Wednesday, February 17, 2010

South Africa's Class Apartheid

Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society; and wrote the following piece after Jacob Zuma's State of the Nation address to parliament.

For cultural reasons, President Jacob Zuma is today at his weakest since taking office last May. He is suffering severe delegitimization amongst progressives and traditionalists alike, even within his majority-faction in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), thanks to a child secretly born four months ago. The revelation last week suddenly recalled his 2006 rape trial - and acquittal - immediately after which Zuma publicly apologized for his 'mistake' in having unprotected sex (she said rape) with an HIV-positive daughter of a friend. The misogyny on display at Zuma's trial followed his firing as deputy president for corruption (via a sprawling arms deal) by his then boss, Thabo Mbeki. Zuma was then charged with scores of bribery counts, which were conveniently wiped off the books a few weeks before the 2009 election by an accommodating state prosecutor (since duly rewarded).

Of apparent dismay to even his strongest supporters, the new child's mother is the daughter of Zuma's old friend Irvin Khoza, a very rough and tough Soweto tycoon who happens to be the 2010 soccer World Cup organizing chairperson. In Zulu tradition, Zuma's obligation is to pay for damages done to the Khoza daughter's reputation, a task apparently carried out discretely by underlings last December. At the point of conception in early 2009, Zuma had recently married for the fifth time (three wives are current, while one - the current Home Affairs minister - divorced him and one committed suicide), while also becoming engaged to a (different) woman. Thus many citizens believe the president now must confront his sex-addiction as a medical condition.

In short, South Africa's leader is a laughing-stock; even his most pro-polygamous nationalist base is expressing disgust, just four months before he hosts the world's most visible sporting event. Weak presidents are generally welcomed by African progressives, given the need to open space for counter-hegemonic practices and ideology. But recall that Zuma came to power last year as a result, mainly, of labour and SA Communist Party mobilizations in 2006-08, culminating in the rude but welcome dismissal of Mbeki. And now, because he is unable to galvanize momentum for any sort of political project aside from survival, Zuma appears to be drifting rightwards, to the ANC's solid financial-support base of white capital and aspiring black entrepreneurs.

Last Thursday, the twentieth anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison, was the day that Zuma was meant to fight back, by delivering a stunning State of the Nation speech in front of Mandela and the nation. Instead, he displayed "no appreciation of the full extent of the massive crisis of unemployment, poverty and inequality," according to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). Statistics justifying this charge were revealed three weeks ago by middle-of-the-road economists at the University of Cape Town (UCT): "Income inequality increased between 1993 and 2008. SA's GINI coefficient inequality measure raced ahead of Brazil's to become the world's leader among major countries: from 0.66 in 1993 to 0.70 in 2008. The income of the average black person actually fell as a percentage of the average white's from 1995 (13.5%) to 2008 (13.0%)."

How could a democratic government adopt socio-economic policies that amplified apartheid race-class inequality? Leaders of a decent society would immediately find out the answers, then ban labour brokers and at the same time increase state-subsidized employment creation; especially for badly-needed green jobs such as construction of solar hot-water heaters and community facilities and environmental maintenance. But as the inequality data show, South Africa is just not that kind of place; it's a society in which the ruling party's crony capitalists ally with those who grew wealthy during racial apartheid and then together promote class-apartheid policies and practices to accumulate yet more wealth.

Zuma is apparently not to be trusted, for as Cosatu observed, his speech contained "nothing on the creation of decent work, the spread of casualization of labour and the scourge of labour broking, and nothing to explain how he intends to implement the 2009 manifesto commitment to 'avoid exploitation of workers and ensure decent work." What Zuma did do, however, was threaten more police brutality against the victims of his macroeconomic policies, such as was witnessed in the most militant peripheral town (Balfour) last week when police hunted down and tortured community activists. South Africa's per capita social protest rate continues to lead the world, and scenes of road blockades, burning tires and repression reminiscent of the film District 9, may prove yet more embarrassing to the SA ruling class when three billion viewers tune in to the World Cup starting on June 11.

Zuma also promised Eskom's partial privatization, notwithstanding SA's universally miserable experience with the likes of Telkom's Texan-Malaysian rip-off landline phone partners, the disastrous Suez municipal water takeover in Johannesburg, the crash of a SA Airlines-Swiss Air deal, machinations by the US energy firm AES, toll roads and many others. Privatization will, Cosatu replied, "ultimately wreck a crucial public national service and we shall continue to campaign vigorously to prevent the sell-off of a vital public asset." Many others agree. This Tuesday morning, South Durban community organizers and Climate Justice Now!-KZN activists will protest massive electricity price increases (likely to be approved by the National Energy Regulator of SA on Wednesday), vast greenhouse gas emissions from proposed coal-fired power plants, and the threatened $3.75 billion World Bank loan at Eskom's Durban headquarters.

The unity of consumers, communities, environmentalists and workers both formally employed and outsourced might prevail. An international coalition is forming to deny Eskom access to the World Bank, and if that fails, to deny the World Bank access to the $250 billion in capital it will be asking for at its Spring 2010 meetings in Washington just ten weeks from now. A decade ago, Ngwane and the late Dennis Brutus were instrumental in launching the World Bank Bonds Boycott, which followed the South African divestment movement of the 1970s-80s by lobbying institutional investors to avoid profits and interest from apartheid - or in this case, global apartheid. In this and similar struggles now intensifying here, we riff-raff are up against formidable opponents from Pretoria to Washington, including world-class experts well practiced in the art of generating poverty and inequality. Calls for solidarity against all these class-apartheid manifestations will soon ring out.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Gift Culture

Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins talks about the culture of giving, that existed in Stone Age life, as being an expression of abundance. This is evidenced by the very fact that people shared everything they had with each other in times that we, in our modern reality, see as being a time that was extremely 'poor' with only basic survival needs being considered. And yet Stone Age Man was a giver. So why, when resources were seemingly so scarce, did he share? Because the act of giving kept the community strong and built stone age man's reputation. Being highly regarded meant that you were taken care of when times were tough. Back in the Stone Age it was important not to hoard when resources were flowing, because living as part of a group was an essential part of your survival.

Fast forward to the Black Rock Desert, home to the Burning Man Festival, and a very modern take on the concept of a Gift Economy. At the festival, participants are not allowed to buy or sell anything, and must arrive with everything they need to survive for a week in the desert. But they bring more that that, and they do more than survive - they thrive. Massive art projects spring out of the dust, created by teams of volunteers, and camps with every theme imaginable are created for one week, and then disassembled and brought home, or burned right there in the desert. People meet in the middle of nowhere and share what they have with each other, taking joy in the very act of giving. Musicians play, dancers dance, artists make art; and philosophers speak, even those who are highly paid professionals in their “real” lives, at Burning Man they do it without any money exchanged.

Economist Bernard Leitaer tells us “the origin of the word 'community' comes from the Latin munus, which means the gift, and cum, which means together, among each other. So community literally means to give among each other.” ( from an interview with Bernard Lietaer by Sarah van Gelder). So the idea that you give within your community is built into the very entomology of the word. And yet for most people the concept of giving gifts is something you do during the holidays, and only to your close friends and family. So what has happened to this circle of giving which started at the beginning of man's cultural roots in the Stone Age? In some places it survives, with indigenous rituals and even Open Source Software, but it certainly isn't the norm.

The most surprising thing about the lack of giving in our culture is that most people will say it feels really good to give. So it feels really good, it builds community and it meets people's needs, and yet we don't do it. Why? Because the message that we receive from the media tells us that there just isn't enough to go around and that someone, somewhere is going to have to go without, and in order to ensure that isn't you (and your family) you should save up for a rainy day, keep your resources close in, not rely on anyone, and not give anything to anyone without getting paid. We are given the impression that to give a gift is naïve, and that people who give will be taken advantage of.

Looking back at all these successful examples of gift culture, it begs the question- what are elements that exist in these models which can be transferred into modern culture, loosening people's grip on scarcity and giving them first hand experience of how good it feels to give?

Shared Goals - Stone Age man wanted to survive, and that goal lead them to share what they have. Agrarian cultures join together and share resources to build granaries. At Burning Man, camps collaborate on creative projects, and share the bigger vision of creating a temporary city in the desert. Having a shared goal means that you are likely to have shared values, and therefore you can feel good about giving your gifts.

Reputation Building - Although your gift is given without expectation of a direct exchange, if you give freely and openly to your community, your reputation will build and elevate your status. Even if you are not intentionally giving to gain reputation, the only way to avoid it is to give anonymously. If a person gives within their community, then it will inevitably lead to people having higher opinions of them.

Trust Building - Some people need to know that when they give a gift, it's received by someone who they consider to be worthy of it. They are afraid they they will be taken advantage of, and so need to build trusting relationships within their community in order to give.

Gathering Together - Giving gifts is a reason to gather, and being in a physical space together means that we can fully experience what it is to give and to receive. Community is strengthened when we celebrate together and get to know one another.