One brutally cold June morning in 2016 I stood among the tall grass as that distant winter sun peered over the rolling hills of a friend’s small farm in Diepsloot.
What struck me as we looked out over those golden hills, rolling eternally, up until the moment they met the stark and tall orange walls of a private development some three kilometres away. Running up to the development from the right, was a sprawl of informal housing. The May 13 2019 Times Magazine cover story featuring South Africa as the most unequal country in the world, featured a similar scene in its striking cover photo.
There developed in me that day, a perception that there are two distinctive realities in South Africa, the third world sprawls and the first world zones; heavily fortified bubbles where you can walk around at all hours of day or night without fear of being robbed or raped. Where you can leave your door unlocked because there are security patrols and lights which illuminate reality in a soft transcendent glow. If foreign elements have penetrated the external barriers they will quickly be rounded up and disposed of. When we look at the biology of the Security Village, Private Estate, Golf Estate, or whatever appealing name these walled utopias bestow on themselves. We see intense and comprehensive surveillance solutions, strictly enforced codes of conduct within the social space, and strong profiling applied to anyone who does not fit into the socio-economic class encapsulated within. The great irony about these tiny socialist utopias is that almost every person who inhabits them is an outspoken Neoliberal, they hate the concept of big government and taxes but they pay tax twice in the form of massive levies which sustain their communes.
I have come to see these Private Socialist Utopias as floating islands. Winter’s cruelty may pale lawns far and wide but such visual unpleasantness has no home here. Meticulously trimmed trees spend frosty nights ensconced in soft white burlap, uncovered daily by carefully vetted contractors, identified by uniform, who ceaselessly dedicate their energy to maintaining the perfect aesthetic of nature. Those who inhabit them have developed an ever intensifying interest in four wheel drive luxury vehicles; these highly sophisticated star-ships are designed to navigate even the worst of urban barrens stretching between private sectors.
Now that we have deconstructed the ideal environment of the Neoliberal somewhat, let us look at Neoliberalism itself, such a catchy word, rolls off the tongue like a lash, and points at some form of social decadence. I used to be a Neoliberal -my family still is; as is a majority of South African society including the poor and disenfranchised.
A Brief History of Neoliberalism
Neoliberalism, as we understand and use it today, emerged from the historic event in which Capitalism turned on and consumed Democracy. While Capitalism and Democracy had always been rigidly associated by the propaganda emerging from the United States, the first Marxist Socialist Government to emerge through democratic process in Latin America, did so in Chile under Salvador Allende in their 1970 elections. In the three years of Allende’s presidency he nationalized industry, expanded education and improved the quality of life for the working class. In 1973 a CIA backed Coup deposed him, and instated Augusto Pinochet. Apart from mass killings, torture and the eradication of any vestiges of Democratic order, Pinochet set about dismantling every form of restriction Allende’s Socialist Government had placed on Capital Enterprise. The deregulation of the market on such a broad scale resulted in a massive growth in the economy, but by the late 1980’s inequality had deepened tremendously as 45% of the nation had fallen below the poverty line, while the wealthiest 10% saw an 83% increase in income.
The Neoliberal experiment in Chile was observed closely by Corporations in the United States, and the next president: Ronald Raegan would introduce his own version of Neoliberalism, termed Raeganomics. Margaret Thatcher would follow his example in Britain. The promise was a renaissance of entrepreneurship, and new freedoms for enterprising individuals to take advantage of as the unregulated market replaced government in tending to the needs and wants of the people. The reality was that the Public Sector was being dismantled and consumed by corporate enterprise; consuming the infrastructure of Democracy, just as it had done in Chile, and that the end result would be just as detrimental to the working and middle classes. In the United States today, Billionaires pay a lower income tax than the middle class, the top 1% holds 40% of the nation’s wealth, and the bottom 90% hold less than 25% of the nation’s wealth, with wealth disparity growing at a rapid rate and along the trend originally exhibited in Chile during the 1980’s.
Neoliberalism in South Africa
When the ANC entered into power through democratic election in 1994 it had a history of socialist ideas for improving the quality of life for the poor black majority, but within two years it switched to the Neoliberal GEAR policy. The reason for this is that much of the government’s leadership had leveraged themselves and their associates into favourable positions in the emerging market. The Public Sector was being run by officials who used their political leverage to advance their interests in the Private Sector, forming a new Black Elite out from the ranks of the struggle. Meanwhile many proponents of the Apartheid Government left the Public Sector to establish themselves in the Private Sector. High ranking members of the SAPS formed the leading Private Security Firms in the country today. Neoliberalism has essentially frozen the country in a state of inequality, while providing an incentive for the ruling elite to maintain that inequality.
Robert Wright once said “The reason Socialism never took root in America, is because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
In South Africa today a similar lie pervades the black working class. While the new elite flaunt their wealth on social media, a frustration grows amongst those who are beginning to realize that they were born in poverty and will die in poverty. Between the extreme poverty, and the Privatized Socialist Utopias, there is the dwindling middle class and farmers. The depression of a collapsing Public Sector is alleviated to tolerable levels by small private security firms patrolling no man’s land in a slowly escalating class war, fought without any kind of class consciousness. Our most outspoken advocates for Leftist Economic Reform are actively being investigated for Tax evasion, making millions by using their political connections to the benefit of their private enterprise. Our current president is the richest businessman in the country.
Until our political environment stops incentivising corruption, our political leadership will continue to succumb to its allure, while we struggle against its symptomatic manifestations on every single level of government.
Unless we can come to an awakening of class consciousness in our culture, accompanied by a demand for systemic reform, there can be no solution to the problem of Neoliberalism. We need a generation which considers personal wealth as inextricably connected with the wellbeing and harmony of the community to rise from this chaos. Finally white South Africans must realize that even if you tip more, #IMSTAYING means less than nothing if you don’t stand for progressive change on a systemic level.
Contributor: Dries Pretorius
I am a poison eater, sampling every flavour of Kool-Aid, slowly drinking myself toward disillusionment. I now occupy a small but growing homestead at the edge of the world with my Anarcho-Communist wife and our vocally expressive cat, where my political activism rests on the prospective notion of someday bringing a child into the world.