Back to class

Back to class


The emphasis on identity and difference act to temper the radical potential of South Africa’s youth. They need an education on class politics.


Car guards in Maboneng, a hipster neighborhood in Johannesburg. Image credit Francisco Anzola via Flickr (CC).

South African political discourse is scattered with uses of the word “class.” Whether it is referencing the plight of a South African working class, or the shrinking of South Africa’s middle class. Its widespread use captures that different social categories exist, but these are frequently being framed only through race. Little popular effort is made to understand what the nature of those categories are, what determines them, and how they relate to each other, if at all.

“Class” comes with a cluster of different meanings. In South Africa, the interpretation that reigns views class as a hierarchical scale, measuring given attributes such as income, education level or occupation. In this arrangement, the different positions only have quantitative content; sometimes arbitrarily defined. Hence, those belonging to a “middle class” might literally be taken to be those earning the median income of a country, with the upper or lower class formulaically placed above or below that. Class formations are estimated around these markers.

For the late American Marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright this is a gradational concept of class, where classes are like different floors of an apartment building: what distinguishes them is that by some factor (in this analogy, levels of a building), one class is simply what the other is not. As categories, their proliferation is mostly self-contained. For example, anyone living on the third floor of an apartment building is perfectly capable of living their lives without ever meaningfully interacting with those living above or below them.

So, where there are inequalities between categories, one’s excess is not understood as having something to do with another’s lack. Policy interventions targeted at uplifting those who lack, is framed in the language of disadvantage and focused on giving those deemed to be disadvantaged the hallmark attributes of those who aren’t. In recent years, this thinking has found expression in the rhetoric of classism, a kind of class-based prejudice or discrimination. As the American literary theorist, Walter Benn Michaels, neatly phrased it, “to eliminate classism- [is] to eliminate people’s obstacles to success, [to] give poor people a chance to become rich.”

In South Africa, one of these attributes is education. The most intense political struggle in recent South African history is the #FeesMustFall movement. It continues to rally (with understandable fatigue) for free tertiary education. In a country facing the challenge of mass youth unemployment, a competitive job market demands that unless one seeks joblessness, a university education is crucial. Professional employment is thus seen as an emancipatory ticket for those whose backgrounds are poverty and destitution. Bestowing more young people with university degrees becomes an instrument for creating a more just and equal society.

The trouble with much of the #FeesMustFall discourse is that although rightly calling for free education, it nonetheless presupposes that individuals are first responsible for working hard to acquire the necessary high school qualifications to enter university, and assuming they do, only then will the barriers to their entry and stay (such as tuition, accommodation and textbook fees) be eradicated. From that point, it’s up to them to ensure that they graduate successfully to  become a lawyer, accountant or engineer. Once there, their high earnings will trickle down to their families and neglected communities. The personal uplift of the graduate represents the uplift of the population. The problem is, extreme cleavages in South African society mean very few get to go to university to begin with.

Simply, university education should be free for anyone who wishes to go. The issue is that when it’s lauded as a long-term solution to poverty and inequality within the very structure that sustains poverty and inequality en masse, it can’t help but smuggle in and reinforce the classic liberal myths of meritocracy. Too easily, South Africans narrowly view our unemployment crisis as arising because too many people lack professional skills. This misses how that is itself an outcome of the economic structure, meaning it’s questionable as to whether or not doubling the amount of university graduates is something that the labor market could absorb, especially given that graduate unemployment is already high.

Given the circumstances, as much as we understandably view a university education as a useful commodity for having a shot at a better life, any real emancipatory and egalitarian project must additionally ask why people have different jobs, why some of those jobs are more economically rewarding than others and why having an education (and an ever increasing amount of it) remains the only way by which they can be acquired, and even so why so many are systematically excluded from the opportunity to do so.

Here is where understanding class as a social relation is illuminating. Olin Wright provides an integrated approach to a relational concept of class by drawing from Karl Marx’s account of class as derived from production relations characterized by exploitation and domination, and Max Weber’s account of class as derived from market relations characterized by opportunity hoarding. What undergirds both conceptions is the notion that class is chiefly a social relation. To simplify it, consider siblinghood as a social relation, in that someone can’t be a sibling unless they have a brother or sister.

Unlike siblinghood, these relations matter because they imply relations of concrete power. To occupy a certain class position means to have varying degrees of control over economic resources in society. In the Weberian tradition, one way this control is exercised is over access to economic opportunities like high paying jobs. The ability to be in a high-paying job, is causally connected to the status of others being in low-paying jobs. By way of social closure through exclusionary barriers to those jobs such as needing strong educational credentials, their special and rewarding status is protected, and a “middle class” is formed.

For Marx, the central division is created through property rights that afford capitalists exclusive control over the means of production. Broadly speaking then, the class structure contains capitalists who are defined by control over the means of production, the middle class over skills and education, with the working class excluded from both. But as Wright astutely observed, these positions dictate not only what is materially distributed, but also what activities are possible.

Although one might be lucky enough to have a high-paying job as a management consultant in some high-rise building in Sandton (Johannesburg’s financial center), they are nevertheless dominated because the freedom to fully determine one’s own ends is absent. Private control over the means of production means people have to submit themselves to the labor market to perform labor deemed necessary by those controlling the means of production. People don’t choose jobs that will make them most fulfilled, but ones that will help them comfortably survive. The overwhelming majority of our days are spent availing ourselves for work we are compelled to do by subordinating ourselves to the interests of capital, and let’s be honest, most people (correctly) hate their jobs.

Getting a better job, or a better position in a firm might lessen the extent at which someone’s daily activities are controlled, but in all cases, it still involves exploitation. Because the chief interests of the property-owning and shareholding class is maximizing the return on those investments (in an unforgivingly competitive environment), the value of work performed by employees is increasingly appropriated to safeguard profits. It’s the reason why in spite of labor productivity steadily increasing throughout the years, real wages have continued to stagnate.

Ahead of the May 2019 elections, South Africa’s main political parties are making a pivot towards young people, prioritizing their concerns such as free education and packaging it in the in the popular language of identity emerging from #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall. During this moment, the youth’s proficiency at using social media as an arena for agitation established them as a constituency capable of dominating media coverage. Combined with there being  6 million people under the age of 30 yet to register, it’s obvious why political parties are giving them special attention.

Still, polls show that young South Africans overwhelmingly intend to vote for the ruling African National Congress (ANC). At face value, it makes sense why many would find the ANC and in particular its president Cyril Ramaphosa, appealing. Ramaphosa strikes a lot of South Africans as a capable technocrat able to usher the country back to political and economic stability, adept at bringing both unions and businessmen to the negotiating table. But considering the ANC and its many sins, not the least of which is its dismal record on free education, how did the once radical, anti-establishment rhetoric of the university steps so quickly go back to viewing the establishment warmly? This double-take is especially puzzling for a group of South Africans unbeguiled by age-old and deep-seated attachments to the ruling party.

It is here where the class analysis proves insightful. For Marx, the history of the world is the history of class struggle, which meant that, “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” Crudely stated, Marx believed that people’s material, economic conditions, is what drove their ultimate ideas about the world. Therefore, people’s political and economic interests are at once closely determined by their prevailing position within a class structure.

In its 25 year reign, the ANC’s rule has mostly preserved existing social relations. While basic service provision has enormously expanded, striking class inequalities abound. Ramaphosa will likely hark back to former president Thabo Mbeki’s neoliberal policies and salvage the middle class that Jacob Zuma’s years of personal accumulation squeezed. For the young South Africans in the midst of their university studies or already in the halls of corporate South Africa, a Ramaphosa presidency presents the renewed strength of the professional class, and the security of career mobility within it.

That said, other young South Africans find resonance with the left-leaning Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). This, despite many of them also being located in more or less the same class position as those who would favor the ANC. While these young South Africans have the right consciousness, it’s justifiably questionable as to whether or not the EFF gives them a credible voice. Julius Malema is the EFF leader and a seeming advocate for the working class, who at the same time has close and acknowledged ties to dubious characters involved in South Africa’s illicit tobacco trade, on top of other high-ranking EFF members being embroiled in tender fraud and pyramid schemes designed to swindle the poor.

For a while now, South Africa’s leadership can accurately be described—using terms made fashionable by American writer and activist Glen Ford (of Black Agenda Report)—as a black (mis)leadership class. In a talk given at the Riverside Church in Harlem, whose pulpit has been graced by both Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela, Ford had this to say about America’s own Black (mis)leadership class:

It is a class that sees its own personal, financial and societal interests as being synonymous with the progress of black people as a whole. This class, does not seek transformation of society, it seeks only, their own elevation within the existing structures. The rest of black America, as far as they’re concerned, is supposed to applaud their individual success, and we’re also supposed to call that black progress, no matter what is actually happening to the masses of black people at the bottom. It is the politics of putting black faces in high places, and to hell with those of us stuck at the bottom, or, those of us who are below the bottom.

It’s cynical to say, but what’s true for a lot of our political leaders is that what they want is power; to attain or preserve it. Political power is not a means to an end, but the end in and of itself. Beware the politician whose overwhelming ambition is to get elected, or as Weber warned in Politics as A Vocation, who “live off” politics. Regardless of where their ideological commitments lay, any politician whose main interest is in entrenching the position of the political elite, and not transforming it, must be called exactly what they are: a reactionary.

In fact, as sociologist Karl van Holdt recently argued, corruption and political patronage in South Africa are themselves processes of class formation. Where the established White-controlled private sector fences opportunities for accumulation around its own deeply-rooted networks as well as increased globalized financialization, a counter political-economy has emerged where jobs and opportunities through state owned enterprises and state projects are more accessible routes for business and entrepreneurial pursuits, all the while cloaked in the language of “radical economic transformation.”

This turn was made possible by a political moment substantially but uncritically preoccupied with the politics of identity and difference. The EFF’s race-first posture, for example, maligns White South Africans as irredeemably racist, asserting that their political and economic interests coalesce around that fact qua their whiteness. In the popular political imagination, this conversely suggests that Black South Africans equally possess uniform political and economic interests. Racialized identity, is falsely conflated with political constituency- leading to the idea that a middle class, Black voter for the center-right Democratic Alliance (DA) is somehow betraying their interests.

Believing that the political and economic interests of Black South Africans naturally align further depoliticizes South African politics, not only in the favor of those claiming to champion a radical vision (to mask fantasies for power or enrichment), but for those trying to obstruct a radical vision as well. A vote for the ANC might as well be a vote for the DA. Barring their differences on affirmative action and land reform, they’re both hitched to a neoliberal economic path combining economic austerity with reigning in the power of trade unions. Why people don’t vote for the DA, is because it’s still perceived as a White party, even though the DA is set to wither in size come May as White South African liberals hedge their bets on Ramaphosa.

Make no mistake, this isn’t to claim that concerns around race, gender or sexuality are irrelevant. Instead, it’s to caution against a false consciousness that gradually comes to see these categories as fixed and static, rather than contingent upon history and socially constructed – the former view producing those categories in the first place, when the goal of anti-racism is to eventually transcend them, just as a goal of socialism is abolishing class structure. Viewing everything principally through the prism of identity obfuscates how class positions beget sharply different political and economic interests, which if ignored, can only ever maintain economic inequalities.

Neoliberalism is perfectly competent at sweeping up identity politics for its survival.

For instance, there was a bit of a lament earlier this year when then CEO of ABSA, Maria Ramos (she also previously served as director-general of the national treasury and her spouse is former finance minister, Trevor Manuel) announced that she would be retiring, meaning that there would be no female running any of South Africa’s 40 largest listed companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Instead of taking issue with the fact that Ramos pocketed R37.6 million in the 2017 financial year thus earning fifty one times more than the average R600 000 a year salary at ABSA, Black twitter focused on how this wasn’t real empowerment plainly because Ramos is not a Black woman.

Young South Africans have become nascent professionals with some authority over other workers, more control over what work they do and how they do it, and real opportunities to earn their income outside of wages by organizationally ascending –  at this point their choice sets and powers are much different from an ordinary, mostly Black, wage-laborer. This locates them in a contradictory class position, one that has features of both labor and capital, that dominates as it is dominated. It is for this reason that inasmuch as the identity politics moment has foregrounded crucial complaints about recognition and inclusion, without a firm understanding of class politics they also risk distancing a lot of young South Africans from the bigger working classes.

It does so through a political mode of  “wokeness” that’s mainly bothered by discursive transgression. This makes forging solidarity (not “allyship”) with the (Black) working class majority difficult, for their systemic miseducation often means that they exhibit greater degrees of social conservatism in ways many of us urban, culturally liberal types now find unacceptable. Once again, it holds individuals as primarily responsible for shaping their attitudes, where a failure to display the correct etiquette warrants censure. Appraising education in the form of “unlearning” as the leading engine of social change cruelly overlooks how pervasively structured and overdetermined by their material and ideological circumstances all individuals are. In doing so, it limits the scope and reach of its activities and concerns to elite spaces like universities and corporate workplaces.

Any serious Left project must accordingly then target structures and not people. The heart of Left politics throughout history has always been complaining not about who gets assigned into certain positions, nor simply about what people say, but about paying attention to why those positions exist in any case, which in turn drives what people do and say. As the Guinea-Bissauan and Cape Verdean revolutionary Amilcar Cabral once eloquently said on the topic of racism, “Many people lose energy and effort combating shadows. We have to combat the material reality that produces the shadow.”

In France, the criminally underreported gilet jaunes is illustrating what a cross-sectional solidarity that rises above the initial challenges of cultural difference, might look like. The discontent first erupting as general working class anger over Emmanuel Macron’s presidency has graduated to a movement with a revolutionary vision for French society. Admittedly, any movement with a vague substance risks politicization by right-wing elements, and true enough, the French establishment slandered them as a mob of fascistic and xenophobic “troublemakers.”

But persisting now in its sixth month, the movement has incorporated students and trade unions to crystallize a once aimless rage into a movement that identifies as “neither racist or sexist or homophobic” but instead

proud to stand together, with our differences, to build a society based on solidarity. We are enriched by the diversity of our discussions, as hundreds of assemblies develop and propose their own demands. The[se demands] have to do with real democracy, with social and tax justice, with work conditions, with environmental and climate justice, with the end of discrimination.

At the moment, a South African Left outside of the EFF remains dispersed and fragmented. Parties with trade-union origins like the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP), as well as the fledgling Socialist and Workers Revolutionary Party (the SWRP, an offshoot of the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa), adopt the same militant Marxist-Leninism shared by the EFF.  But unlike the EFF, they lack a Black nationalist slant and find themselves unable to exude youthful appeal, remaining associated with the statist-authoritarianism of the failed Soviet experiments. Worryingly, the freshly launched Capitalist Party of South Africa (blasphemously abbreviated as the ZACP, a clear reference to the now hapless South African Communist Party) has gained strong visibility on social media, articulating a clear albeit woefully misguided vision for South Africa.

Capitalism in South Africa is failing. This is evident in South Africa’s extreme inequality, mass unemployment, underemployment and precarious employment. Widespread poverty persists as profit-serving automation knocks, while climate-change catastrophe ravages our neighbors. Hardship and despair finds expression in crime and violence, with poor and working class women and children mostly at the receiving end. South Africa must urgently embrace a fact that is being acknowledged elsewhere: the economy is fundamentally broken, and needs desperate restructuring.

This is where the state of the Left measures up embarrassingly against the state of the ruling political and business elite. In the midst of the State Capture Commission of Inquiry (a public inquiry into government corruption under former President Jacob Zuma), many expressed shock when Angelo Agrizzi, former COO of BOSASA (a government contracting company), openly admitted that he was racist. It was just unthinkable that the political elite could aid racist capital in their accumulation. But capitalism is driven by a logic that’s indifferent to prevailing cultural relations. The bourgeoisie becomes the most organized, capable of uniting admitted racists and those who once fought them. Unless challenged, no solidarity is stronger.

Besides trade unions defending South Africa’s dwindling traditional, industrial working class, class struggle is undertaken by NGOs and grassroots movements who only have capacity to organize around single-issues of pressing and immediate concern to those they affect. So, Abahlali baseMjondolo (the shack dwellers) fight against evictions and for affordable public housing. The Amadiba Crisis Committee fights against profiteering mining companies threatening to deprive them of their communal land, and for other communities who haven’t witnessed the benefits of mining. Equal Education campaigns for quality primary and secondary education, while The Casual Workers Advice Office works to protect neglected but growing in number casual-laborers, like domestic workers, who lacking a site of organization are especially vulnerable.

At some point in his book, Olin Wright makes mention of a poster showing a working class woman leaning on a fence, with text saying that, “Class consciousness is knowing which side of the fence you’re on. Class analysis is figuring out who is there with you.” For too long, South Africans have eschewed a material awareness of their respective economic positions relative to others, and the divergent collective interests generated by the economic and political order.

The future of South Africa’s Left demands a renewed working class movement, one that works tirelessly to develop worker’s capacity to transform and democratize the economy. This is necessary to ensure that whatever alternatives become possible have at their core a democratic, hardworking base, capable of resisting the fierce fight that finance capital will wage, and to guarantee that progress doesn’t come with the repression and dogma that’s characterized other failed experiments throughout history.

There are no quick fixes to eroding capitalism. A rejuvenated Left demands mass participation and unity, and that comes from being willing and able to draw from all sections of society. #FeesMustFall in 2015 showed glimmers of how a well-organized and engaged youth could form a multi-racial, class-cutting coalition of the kind that resembled the United Democratic Front of the 1980s, a non-racial coalition of workers, religious leaders, and students, mobilizing successfully towards the end of apartheid.

South Africa’s political and economic situation is tremendously bleak. While socialism has long been dismissed as utopian, what’s really utopian is believing that after 25 years more of the same will bring something better. Many are right to call for radical economic transformation, but it has to be pursued by a strong and unified Left, one that doubles down on the practical while emphasizing that in liberating us all from class domination and exploitation, socialism deepens democracy, unlocks freedom, and replaces alienation with social bonds truly able to realize a non-racial, non-sexist and non-homophobic society.


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