More than one specter haunts South Africa

This week, the World Bank issued a report, South Africa Economic Update: Inequality of Opportunity. The report accurately and unsurprisingly details the depth of inequality in the new South Africa. For some, this report, and even more inequality itself, proves that “the spirit of Verwoerd still haunts” the nation. For others, the report details a present day threat to the future, a future that should be one of growth. For others, it’s something of a mix of national and global. A global sluggish economy takes a special form in a nation marked, perhaps constituted, by “a yawning gap between the nation’s richest and poorest citizens”.

Everywhere the reports comment on the persistence and roots of this inequality. Rightly so. As some note, the report itself identifies the subjects of the inequality: “In addition to being young and living in certain locations, being a woman and non-white still matters, increasing the likelihood of being unemployed or underemployed significantly (over and above any impact of these attributes on education).policy—one of the rare policy goals on which a political consensus is easier to achieve.”

Elsewhere, the report suggests, “Whether a person is born a boy or a girl, black or white, in a township or leafy suburb, to an educated and well-off parent or otherwise should not be relevant to reaching his or her full potential: ideally, only the person’s effort, innate talent, choices in life, and, to an extent, sheer luck, would be the influencing forces. This is at the core of the equality of opportunity principle, which provides a powerful platform for the formulation of social and economic policy—one of the rare policy goals on which a political consensus is easier to achieve.”

As far as the report goes, it’s fine. The data seems more or less reasonable and in line with many other reports on inequality in South Africa. The history, however, has one glaring omission. The World Bank itself. Nowhere in a report on the roots and persistence of inequality in South Africa is there any discussion of the role that the World Bank, the IMF, and other powerful multinational agencies played in the development of South African economic policies, from Kempton Park to Mangaung and beyond.

If this report suggests that South Africa is still haunted by the spirit of Verwoerd, it also suggests, by omission, other specters must be named as well, starting with the authors of the so-called Washington Consensus.

* About the video. As Equal Education members and supporters from across South Africa gathered at the movement’s first national congress in Johannesburg last week, the question of what it means to be an “equaliser” was front and center. In the video, five learners [from Khayelitsha] from Equal Education’s Social Activism and Documentary Filmmaking workshop reflect on their experiences as equalisers. This was also their first time producing, filming and editing interviews. [The learners were trained by students from The New School—Palika Makam, Jordan Clark and Carlos Cagin—who are in South Africa for two months supervised by AIAC’s Sean Jacobs.]

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3 thoughts on “More than one specter haunts South Africa

  1. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to read the report thoroughly and write a more substantive piece, rather than give us a relatively superficial assessment (including the World Bank criticism, which could do with a bit of contextualisation)? And what does the EE video have to do with the primary topic?? (And no, I haven’t watched it to find out). Odd post…

  2. Not sure I follow this either. The Bank’s actual footprint, historically, has been very limited in South Africa. SA took its first and only loan from the World Bank in April 2010 to controversially finance coal-fired power stations.

    South Africa’s embracing of the Washington Consensus is (in)famously homegrown, as per the analysis of Dale McKinley, Hein Marais, et al. While the World Bank’s plague of structural adjustment was imposed on swathes of the continent through the course of the cold war, and after the triumph of “the end of history”, no such argument can be made for SA. The Bank had no leverage.

    Sure, the authors and political backers of GEAR must be implicated in widening inequality in SA. The ANC implemented GEAR, and its primary political ideologues were ‘reformed’ socialists and communists (Alec Erwin, Trevor Manuel, Pravin Gordhan, Thabo Mbeki). Moreover – within the context of this report – increasing access to education in South Africa is a laudable achievement of the democratic government, however, the quality of education received is dire.

    For me, the Bank’s report is actually quite good. It gives a thorough analysis of access to opportunity in SA (vis-a-vis education and employment), and underlines the enduring, cross-generational impact of Apartheid – specifically the twinned legacies of Group Areas and Influx Controls (location remains the most statistically significant contributor to inequality in employment) and Bantu education (an interaction of parental education and the location of a child contribute most to educational inequality).

    Waving the Washington Consensus is a red herring. Don’t kill the messenger.

  3. First, thanks to M and to Jonathan Faull for your considered responses. I don’t think any messenger was killed or wounded in the making of this particular film, but that’s for others to judge. As I said, more than once, the report, as far as it goes, is fine. But there is an omission, one that appears in many reports on `roots of inequality’ in South Africa, and that is the international and global context. The Washington Consensus, and the World Bank and others, were not merely coercive agents. I never said they were. But they were present, and not in some vague atmospheric sense. Many of those who were and have been at the helm of the South African state and of South African national public policy have spent decades, in some instances, in close and intimate and extended discussions with the designers of the newer neoliberal forms of inequality. As Sampie Terreblanche, among others, has amply demonstrated, the `accords’ of Kempton Park were collegial. Where exactly did that collegiality come from? It didn’t come exclusively from `proudly South African’ sources. It was also encouraged, on both sides and all sides, by global partners in close communication. I wanted to open that debate here, and, thanks to M and Jonathan Faull, I guess I did. I do want to make clear, however, that saying a report has some issues is not a lethal condemnation. I think the report is fine … as far as it goes. I also think we could discuss the politics of insisting that the South African negotiations were conducted in some sort of global and regional vacuum, when clearly they were not. Washington Consensus, as a sort of short hand, is not a red herring. Rather, it points towards others who thus far have been allowed to sit on the critical sidelines, bearing no responsibility whatsoever for `the roots and persistence of inequality.’

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