The Causes of Ongoing Social Injustice Ivor Chipkin a report for the raith foundation

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The Causes of Ongoing Social Injustice

Ivor Chipkin

A Report for the RAITH Foundation

Table of Contents

Table of Contents 2

Executive Summary 3

The Causes of Social Injustice 7

1.Introduction 8

2.A Just Society? 10

3.The Theory of National Democratic Revolution 13

3.1.Articulation of Modes of Production 14

3.2.Another Relationship between Race and Class 17

4.Freedom and Capitalism today 17

5.Another Economy 17


6.Bringing the State Back In 17

7.Public Sector Reform 17

7.1.Integration 17

7.2.Transformation 17

7.3.Service Delivery 17

8.Social Justice in South Africa today 17

8.1.The view from above 17

8.2.The View from Below: 17

References 18

Executive Summary

This paper is about the causes of social injustice in South Africa today. Drawing on previous work I discuss social justice as a situation where economic goods, political rights and social status are distributed fairly. In particular, social justice arises when the relationships between groups and between social classes are justified on the basis of a more or less equitable distribution of public and private goods and the benefits associated with national, economic growth. Central to this conception of justice, moreover, is the idea of a fair distribution of rights, of entitlements, of benefits, of burdens, of responsibilities. In this conception of a ‘just society’ the State is supposed to be the arbiter of this equilibrium between groups and classes and is, therefore, understood to be the condition of social peace.

How, in South Africa, has a fair distribution of goods come to be understood? I will discuss the notions of ‘fairness’ and its opposite ‘unfairness’ in relation to their connotations in South Africa – rather than in relation to a now massive philosophical literature. Resistance to Apartheid and before that, segregationist policies produced a large repertoire of terms and concepts to describe and analyse the injustice of South Africa’s political systems. I will focus on the notion of South Africa as a ‘colony-of-a-special-type’ because its terms and concepts informed the most important political movement that arose to resist Apartheid, the African National Congress and its various alliance partners. Furthermore, the political programme associated with this analysis, the pursuit of National Democratic Revolution, has been central to the ANC government’s own reading of how to ‘transform’ the South African political-economy in the interests of social justice.

One of the features of Apartheid society was the way that social and economic goods were allocated to the benefit of white people and to the prejudice of black people. Moreover, in order to sustain this situation, political and civic rights were denied Black South Africans, most notably through the denial of the franchise and, in millions of cases, of formal citizenship. From the late 1960s in South Africa, the social justice agenda was increasingly defined in terms of rights for blacks and for workers. In the 1970s and1980s, women’s rights began to feature in their own right. Under the influence of gay and lesbian activists in the 1990s, moreover, sexual orientation was also added to this cluster of issues.

What made it sensible to bring these diverse struggles into alliance was an idea of apartheid. Apartheid was understood as a system of race and class domination that allocated benefits in society primarily to whites and capitalists and burdens primarily to blacks and the working class. In later versions of the Theory of National Democratic Revolution, apartheid was also conceived as a patriarchal system that privileged men. Under the influence of gay rights activists, from the 1990s this notion of patriarchy was extended to include hetero-normativity. As such apartheid patriarchy was said to discriminate against gays and lesbians. In other words, apartheid was conceived as the primary obstacle to the liberation of blacks, of workers, of women and of gays and lesbians.

This report reviews the progress made in South Africa in changing the social and economic structures of social injustice in South Africa. It considers the ways that economic, political and social assets are allocated in society today and the degree to which historical patterns of unfairness and discrimination have been changed or are changing. In other words, is contemporary South Africa a place where race, gender, class and region no longer or to a lesser degree determine patterns of accumulation, production and consumption?

The paper starts with a paradox. Despite important and positive changes to the way that many private and public goods are allocated in South African society, South Africa resembles less and less the society imagined in the Constitution, a non-racial democracy where all citizens have more or less equal access to goods and services. Instead there has been progress at ‘meeting basic needs’, including providing welfare support to nearly 16 million South Africans and improving access to public educational and health facilities. There have also been important steps in deracialising patterns of ownership and control of private control and creating and expanding the middle class. Yet the quality of government services is often poor and uneven. Moreover, massive structural unemployment condemns millions of South Africans to a life of dependency (on the State, on family members, on charity). Hence, South Africa increasingly resembles a country of several worlds: ‘multiracial’ middle classes in the large metropolitan areas, with access to high-quality, largely private services and facilities; populations of mostly Black, unemployed or underemployed young men located on marginal sites on the urban peripheries or in pockets of the inner-city; informal settlements around secondary cities inhabited by millions of farm workers displaced from the land and/or farm workers earning very low wages and rural districts under chiefly authority where rural women eke our precarious livelihoods. All of these large mentioned groups rely on the State for access to various social services.

It is this state of inequality and fragmentation that is described by terms like ongoing ‘social injustice’. What is usually at stake in contemporary debates about South Africa’s current condition and future (developmental state, failed state as the two extremes) are the ongoing reasons for this situation.

This paper discusses that efforts to ‘transform’ the economy have focused on ownership and control of private, for-profit companies. In particular, Black Economic Empowerment policies, including Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment, have tried to shift patterns of ownership of capital and the control of capital (that is, who occupies senior management and executive board positions in South African corporations) away from mainly white men, to Black South Africans broadly defined. Testament to the legacy of non-racialism in the African National Congress, the term ‘black’ in these laws and regulations is not simply a racial one. Although the subject of intense political contestation when it comes to the conclusion of actual business deals or the awarding of tenders, the definition of the term carries the deep imprimatur of the ANC’s historic understanding of Apartheid as a system of racial, gender and national domination. ‘Blacks’ thus refer to Africans, Coloured and Indians. There is strong emphasis on privileging women in economic empowerment. Even white women have been, controversially, included in the remit of these policies. So have Chinese South Africans. In other words, the term ‘black’ refers to women in general and all those people historically discriminated against during the Apartheid/colonial period.

The difficulty lies with black economic empowerment’s organisational rather than institutional focus. It has not done much to change the ‘rules of the (economic) game’ (institutional change), or rather it has addressed only the demographic rules of business (organisational change). It has not resulted in changes to the way business gets done between firms or, more specifically, the tendency towards centralisation and capital intensity in many economic sectors. Black economic empowerment in its current form has done nothing to stall these tendencies. Yet it is the low labour absorptivity of the capitalist sector in South Africa that accounts for very high unemployment, especially amongst young adults. Moreover, weak market competition and associated commercial procurement practices serve to make food and other basic household goods expensive for South Africans and especially expensive for the poor.

This report discusses the institution of traditional authority and customary law. Despite initial efforts to democratise rural local governments, especially in former Homeland areas, the power of chiefs has not only been preserved but strengthened – especially in relation to the allocation of land. What this means is that in large parts of the country, concomitant with the boundaries of former Bantustans, the remit of democratic government, especially at municipal level, is constrained by the institution of the chief. This situation also represents a severe limit on women’s’ citizenship, the exercise of which is again mediated in and through a patriarchal institution.

Most commonly, the situation is explained in terms of a ‘democratic deficit’ on the South African political scene. Numerous scholars and activists refer to the absence of the ‘voice of the poor’ in policy processes or in decision-making concerning the allocation of economic resources and public funds. In other words, it is suggested that the government has not tackled some of the more difficult challenges of socio-economic transformation because it does not feel under sufficient pressure to do so.

The democratic transition had important consequences for civil-society broadly speaking. In the 1990’s many of the popular organisations that had arisen to oppose the Apartheid government either dissolved or were absorbed into ANC structures. Organised social movements suffered a further set-back when international donors shifted their funding strategies in the democratic period. Rather than support activist or community organisations directly, many donors shifted to supporting the new government through bi-lateral agreements.

The growing gulf between formal politics (the space of law-making, parliamentary contestation, policy-making and government action), civil society and political society has also been deepened by South Africa’s electoral landscape. Since the first democratic election, the African National Congress has secured overwhelming electoral majorities. Many authors have drawn the following conclusion: confident in its electoral majority, the ANC as an organisation has been unresponsive to voters’ needs and unaccountable in. The image of a gulf or breach between the political elite and citizens, especially poor South Africans, might not be a good one, however. New work is beginning to show how electoral politics is in embedded in local strategies and contestation for wealth and income. Under these conditions ‘blacks’ don’t simply vote for the ANC because it is a ‘black’ party, but because their livelihoods are caught up in the electoral fortunes of the organisation.

Preoccupation with the ANC and government has also created blind spots.

The first concerns the character of the South African State. The paper explores what measures have been taken to ‘transform’ the South African state and how effective they have been. It makes the argument that even when there is political will, government departments often lack the organisational means to perform their mandated tasks. This is not, as so much of the public debate suggests, because public servants are simply unskilled or incompetent. Instead, the uneven performance of the public service and of local governments has a lot to with how they have been structured (the influence of New Public Management), how they recruit staff (there is no minimum qualification, no entrance exam) and how they incentivise their staff. What the report discusses is public sector reform privileged a model of managerial control at the expense of administrative and bureaucratic capacity.

Furthermore, the poor quality of government services is not the only cause of on-going social injustice. Unemployment remains the principle driver of inequality in South Africa. Unemployment is, in turn, a consequence of the capital intensity of business processes in South Africa. This situation is aggravated by rudimentary market competition in many sectors that, in turn, drives high prices for consumer goods (food retail, telecoms, electricity). South Africa, in other words, has a capitalist economy with a weak market economy. One does not have to be a socialist to agree that this arrangement is unsustainable. It is not simply that ‘white’ ownership and control in the private sector remains high. The structure of the economy itself distributes benefits to a small multiracial elite while condemning the vast majority of South Africans to a life of dependency (on social grants and often poor public services). One of the glaring gaps in the social justice sector consists of social movements agitating in favour of a just economy.

The report concludes with some remarks about the social justice agenda itself. Earlier work on the ‘social justice sector’ revealed that the vast majority of social justice organisations were involved in some form of advocacy, usually to advance the socio-economic rights of various groups. Often this work takes the form of litigation to force government departments to make available the services they are constitutionally obliged to provide (HIV/Aids treatment, school text books, shelter, basic services and so on) (see Chipkin and Meny-Gibert: 2013).

The social justice agenda could be further advanced by:

  • Addressing social injustices arising from the way that the South African economy works to drive up prices of basic goods (like food and energy). Consumer activism is an especially propitious and yet neglected field of action. In the first place, high consumer prices and poor services unduly affect poor South Africans. Food prices are especially high. Most poor families survive on a diet that excludes dairy products and only occasionally includes meat. High prices, moreover, are often a consequence of weak or poorly performing markets. Consumer activism, that is, opens a hitherto unexplored route to reforming or even transforming aspects of the South African economy.

  • Engaging more fully with the reasons why government fails or is seen to fail in changing the way private and public goods are distributed. In this regard, the sector would be assisted by ongoing research in relevant sectors, including on patterns of social stratification in South Africa and social change, on the character of the South African economy, on the form of the State, on the dominant political and intellectual traditions in South Africa.

  • Expanding the strategies and tactics social justice organisations use to pursue social justice. This report has shown, for example, that understanding the limits of what government does in terms of political will or in terms of accountability misses as much as it explains. There are opportunities where partnerships with government departments/ agencies/ officials may be as valuable a form of engagement as opposition and litigation.

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