value of R14.5 million or more – are from previously disadvantaged groups, according to the latest report by New World Wealth (Fin24 27/04/16). The report found that 45% (21,000) of SA’s dollar millionaires are black, coloured, Indian or Chinese – that is from groups unable to vote prior to 1994. The 2015 SA Wealth Report says of SA’s 48,000 millionaires, that “The number of Indian millionaires in SA has increased by over 400 per cent since 2000 to reach approximately 6,500 at the end of 2014, whilst the number of African millionaires in SA has gone up by a lower 280 per cent over the same period to reach only 4,900 millionaires at the end of 2014.” With the Chinese a very tiny minority, it is clear that of the remaining 10,200 millionaires, the coloureds have the overwhelming majority – the highest of all so-called previously disadvantaged groups.

Indians make up 14% of millionaires but only 3% of the population; coloureds at least 45% of millionaires but 8,9% of the population and Africans only 10% of millionaires but 80% of the population. This is why Zikalala wants coloureds and Indians kicked out of the BEE self-enrichment trough.

But most important of all, such a mistaken approach, instead of creating strength through unity amongst the working class in struggle against their common oppression, erects barriers among them. It also provides an alibi for the elites of all racial groups, diverting attention from what really lies behind the strident accusations of racism emanating from them: competition for state resource and opportunities for self-enrichment. They use the legitimate grievances of the working class of their “own” racial groups in pursuit of their own separate class interests.

Land restitution and Affirmative Action

Both the setting of 1913 as the cut-off date for land restitution, as well as the ANC’s approach to the Employment Equity Act exposes the narrow, exclusionary, reactionary character of its nationalism. The 1913 date confirms that the only land dispossession that matters to the ANC is that suffered by Africans of Bantu descent.

ANC KZN Leader Sihle Zikalala’s call for the exclusion of Indians and coloureds from the ambit of BEE confirms this. Anecdotes amongst coloureds that they are told they are not “black black” when applying for jobs, promotions or tenders are common. The ANC has inverted the pyramid of apartheid oppression into a historical hierarchy of privilege. Accordingly coloureds should take their place in the affirmative action queue for jobs and promotions that corresponds with the “privileges” they enjoyed under Apartheid.

The discussion in the ANC that has now been reopened on the dispossession cut-off date has blown open the entire basis for restitution, undermining the original aims of the ANC’s African nationalism as the rallying cry of united resistance of all ethnic groups. Instead it has cleared the way for claims based not on the dispossession of the African people as a united whole but of the different pre-capitalist tribal groups. On the basis of this approach, if the boundaries of African nationalism can be redrawn to exclude those of non-Bantu ancestry, why can’t they be redrawn to recognise the different Bantu tribes as they were originally constituted? The tribal claims such as those put forward, for example, by King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulu “nation” for land restitution from the Queen of England are the logical result.

Against this background the champions of KhoiSan marginalization are now putting forward their own claims. They cite these developments as proof of the marginalisation of the KhoiSan by the ANC just as the Dutch and British colonial powers did before. They accuse the ANC, not without merit, of writing them out of history, not recognising their culture and languages and not celebrating the KhoiSan leaders for their role in the resistance struggles against dispossession and colonial subjugation.

But the advocates of “KhoiSanism” are engaged in the same revision of history as the ANC’s “African” nationalists. There was historically no KhoiSan “nation”. These were separate peoples with their own language and culture who fought separate wars of resistance against colonialism. When they first encountered colonialism they were at different levels of cultural development: the Khoi, pastoralists and the San, herders. The claims of today’s KhoiSan champions are an affirmation that race is a social construct.               

Different class interests

Both the “African” nationalists and their “KhoiSan” counterparts represent the frustrated ambitions of the elites of the communities whose cause they claim to champion. Lacking the social weight to fight their own class battles in the quest to climb to the summits of the economy, and shrinking from any action that could threaten the capitalist system itself, they exploit the frustrations and fears within their “own” communities, attempting to mobilise the poor and the working class in their service. The heightened racial tensions in society are inflamed far less by the working class but by the competition amongst the coloured, Indian and black elites, alongside the white middle and upper classes.

Whereas the ANC’s nationalists required the construction of the House of Traditional Leaders out of the same system of tribal-rule fashioned by the apartheid regime as instruments of control unrelated to the genuine system of pre-colonial historical chieftainship, the KhoiSan elite has found it necessary to champion the cause of a non-existent nation. As hypocritical as each other, the African and KhoiSan nationalists have distorted history for the same purpose – to deceive and exploit the working class politically to realise their unrealisable aims – to become the new capitalist ruling class.

It is impossible for the coloured working class to emancipate themselves from marginalisation on their own. The working class struggle, which is for equality of wealth under socialism, not equality of poverty, can be achieved only on the basis of the unity of the working class and the poor of all population groups. The coloureds, moreover, are a minority. Unity with the black working class majority is not an optional extra. To argue that coloureds can end their own poverty separately from the black majority is to blind the working class to the source of their marginalisation – capitalism – and to sow illusions in its capacity to meet coloured and poor working class needs.     

The greedy ambitions for self-enrichment of the elites of the “previously disadvantaged” groups are not propelled by the searing poverty of the working class. Rather, out of fear that mobilising the working class to displace “white monopoly capital” would threaten the very existence of the capitalist system their wealth would derive from, they have resigned themselves to the cowardly ambition of assimilation into the wealthy white-dominated ruling elite.

Working class unity – the only way forward

The working class in all population groups have much more in common with their class brothers and sisters across racial barriers, than with their “own” elites. In pointing an accusing finger at the coloureds, the ANC leadership not only confirms the shallowness of their political analysis of the inter-play between race and class in SA; they are also displaying an arrogant presumption about the allegiance of the black working and even middle class towards it. The reality is that the capital of the ANC’s liberation credentials has diminished to the point where it enjoys the active electoral support of only 35% of the eligible voting population. The ANC is being deserted by its “own” people.

The combination of all these factors has created an ideological vacuum on the left that has rendered sections of the coloured, Indian and white working class susceptible to the racist appeal of the nationalists in their communities and for their class discontent to take on a racial colouration. This is not unexpected in a country where racism was from the onset historically intertwined with the development of capitalism, fashioning it as a weapon of divide-and-rule firstly and foremostly over the working class. The national oppression of the black middle class was in that sense but collateral damage necessary to conceal the class essence of colonialism and apartheid. After nearly a quarter of a century of democracy, it is mainly the middle class that remains blinded by race, confusing the substance of today’s manifestation of class exploitation with its racial form. 

However, these views are still in the minority. The capitalist economic policies of a government elected by the black majority, have ensured that the main thrust of working class consciousness remains class consciousness. Working class affinity for socialism, far from evaporating, has been entrenched by the betrayal of the ANC, Cosatu and SACP leadership and their class collaboration in upholding a capitalist system unable to meet even the  most basic needs of the working class.

The delay in the establishment of a mass workers party has led to a vacuum into which the competing African and KhoiSan nationalisms have stepped. These ideas offer no way forward for the working class. The launch of the SA Federation of Trade Unions offers a new opportunity to mobilise the forces of the organised working class for the establishment of such a party. On the basis of a socialist programme it would be possible to provide workers of all races a political home, uniting them in all the three theatres of struggle – the workplace, the education sector and communities – in a common, united struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society.