||Wolpe Lectures & Reviews 2002
|The (Self-Imposed) Crisis of the Black Intellectual: Jonathan Jansen's Wolpe lecture
Organising for Second Freedom - Ela R. Bhatt's Wolpe Lecture
The Basic Income Grant: Poverty, Politics and Policy-making: Ravi Naidoo's Wolpe lecture
Anton Harber's Harold Wolpe Lecture on Journalism in the Age of the Market
Fences and Windows: Windows of oppotunity in an era of fenced in resources and fenced out out people Naomi Klein and Ashwin Desai
David McDonald's Wolpe Lecture on cost recovery and the crisis of service delibery in South Africa
The 2nd Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture - Stephen Gelb and Roger Southall on NEPAD
The Inaugural Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture with Sipho Seepe and Pallo Jordan: A review by Annsilla Nyar
The (Self-Imposed) Crisis of the Black Intellectual: Jonathan Jansen's Wolpe lecture
Last week the unthinkable happened. The Minister of Education in our young democracy instructed major newspapers to sign an undertaking as to the ways in which they will report the matriculation results at the end of 2002. Had this occurred during under the draconian “emergency” legislation of the apartheid regime, it would have provoked public outrage and widespread debate. That it could happen under a post-apartheid democracy is one thing; that it could pass without sustained protest and outrage from public in general, and public intellectuals in particular, is what I intend to address this evening.
Professor Jonathan Jansen
“When we think of the public role of intellectuals today, we cannot ignore the role of race, for what writer has ever been accepted without recognition of his race?" (Linda Kaufmann 2002)
Last week the unthinkable happened. The Minister of Education in our young democracy instructed major newspapers to sign an undertaking as to the ways in which they will report the matriculation results at the end of 2002. The newspapers would be required to print the results on release without editorial comment and would also be required to carry an apology for breaking an “embargo” on such editorialisation in the 2001 examinations. The Minister is quoted as saying that “The results will not be released to newspapers that will not have returned the signed undertaking and the published apology by the 15th of December 2002.” Had this occurred during under the draconian “emergency” legislation of the apartheid regime, it would have provoked public outrage and widespread debate. That it could happen under a post-apartheid democracy is one thing; that it could pass without sustained protest and outrage from public in general, and public intellectuals in particular, is what I intend to address this evening.
Professor Jansen with Professor Adam Habib from the Center for Civil Society.
Let me first acknowledge that the vocation of the intellectual has fallen on hard times. Persons are under attack, reputations are muddied and lives are even threatened. Courageous voices like Max du Preez, Sipho Seepe and Richard Pithouse have been severely attacked by politicians, academics and the general public for daring to pose uncomfortable questions about health, education, warfare and the presidency itself. In this fragile democracy, it is more important than ever to be vigilant to the conditions under which public intellectuals speak and are compelled to speak. It is nevertheless an unsettling time, but I doubt it could be otherwise.
Edward Said (2002) recently made the point that:
“the intellectual’s provisional home is the domain of an exigent, resistant, intransigent art into which, alas, one can neither retreat nor search for solutions. But only in that precarious exilic realm can one first truly grasp the difficulty of what cannot be grasped, and then go forth to try anyway (p.39).”
It is now 35 years since Harold Cruse published his landmark book titled “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.” What many commentators fail to reflect on is the subtitle: “An analysis of the failure of black leadership.” While I do not position myself with the black nationalist sentiment of Cruse, and his diatribe against the integrationists, it is difficult not to recognise the significance of his reflection on a particular class of intellectuals i.e., the black intellectual. In taking this position I am also not intending to minimise the role and contribution of the white intellectual; there must of necessity remain a place for solidarity and collective action by white and black intellectuals, together. But it would be dangerous to ignore the fact that the objective conditions that nurtured black intellectuals under and against apartheid, and that inform and shape the character of black intellectuals after apartheid, are quite different from those that influence and nurture white intellectuals.
For example, black intellectuals do not enjoy the same access to leading publishing houses and resources as do white intellectuals. White intellectuals are dominant within universities; black intellectuals, with few exceptions, are not. White intellectuals are still the dominant voices in research, in public performances, on international platforms, and in artistic forums. White intellectuals continue to dominate and sustain the powerful knowledge networks that sustain white authority in all kinds of productions.
But the picture is not as grim as it was ten years ago. Black intellectuals enjoy a growing measure of public ascendancy and political visibility in the media—take political science commentators, for example (Habib, Hlophe, Jacobs and Landsberg). And in certain fields, such as medicine (the powerful position of the University of Natal’s medicine men) and education, black intellectuals have gradually gained recognition by sheer force of personality, publication and production, albeit in a world still dominated by white intellectuals.
But the main point I also wish to make is that black intellectuals stand in a very different relationship to the state, in the sense that there is a patriotism that is expected, even demanded, from those who are supposed to understand the struggles and support the projects of the emerging state. Even white radicals, as Jeremy Cronin found out, are easily susceptible to attack using “the race card” from within the ranks of the black nationalist and political elite, because of a deeper, primordial bond among black people which he cannot possibly be a part of—even if he has committed his entire life to the struggles of the black working class. And it is this peculiar position of the black intellectual—dominant in political terms but marginal in intellectual terms—that I wish to address.
It is equally important to realise that much of the classic and contemporary writing on intellectuals has remained raceless. This does not mean that the writers and speakers themselves are always white; consider for example the writings of Cornel West, bel hooks, Wally Serote, Lewis Nkosi, Edward Said, and Partha Chatterjee. But it does mean that the dominant themes addressing the subject of intellectuals seldom provide analyses of the black intellectual, and very rarely the subject of the black intellectual in the third world. One recent example of such omission would be Helen Small’s intercontinental, edited collection titled The Public Intellectual (2002, Blackwell). This is the terrain into which I stray.
Reviewing the year behind us invariably provokes familiar concerns in which the roles of intellectuals generally, and black intellectuals in particular, have been thrown into sharp relief by critics such as Sipho Seepe, Majakathata Mokoena, Rhoda Khadalie, Moeletsi Mbeki, Denis Brutus and others. Such concerns include the presidential position on hiv/aids, the response of government to the Zimbabwean crisis, the manufactured plot against the president, the so-called Xhosa Nostra in political appointments, and the racist music video of Mbongeni Ngema. The last thing I want to do is enter another dissection on each of these issues; that has been done ad nauseam in the popular press and, to a more limited extent, in intellectual forums. What I want to do, however, is reflect more broadly on the complex roles of black intellectuals within and across these events.
The first thing that strikes one is the silence of black intellectuals on most of these concerns. From one crisis to the next, the voices of leading intellectuals, with or without expertise in the relevant fields, were simply absent. One can only wonder, for example, whether the silence of the medical establishment had to do with concerns about access to vital resources, the loss of prized jobs and access to social and disciplinary privilege; that such losses might explain the silence or the belated and muted response from a few. Indeed, there was evidence of swift retribution visited on those doctors who dared to provide life-prolonging treatments to patients with HIV/AIDS. One wonders also whether the silence of black intellectuals (as opposed to the chorus of white sympathisers) on the Zimbabwean crisis might reflect a latent attitude that “the Rhodies had it coming anyway” given the viciousness of colonialism about two decades ago. One wonders whether the silence of so-called African intellectuals on the Ngema episode was based on similar unspoken retribution for Indians who, like the Rhodies, had it coming their way for a long time, anyway. And one wonders whether the failure of black intellectuals to lead the debate on ethnic and tribal identities in the wake of the Xhosa Nostra is the result of a radical squeamishness about dealing with an unpleasant reality beginning to surface in our non-racial democracy: that is, as resources and the promises of resources dry-up, poor people (and the insatiable black elite) will once again mobilise ethnic identity to make demands on such resources. While I understand the strategy on the part of the rural poor, I am less impressed by the strategy on the part of the insatiable black elite. But more about that in a minute.
It must be said, parenthetically, that while some of the most courageous voices in the anti-apartheid struggle were those of intellectuals-in the face of vicious retaliation by the apartheid state—that those same voices have retreated into the comforts offered by silence.
Jeery Gaffio Watts, commenting on Cruse in his Heroism and the Black Intellectual, makes the point that
“The willingness of many black intellectuals to join the black nationalist bandwagon often stemmed from their desires to legitimate themselves to the broader black activist community and to subsequently gain access to the mobility that the political system offered to black nationalist intellectuals…. Despite its militant sounding rhetoric, black nationalism became an ideology of economic and status mobility for bourgeois intellectuals.”
Playing the race and ethnic card requires commentary by especially black intellectuals, since white intellectuals making this point will invariably be paralysed by the effective but pathetic charge of “racism.” So let me focus on the responsibilities of the black intellectual. It is very clear that the non-racial utopia advanced by the Charterists is receding fast in the exposing light of grinding poverty among the black poor, and greedy ambition among the black elite. I wish to come to the point.
When the chips are down, the comfortable accommodation of an inclusive “black” (that is, the fragile bond of Coloured, Indian and African solidarity) rips apart. The unspoken assignment that “we are all black” quickly disintegrates when resources, position and mobility are at stake. A striking and recent example was the behaviour of a Dr Nyoka, then challenger to Percy Sonn for Chairperson of the United Cricket Board. The ENT specialist made no bones about the basis for this challenge: “I will not rest until the UCB is headed by an African.” The fact that Sonn is a fellow black traveller in the same country, on the same continent is, of course, not of interest to Nyoka. If he can claim that Sonn is different (that is, “Coloured”), then his ambition for power can be justified on the basis of himself being “African.”
For all the poetry of the “I am an African” speech (which, by the way, is brilliant), there are hardline ethnic chauvinists inside and outside government for whom the project of the African Renaissance is nothing less than a means to assert the primacy of the apartheid African. By “the apartheid African” I mean those women and men who had the misfortune of being classified under apartheid as “African”, thereby inheriting a specific racial reference for the identity of a very diverse group of people; and effectively separating-out such a group of people from other continental dwellers inside South Africa. The problem is that there is tremendous political and economic opportunity, albeit for a small elite, in claiming such an apartheid identity as special and unique to the exclusion of other ways of being “African.” I can share stories (and so can you) of persons who lived outside of the country in what for such persons was retrospectively claimed to be “exile”, who assumed (voluntarily) new names, cultures and identities in another country, but who returned, changing their names at the airport, because of the political and economic opportunities tied-up with being an apartheid African. There is an aggressive meanness and blind ambition in the behaviour of such persons, and contempt for black people who had the equal misfortune of being classified “Coloured” or “Indian” or something else.
Incidentally, the same racial meanness and provocation can be found in the Western Cape legislature where a senior politician recently claimed that “in this province there are only two kinds of people: Coloureds and whites.” To say this in a province that had a systematic campaign under apartheid of denigrating and destroying the lives and cultures of those classified “African” is an even more despicable act of racism, given the history of the Western Cape.
In this regard one of the major tasks confronting the public intellectual, and especially the black intellectual, is to employ what Cornel West calls a “prophetic pragmatism” which seeks an “active redefinition of the publics to whom we speak.” This means actively recasting the received categories of racial and ethnic classification which reinforce a divisive apartheid language. But the task of the black intellectual, in particular, is not simply to deligitimise these received categories as if it were an exercise in correcting vocabulary; the broader task is through everyday social practice—but also through artistic performance and academic writing--to create and sustain solidarities at all levels that will ultimately render such classificatory systems obsolete and meaningless. This will not be easy, since such symbolic systems often serve powerful material interests long after its initial logic (apartheid) has legally disappeared.
Nevertheless, the silence of black intellectuals, whatever their motivation, on this growing rift within the black community spells danger for the building of a strong civil society. It is crucial that black intellectuals begin to take on the sacred cows of non-racial pretence and “speak truth to power.” But this also means dealing with the silence of black intellectuals with respect to whiteness.
The most prominent example, in this regard, is the plight of Norma Reid Birley at Wits University. Whatever the merits of the case against the Vice Chancellor, the surrounding discourses are frightening. Norma Reid Birley is accused, among other things, of being a foreigner, of displacing the more favoured black candidate at the time, and of not understanding the culture and behaviour of Wits. Not a single black intellectual attacked this dangerous ploy of dismissing a university vice-chancellor because of her status as a foreigner; and this in the context of institutions which should, per definition, be open and accessible, even celebratory of our broader humanity and our universal quest for knowledge and excellence. This is not to say, however, that the appointment of an overseas academic as vice chancellor is not a statement of a lack of self-confidence in black intellectual and academic leadership in South Africa; or that the exchange of English vice-chancellors and directors between South Africa and the United Kingdom is not made possible by the facility of race, language and a dual passport. Can you imagine Adam Habib being appointed the Vice Chancellor of the Open University? My point for now is a different one: the silence of the intellectual on the terms of exclusion and vilification, in the case of Norma Reid, betrays a deeper pathology with respect to the identity and politics of the black intellectual. Curious, is it not, that the inquiry into Norma Reid had hardly begun when the black deputy vice chancellor (research) was suddenly “tipped” as the favourite to succeed her? I dare to ask the question: was Norma Reid set-up to fail as the unlikeable foreigner who took on the (black) President, with the aid of black senior managers, the quid pro quo being her replacement with an authentic African?
To conclude this point, it is clear to me that the problem of managing Wits has very little to do with the personalities and styles of individual or aspirant vice-chancellors. The potential of this great university is held hostage by the twin dilemmas of liberal cynicism, on the one hand, and institutional self-righteousness on the other; remember, they had nothing to do with apartheid! Only exceptional leadership will be able to take Wits forward into another era of greatness. And in this quest, the land of origin of its vice-chancellor ought not to matter.
But the problem of the black intellectual is, to a large extent, self-inflicted. I am deeply concerned, for example, about the practices in which we engage as institutions to actively deny the emergence of a next generation of black intellectuals. Allow me to speak for a moment about a particular species of intellectual, the academic intellectual. One of the most dangerous practices is what I recently referred to, on the occasion of the Annual Meeting of the Council on Higher Education, as “the dumbing down of the professoriate.” As a result of equity pressures on the one hand, and the desire of technikons to be universities on the other, institutions have promoted a large body of young black academics into professorships without any record of scholarship. The effects of this damning act is to destroy the career of these young black scholars who now, as a result of the position attained, have no further incentive to develop. These senior positions now require, not the gradual building-up of a record of scholarship (such as evidenced in research and teaching excellence), but the burden of administration and management for which these young minds are completely under-prepared. But not only do such practices effectively terminate the career of a potential class of intellectuals, they yield to higher education a layer of academics with no capacity to reproduce the critical persons and skills required for a developing country. The same mediocrity that produced a lost generation of dubious Afrikaner academics as a result of affirmative action in the previous century, is now being visited on black academics through institutional malpractices of the kind described. If the next generation of academics do not produce the public intellectuals critical for our social and moral well-being, I have no doubt that this failure would be traceable to the pressures of employment equity, opportunistic institutions and a misguided sense of liberal guilt..
It is not simply the termination of black academic and intellectual careers, however, that is at stake; it is also the self-imposed culture of silence on black (and white) intellectuals on our campuses today. Have you noticed, at this self-acclaimed liberal bastion of the academy (Wits University), how many staff and students are refusing to be quoted by name “for fear of victimisation?” We need to ask how this happened on all our campuses. Is it possible that the pervasive influence of a new managerialism has left in its wake institutional cultures which are starved of the oxygen of public criticism and intellectual engagement? How is it possible that in many universities, there are suddenly rules and “protocols” for individual academics talking to the media? This practice is of course commonplace in Afrikaans universities, a point I made at length in a campus-wide address to my colleagues at the University of Pretoria, titled Why Tukkies Cannot Develop Intellectuals. It is, however, increasingly common practice in both black universities and the liberal English institutions. Something shifted in the critical ground under our feet, and I suspect that institutional restructuring requires fresh scrutiny with respect to its impact on academic and intellectual life in universities. Something else shifted in the critical ground which fosters intellectual life, and that is the changing nature of autonomy in our universities.
It is simply unthinkable, ten years ago, that government would impose on institutions a regime of accountability that would systematically erode the autonomy of universities. The Minister of Education, for example, appoints the Chairpersons of interim councils in institutions proposed for mergers. The Minister of Education has power to appoint an Administrator to ungovernable institutions. The Minister of Education decides which institutions will merge. The Minister of Education, through his bureaucratic offices, decides which programmes will receive state funding and which will not; which institutions will offer what kinds of delivery modes in higher education; and which institutions are quality assured, and which not. The Minister has also hinted at the possibility of getting involved in the curriculum decisions and debates in higher education—an intrusion which, if happens, would bring government into confrontation with last frontier of liberal autonomy i.e., the right to decide what to teach.
I am not arguing that some of these dramatic interventions were undesirable, given the multiple crises engulfing several institutions in the 1990s. My point is simply that taken together, important ground has been lost in the defence of autonomy and that the regime of accountability that governs institutions has created a new climate of operations for academics and intellectuals. It is in such an environment in which we hope to see the emergence of black, public intellectuals. And I argue this evening that there is little ground for optimism.
I tested these new institutional and societal waters recently, in part to measure the nature and the origins of the public response to a position paper in the City Press (a paper with a largely black readership), where I made the argument for “the closing down of the historically black universities.” My main thesis was that all our public universities should be deracialised and, moreover, Africanised—thereby creating a few institutions of high quality that all our students could access.
It was a nuanced position, arguing for the closing down of a conceptual vocabulary that was antiquated (historically black and white!), as well as the possibility of the closing down of defunct institutions. I learnt a lesson about making nuanced arguments in the public press. The retribution was swift. It started with a one-hour programme the next evening on Radio Metro, in which I was accused by several callers of being a “boer.” One caller was blunt: “I have a real problem with that boer on your programme.” Half an hour later, on hearing that this boer was a brother (whatever that means), the tide shifted as callers “agreed with that brother.” The print media was no less forgiving: letters to the editor were laced with arguments about my racial identity, and therefore the invalidity of my arguments. Feature articles were written by black union leaders and (mainly) black university academics attacking my person and, as an after-thought, the arguments being made. One black person charged that “this is the lobotomised view of a non-white who had forgotten about the strategic interests of a black readership. She argued (having spent ten years at Wits)—remarkably--that white universities were not for black people.
What struck me about this attempt “to start an argument”, as I put it, was the blunt, racist sentiment that underpinned the positions of the unionists, the academics and the black public in general. I was struck by the force of what amounted to a barricading of racial interests within what were, effectively, homeland universities that were never intended to be thriving intellectual centres or world-class research laboratories. I remain struck by the incapacity of the black intelligentsia to even countenance an argument for genuine African institutions of higher education—a new basis for intellectual life and scholarly pursuits. Black public figures, I concluded, remain trapped in a vicious language of racial defeatism on the one hand, and racial self-interest on the other hand. And this self-absorbed and self-interested behaviour is one of the main factors explaining the failure of the emergence of a new class of black public intellectuals.
How do we create conditions under which black public intellectuals might once again be identified, developed, nurtured and sustained?
I think we should begin by actively creating forums in which public intellectuals---journalists, artists, academics, community activists, among others---find common ground in which to exercise the right to criticism and action as a matter of course. This Wolpe Series led by the Centre for Civil Society is one of the most progressive and exemplary projects in this regard. By arguing for such intervention I do not, however, mean the display of a radical cynicism in which everything and anything that government does is trashed simply for the heck of it: I think such behaviour is anti-intellectual. I also do not mean the re-hashing of outmoded vocabularies that do more to align the intellectual with a particular ideological perspective than to cast new light on resilient problems of poverty, policy or pain. It should be possible, in this regard, to fulfil the role of the public intellectual while at the same time working with and through committees and projects of government.
For example, I serve simultaneously as the Chairperson of the Ministerial Committee on Further Education and Training (a project seeking integration of the senior secondary schools into the FET Band) while retaining the right to public criticism and engagement with government. This demonstrates a public position that I have often taken: that criticism is not the opposite of commitment. Indeed, criticism is for me a deep intellectual commitment to development, change and—if you will—transformation. I am under no illusion that this is a test case of a personal intellectual project: whether governmental authority will be able to accept this co-existence of the public intellectual, with a fierce independence of mind on matters public, who simultaneously commits time, energy and talent towards progressive projects of the state.
And this brings me to the role of the bureaucratic intellectual , if such a species is in fact allowed to exist. The most common route followed to oblivion has been the co-option of black intellectuals within government. I am still amazed at how quickly black intellectuals, once they enter the halls of power, not only change how they dress and speak, but how they understand external realities. A new vocabulary is quickly acquired. Words like ‘drivers’, ‘moratoria’ and ‘rationalisation’ replace more familiar terms like ‘stakeholders’, ‘transparency’ and ‘retrenchments.’ Any request for information (and I am not speaking here about nuclear secrets) is met with puzzling delay and bureaucratic redirection in an environment where fear, fiction, and façade remain as troubling legacies from our apartheid past. Some still pretend to be intellectuals. But the black intellectual has been co-opted into the machinery of government where compliance and conformity are more highly valued, even to the point of dishonesty and self-denial. As one government official put it to me recently, obviously thinking he was paying me a compliment: “I told them to select you onto this Committee; that way you cannot question the work of the Committee or its results!” If only he knew.
But there is another way of nurturing black (and white) public intellectuals. And that is by re-thinking the curriculum of public institutions. It is true that the new regime of qualifications, unit standards, and competences has led to a very narrow, vocationally oriented curriculum in which programme compliance (and therefore funding approval) has overshadowed traditional preoccupation with what is worth learning and teaching in the first place. This ground must be regained so that the intellectual content of the public curriculum in higher education is restored; and values of critical disposition, intellectual engagement and public dissent are promoted beyond the constrictions of vocational competence.
I would like to use this occasion to promote the idea of a national institute for advanced studies that specifically targets young academics (by which I mean new PhDs) for training in the art of scholarship and intellectual endeavour. It is clear that many young and promising black scholars and intellectuals are lost to universities within the first three years of employment. Why? Because young academics face working conditions that are palpably unattractive for long-term career development. Such new PhD’s are loaded with large first-year classes and no teaching assistants to wade through the assessment tasks of hundreds of students. Teaching loads, administrative commitments, and the demand for research invariably take their toll on the young academic. Worse, these working conditions do not inspire the kinds of nurturing and development crucial for directing young academics into the more noble art of intellectual life and scholarship. This proposed new institute will take young academics for three months every year, for three years in a row, into an institutional environment designed to encourage academic writing, intellectual engagement and the development of scholarship. It would expose these young scholars to peers working in different disciplinary traditions. It would also expose the young academic to leading authorities in their specific fields of study. It would bring global intellectuals into seminars and discussions on trans-disciplinary concerns, thereby breaking the low-level disciplinary obsessions of most departmental cultures and encouraging thinking and reflection beyond such confines. It means nurturing the art of posing public questions, whether the original discipline is genetics or history or electronics. It is the art of posing public questions that constitutes the most important skill in the arsenal of the public intellectual, and it is unlikely to develop exclusively within the confines of university life as currently constituted.
In conclusion, I wish to remind you, and hopefully also encourage you, through reference to what is easily the most eloquent expression on the character and vocation of the intellectual. I refer, of course, to the words of Edward Said (1994), in his Representations of the Intellectual (London, Vintage):
The central fact for me is, I think, that the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by government or corporations, and whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug. The intellectual does so on the basis of universal principles: that all human beings are entitled to expect decent standards of behaviour concerning freedom and justice from worldly powers or nations, and that deliberate or inadvertent violations of these standards need to be testified and fought against courageously (p.9).
A Report by Pravasan Pillay on Jonathan Jansen's Wolpe lecture on The (Self-Imposed) Crisis of the Black Intellectual
There is a debilitating confusion between the idea of the university academic and the idea of the intellectual. They are not the same. The suggestions Jansen offers for the development of intellectuals are geared towards the production of academics rather than intellectuals. But academics, unlike intellectuals, are unlikely to change the world. Indeed, as Ivan Illich has pointed out the problem with the university academic is that he has been schooled to serve the rich. The university is an environment where ideas generally follow money.
It Don’t Mean A Thing If You Ain’t Got That Swing
A Report on the 6th Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture: The (Self-Imposed) Crisis of the Black Intellectual delivered by Professor Jonathan Jansen
Professor Jonathan Jansen brought the Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture Series to a close for this year with a provocative albeit problematic talk on the problems facing black intellectuals and the development of black intellectuals in South Africa today. The lecture was well attended with an equal mix of academics and community activists and a smattering of other interested parties.
Entitled, “The (Self-Imposed) Crisis of the Black Intellectual”, the lecture seemed especially topical given the climate of sycophancy, compliance, conformity, and anti-intellectualism that has suffocated national debate. Jansen, who appears to be a practiced speaker, began, as is the way with practiced speakers, with an anecdote. He related an incident where a (black) subordinate was incredulous that he, a black man, could be a dean of a university. His punch line drew the requisite amount of polite laughter from the manicured sections of the audience. I sunk lower into my seat. I was to remain there for much of the evening.
Jansen started his lecture proper by correctly pointing out that the vocation of the intellectual has fallen on hard times. He said that while there is a minority of voices, both black and white, daring to raise uncomfortable questions these people, when they do raise their voices, are very often silenced, discredited, attacked, or sidelined. He added that the need to raise these questions becomes all the more important given the current fragile state of our democracy.
For the purposes of his talk he chose to focus on the role of the black intellectual in society and more particularly on the reasons why this group of intellectuals have stayed silent when outrage and critical engagement was required. He citied many examples of this silence at pivotal moments, for instance, the president’s stance on HIV/AIDS and the Zimbabwean crisis, and Mbongeni Ngema’s anti-Indian music recording.
So why this silence?
Jansen gives several reasons. The most interesting and penetrating of these is his assertion that the black intellectual is involved in a fundamentally different relationship to the state than that of the white intellectual. Jansen believes that a certain loyalty to the emerging state is demanded from the black intellectual that is not expected from other race groups and because of this pressure for solidarity the black intellectual, even if he is at odds with particular state policies, must remain silent if he is to avoid accusations of disloyalty and stay on the gravy train. This is a valuable and nuanced insight but Jansen shows little appreciation of it.
For instance, he makes no mention of the strong influence exerted on the black intellectual by claims about traditional African values. The black intellectual, like every other person, occupies many different roles and these roles, more often than not, are difficult to separate. He is not just an intellectual but also a member of a wider cultural community and as such is bound to be influenced by the values of that wider community. All cultures are heterogonous. All cultures contain movements of reaction and resistance and lines of flight. There are always heretics. But many African nationalists, and their white supporters, have extracted and reified the African vision of the world that sees the human being in terms of organic community.
This vision includes, for instance, a culture of consensus in decision-making procedures, the idea of isihlonipho (respect), and the idea of umuntu ngamuntu ngabantu (a person is a person through other persons). There is a definite sense of conspiring together, or literally, in its Latin root, of breathing together, which is a vastly different thing from the atomistic and mechanistic world-view that came to be dominant in the west after the revolutions against feudal absolutism.
In the face of the strident assertion of this communal vision of the world as THE African vision of the world it is not difficult to see why some black intellectuals might feel that a certain loyalty to the state, a perceived source of life force (seriti), is required for them to fit comfortably into society. Jansen with his distinctly liberal Appiahite world-view ignores this.
Pointing this out is hardly cultural relativism. On the contrary it must be argued that, especially in these post-modern times of moral and critical lassitude with regard to cultural attitudes and practices, we need to actively scrutinise and if necessary criticise all aspects of all cultures -however politically incorrect this may be. The point is that Jansen fails to take this important aspect of black intellectual and cultural life into consideration. This is a serious failing given that authoritarian communalism is the dominant cultural ideology in this country. (How it fits with and reinforces the economic authoritarianism of market fundamentalism is another story.)
But it must be added that there is another possible reason for this sense of black solidarity. This is the noticeable shift in the conceptual language and focus of the South African left in the years following the transition. This shift, casually put, has been from a race-class based politics to one with an exclusively class-based orientation. Its development has been interesting to note.
The past decade has seen a steady increase in criticism of the state’s neo-liberal (ultraliberal, Thabo?) polices from progressive quarters. As this criticism increased so too did the state’s counter-accusations of racism. The most common thread of counter-accusation being that such criticism stems from an inherently racist lack of faith in a black-run government. This leftist criticism, when it comes from white sources is labelled out-and-out racism and when it come from black sources is labelled self-hating or even, in condescendingly and ironically very racist move, as emanating from the influence of white puppet-masters.
Needless to say while there are clearly some voices critical of the government that are self-servingly opportunist, the majority of criticism of state economic and political polices have been accurate and hard-hitting. In most instances the accusations of racism, a powerful correlate to a host of other negative terms and a perfect discrediting tool, are merely cases of bad faith and punching out in the dark on behalf of those in power with the aim of doing something, anything, to prevent anti-government sentiment from reaching critical mass. However instead of ignoring this racial baiting the newly constituted left have largely chosen to drop the problem of racism from their agenda and concentrate instead on a strictly structural based analysis, a clear case of moving the field while the game is still going on.
This is not the place to discuss the relative merits and relevance of each approach. What is important to note is that there is the very real sense in which the conceptual ownership of race analysis has been handed over to those in power and to those in contact with power. In some left circles it has even become unfashionable, spoiling, even reactionary to talk about race.
Instead we get grandiose pronouncements of a new race-less class-less under-society while the primacy of perception, of appearance, and hence race in a still deeply racist society is forgotten. Poverty in South Africa is still very much a phenotypical phenomenon. Not only is this blasé attitude naïve given the grinding ceaselessly humiliating discrimination faced by black people everyday in this country but also extremely irresponsible.
The silence of the left in this regard is as condemnable as the silence of certain sycophantic black intellectuals on matters of economic and political policy. Given this conceptual impasse it is hardly surprising that some black intellectuals, with concerns about race and the situation of their own race, have aligned themselves with the government, which acknowledges the problems of racism albeit it in a convenient uncritical manner, and not with the new left, which ignores the problem altogether, or deals with it in a very flippant manner.
Highlighting these two possible reasons for the close relationship between some black intellectuals and the state is not an attempt to excuse them from their responsibilities as intellectuals. Their silence, and the silence of intellectuals from other races, is something we ought to rightly condemn. What also needs to be pointed out is that although a conformist and strongly authoritarian thread of traditional African culture largely discourages the development of individuals with independent critical qualities there have been scores of black voices that have defied these cultural conventions. Similarly there are black intellectuals who continue to focus on the problems of racism without aligning themselves to the state’s agenda and while still retaining a real interest in problems of poverty, class, and economy.
The trouble is simply that Jansen seems to ignore these other pressures on the black intellectual and instead dismisses this, admittedly morally wrong, form of black nationalism as being based solely on self-interest, a form of racial revenge, and as a way to assert the primacy of the apartheid defined African. He accuses many black intellectuals inside and outside of government of conveniently eroding other categories of blackness (for instance, the Bikodian idea of trans-racial blackness) now that a scramble for resources is on. This is certainly true of many black intellectuals but to assert that it is the sole reason behind the close relationship between the state and black intellectuals is being intellectually lax.
Jansen gives two other possible structural reasons for the silence of black intellectuals. The first deals with the affirmative action policies of a number of universities where black academics are fast-tracked into professorship. He calls this the dumbing down of the professoriate. According to Jansen the result of these policies is the destruction of the young academic’s career, because he, having no incentive to develop, will not gradually build a record of scholarship. More importantly these practices effectively terminate the careers of a potential class of intellectuals.
The second reason is that there seems to be a culture of self-censorship and silence at universities today where people are afraid to speak out in fear of victimization and in fear of losing benefits. There are two reasons for this. The first is the corporate (and therefore authoritarian) managerial style to which universities are increasingly subjected and the second is concurrent subordination of universities to government. Jansen argues that in such a stifling environment it will be difficult to see the emergence of black public intellectuals.
Jansen is, to a large degree, correct. The environment mentioned above is certainly not conducive to the production of intellectuals. However there seems to a difference, and this I suspect is the crux of matter, between what he considers to be an intellectual and what is an authentic intellectual. Before we give a brief topology of such an authentic intellectual we need to first tackle the reasons why Jansen has chosen to focus particularly on the responsibilities of black intellectuals.
In his words: “I am not intending to minimise the role and contribution of white intellectuals; there must of necessity remain a place for solidarity and collective action by white and black intellectuals, together. But it would be dangerous to ignore the fact that the objective conditions that nurtured black intellectuals under and against apartheid, and that inform and shape the character of black intellectuals after apartheid, are quite different from those that influence and nurture white intellectuals.”
This again is true. The white intellectual has long enjoyed dominant access to publishing, resources, and positions within universities. This in turn has lead to their domination in research and production. If Jansen’s focus on black intellectuals means to redress this academic imbalance then he is right on the money but if he means that such focus and development will produce black academics willing to speak truth to power and put their mind and bodies in harm’s way, in other words, authentic intellectuals then he is mistaken.
The other reason he gives for his focus on black intellectuals is that these days even white radicals with impeccable struggle credentials are susceptible to attack by those in power through use of the race card. The inference seems to be that there is certain utility value in having black intellectuals speak out in that they will not be so open to racial baiting.
So what exactly does Jansen expect of black intellectuals?
For one being a black intellectual involves: “…actively recasting the received categories of racial and ethnic classification which reinforce a divisive apartheid language. But the task of the black intellectual, in particular, is not simply to delegitimise these received categories as if it were an exercise in correcting vocabulary; the broader task is through everyday social practice – but also through artistic performance and academic writing – to create and sustain solidarities at all levels that will ultimately render such classificatory systems obsolete.” He also expects black intellectuals to speak out in defence of people of other races who are the victims of injustice.
These are noble and worthwhile tasks. But the nagging question is why Jansen places this responsibility solely on the shoulders of black intellectuals. These are tasks that should be equally undertaken by people of other races. Jansen sets up the criteria for assessing good praxis and fails to adhere to them himself. By delineating categories of intellectuals he is contributing to the divisive apartheid language that he wishes to eradicate.
Is it just the case that being a black intellectual offers some protection against charges of racism? The pragmatism of such a rationale is both frightening and against a long tradition of authentic intellectual endeavor. Implicit in the act of standing and speaking against injustice is the knowledge that such public gestures are antagonistic to certain interest groups. By standing up and speaking out the authentic intellectual knowingly opens her reputation and livelihood and, in some circumstances, her body up for attack. Her mission is not pragmatic. On the contrary she pushes against the constricting logic of pragmatism.
I want to argue that it cannot be an easy thing to be an intellectual and that it is precisely this difficulty that makes the intellectual vocation so honourable. If speaking out against government policies makes one susceptible to false charges of racism then one must be prepared to be called a racist. If speaking out results in one being called disloyal or an agent of a white plot then so be it. In certain circumstances being called a racist or an agent of a racist plot by certain people should and, indeed very often is, considered an affirming statement in that it implies that you are asking the right sort of questions, doing the right sort of things and making the right sort of people uncomfortable.
Jansen points out that writings on intellectuals have been largely race-less. The reason for this, I think, is that being an authentic intellectual is something that largely transcends race, culture, nationality, religion, and ethnicity. The duty of the intellectual, as Frantz Fanon has pointed out, is to put one’s muscles and brain in the way of injustice - wherever it occurs. We all confront this duty equally without respect for the tone that the accidents of our births have given our skin. But part of this duty is that we must all face up to and fight the ideologies of race that make the extra-social fiction of race such a stark reality in the world of lived experience.
Consider the life and times of the twentieth century’s greatest public intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre. He fought in the French Resistance, had his flat bombed for speaking-out on behalf of the Algerians and later the Vietnamese, had 5000 French policemen marching against him shouting “Kill Sartre”, had all his work banned by the Pope, and stood in solidarity with the French student revolutionaries of 1968. A measure of his influence is the fact that when he died more then 50 000 people marched in honour of him. Taking into account the bravery and intellectual honesty of people like Sartre, Fanon and Biko we might conclude that the black intellectuals that Jansen has criticised for remaining silent are actually not authentic intellectuals. If black intellectuals like Trevor Ngwane and Sipho Seepe are prepared to put themselves on the line by speaking out then it is clear that those who don’t simply lack the necessary swing to be considered intellectuals - not matter how fat their tedious CVs. And if that is the case why should we bother about them at all? Why?
It is necessary to consider in a little more detail what it means to be an intellectual but first we need to deal with the extraordinary amount of interest paid to the roles of black people, or in this case, black intellectuals in society. Just why is there this intense interest in black intellectuals? Should black people feel flattered by all the attention? Why is more expected from them than intellectuals from other race groups? A lot of it has to do with the concept of merit.
For instance, consider Jansen’s observation of the dumbing down of the professoriate by the fast tracking of black academics. While I have no doubt that he is sincere in his desire to develop a competent generation of scholars it is certainly curious how talk of merit is always associated with all things black. So how are we to understand the concept of merit here?
We could start by asserting that when most people talk about merit in relation to affirmative action they are, in effect, asking the other (in this case the black) to justify his existence. They are demanding from black people proof that they have a right to exist in a certain career role. The problem with asking the other to justify his existence is that the standard of judging belongs to the person making the demand. The questioners’ right to make such a demand is thus presumed in the question and the person being questioned is always, in the words of critical race and liberation theorist Lewis R. Gordon, presumed suspect.
There is clearly a double-standard operating here as the people making the demand, usually from in a position of power but not always, set the standard of who or what can be deemed the ideal candidate while they themselves are exempt from being judged on it. This phenomenon manifests itself in the unfair standard employed by certain critics of affirmative action policies who are quick to shout merit at every opportunity whilst not even considering the application of this yardstick of competency to people of their own race.
For most white critics of affirmative action policies the standard of competency or merit is considered to be themselves. This means that any inherent value contained within the term “merit” is transferred onto anybody who is in possession of whiteness. Merit thus equals whiteness or vice versa. Thus we witness the establishment of an explicitly Manichean conception of whiteness as competence and blackness as incompetence.
Once the standard of merit as whiteness is established it is easy to criticise blacks on the basis of a lack of merit as they lack not skill but whiteness. Thus to be black in the white academic world is ultimately to be guilty of blackness and the only way to rid oneself of this guilt is to stop being black. This is not to say that there are no incompetent black people – of course there are – but these can be found in equal number in other race groups. If it is shown that the greater number of incompetent people in academic situations are black then it is merely proof of the unfair advantage (in terms of education and social situation) other race groups have over black people – therefore, in effect, what critics of affirmative action are talking about when they vaunt their merit is their superior position in society.
Furthermore it is often the case that incompetence in black people is sought after rather than merely noticed – what this means is that the black in an academic situation exists in a state of constant surveillance. His every move is presided over by the omnipotent white look and he need only slip up once for his overseers to bring up the dreaded subject of merit. It is clear that no human being can function or exist properly in an environment that regards him as a potential specimen of incompetence.
It needs to be stressed that this is not in any way questioning of Jansen’s sincerity in wanting to develop black academics. It is merely that we should be guarded when using seemingly sterile concepts like merit as justification for questioning the primarily moral process of affirmative action. Merit, right now, in South Africa is a value-term that belongs to white people and when they use it as a weapon against black people they are effectively saying: “You are incapable of being white.”
That being said let us try to get to the heart of the matter. It has already been pointed out that there seems to be some confusion between what Jansen considers to be an intellectual and what is an authentic intellectual. This can be seen most clearly in his suggestions for the development of black intellectuals. For instance, he suggests that a school for doctoral students be opened to train future academics in the art of scholarship and intellectual endeavour. He suggests rethinking the curriculum of public institutions so that the values of critical disposition, intellectual engagement, and public dissent are promoted.
The confusion here is between the development of university academics and the development of intellectuals. They are not the same. The suggestions Jansen offers are geared more towards the production of academics rather than intellectuals (leaving aside the highly problematic idea of developing intellectuals - who 'developed' Sartre or Fanon or Biko or Marcos or Roy?). There is nothing inherently wrong with this project. Trying to instil in others the joys of scholarship is a worthwhile cause but academics, unlike intellectuals, will not change the world, which, when you really get down to it is what it is all about.
The problem with the university academic, as Ivan Illich has pointed out, is that he has been schooled to serve the rich of the world. Jansen points out that we have made some post-apertheid progress in that there are now black academics consulted by the media on national and international matters. What we need to consider is why those particular academics have be chosen as spokespeople and observers. In the era of entertainment and surfaces they are likely to have been chosen to play this role because they can produce a good sound-bite, are camera friendly or can deploy the appropriately impressive sounding technical language. In short they fit the form of what the news as an entertainment product requires an intellectual to look and sound like.
The bottom line is that these media celebrity academics owe their position to the fact that they are safe for public consumption. The academic might criticise government occasionally but at the end of the day he is as dependent on that government for his livelihood and status as the government is dependent on him to give their regime the veneer of democracy. Their dissent is calculated and self-serving. It never brings the crisis of the poor and the sick across the razor wire and velvet ropes, past the make-up artists and on to the news.
Illich: “The modern university confers the privilege of dissent on those who have been tested and classified as potential money-makers or power-holders. Schools select for each successive level those who have, at earlier stages in the game, proved themselves good risks for the established order. Having a monopoly on both the resources for learning and the investiture of social roles, the university co-opts the discoverer and the potential dissenter.”
The people with the real dangerous and contagious ideas, ideas that don’t engage with the system but question its existence are only on television or in the press as subjects of an anxious and objectifying gaze. Our universities are institutions that tame and co-opt the rebel spirit. That, together with the provision of uncritical technical skills to the market and state, is what it is there for. Of course this structural purpose is vastly different to that of the university structurally independent of the state, market and church where the quest for knowledge and understanding is the sole aim. Such universities are, as in Paris in ’68, for dissenters, outsiders, and heretics. In South African universities in 2002 asking the questions that matter gets you in trouble. Often the good work that is done is conceived and executed in hushed whispers in dark corners on stolen time and in direct contradiction to the offical projects of those universities.
This is known to most academics. But most academics are hopeless losers. Their only preoccupations are with getting and keeping tenure, lucrative consulting jobs, keeping the research-production-reward engine running, and, most importantly, keeping the journal and book publication tally steadily ticking over so that they can develop a fifty-page CV and earn enough airmiles to take the children to Disneyland or, when they are a little older, visit them in London or Sydney. The fact that all those publications basically exploit and repeat the same ideas and the fact that no-one outside a select group reads them is not considered important. Most academic research and publications are, as Nietzsche said speaking of philology, about nothing more the art of reading slowly.
Even articles published in so-called progressive leftist journals are of little consequence. If someone produces a worthwhile article that genuinely expresses a few radical ideas all that becomes of it is that it is excitedly and self-consciously footnoted endlessly in the articles of his contemporaries producing a vicious circle that basically achieves nothing. If this circle of articles and research becomes wide enough it is called a movement or school. This largely incestuous writing very rarely affects the lives of the people the academic radicals are making their money and status off of.
Jansen said that there is nothing inherently wrong with a public intellectual working with government if that person is able to retain their critical qualities. He then proceeded to delineate another category of intellectual within the system - the bureaucratic intellectual. He calls for a dismantling of the radical cynicism that thrashes everything government does simply for the hell of it. He labels such an attitude anti-intellectual. It is useful to reproduce the quote with which Jansen opened his talk.
It is taken from Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual: “the intellectual’s provisional home is the domain of an exigent, resistant, intransigent art into which, alas, one can neither retreat nor search for solutions. But only in that precarious exilic realm can one first truly grasp the difficulty of what cannot be grasped, and then go forth to try anyway. [italics added]”
The intellectual if he is to be authentic must remain outside the corridors of power. Such an exile is clearly taxing but is necessary if the intellectual’s integrity is to be held in place. The truth is that everybody is corruptible, even in little, seemingly inconsequential ways. The Clash put it best: “He who fucks nuns will later join the church.” It is actually the belief that one can change things from the inside that is radically cynical as well as ultimately defeatist.
I’d like to end by relating a question that was asked by audience member that struck me as important. The man, an activist from the neighbourhood of Wentworth, asked Jansen why most intellectuals didn’t speak in a language that ordinary people could understand. He added that more intellectuals should follow the example of Bob Marley, whom he called a peoples’ intellectual. A few people around me grimaced and some yahoo fucks laughed derisively. The point, clearly, is a valid one and Jansen to his credit acknowledged it. He answered by saying that he wasn’t aware of the composition of the audience he was going to be speaking to.
It’s a difficult problem. How does one convey complex ideas to a larger audience who haven’t been coached in the appropriate technical language without compromising the integrity of those ideas? It can, of course, be done and the change will have to come from intellectuals. They will have to learn to convey ideas in different forms if they are to be of any use as public intellectuals.
The intellectual landscape of this country is changing and changing for the better. Ashwin Desai has rightly pointed out that the new social movements in this country prefer attitude to ideology. Most old-school intellectuals have to come to the realisation that their politics, as the CrimethInc Collective put it, are as boring as fuck. The new social movements are fuelled by desire, anger, love, and friendship rather than kindred readings of Trotsky. In any event one doesn’t need Trotsky to know that cutting-off someone’s water and electricity or evicting a family from their home is wrong.
The intellectual these days is more punk rocker and b-boy than academic, more lover than leader, more pamphleteer than researcher, more organiser than NGO consultant, and more outie than speechmaker. In this free anarchic environment the lyric, the parable, the sermon, the guitar solo, the play, the pamphlet, and the t-shirt are as effective if not more effective than the public lecture.
Later in the evening I shared a Black Label with the Wentworth activist and had a chat. He said he sincerely thought of Bob Marley as a peoples’ intellectual because he expressed his ideas clearly and in way everybody could understand. He said that Marley was streetwise, sharp, and that his music moved people more than intellectuals ever could. He added derisively that most intellectuals wouldn’t last a day in the streets; most would probably get stabbed. Before he left he related a story about a friend from Wenties called Skiddo, a retrenched teacher, who would use big words to say simple things. Like “Where are the ablution facilities?” when he all wanted to do was take an ordinary piss. I laughed along with him but I also felt a bit sorry for that ou Skiddo.
Organising for Second Freedom - Ela R. Bhatt's Wolpe Lecture
The most sustained experience of my life since India’s Independence has been the search for the Second Freedom, the economic empowerment of the poor, toiling women of India. For me, this half a century has seen constantly renewed fulfillments, in spite of failures, disappointments, and even opposition, in my public life.
Ela R. Bhatt
As the struggle for Independence was won, the atmosphere in the universities and the civic life was full of restless enthusiasm to rebuild the nation. I am a product of that early atmosphere. I eagerly remember those days in the university when I had enthusiastically joined the upcoming student leaders, including my future husband. I was a timid college girl, yet I had gathered courage to join the efforts, like so many other young people at that time, to try and make personal and public meaning of the recently gained freedom from foreign rule.
Ela R. Bhatt
Our teachers sent us out to the people of India, particularly to the rural poor. Our parents had their doubts, but they did not stop us from our journey to reach the rural poor. Over a period of time we realised that the right to vote was not enough for the poor and women. They wanted a voice and visibility. As the poor, they wanted more than just day-to-day survival. As women, they wanted opportunities to learn and to act. As workers in India’s unorganised sector, they wanted to be a part of the labour movement. As Dalits and minorities they wanted to move in from the margins to the mainstream. Yes, they wanted a voice and visibility. It took still more years for us to realise that this was not possible without access to and ownership of economic resources by the poor women. Coming out of their state of exploitation by family, society, and the State, the poor women wanted to enjoy what I call Doosri Azadi : Second Freedom.
The First Freedom, political power, the country had achieved in 1947. The Second Freedom, economic power, it is yet to be achieved. As I understood Mahatma Gandhi, economic self reliance was as important for him as political independence. He called economic poverty ‘a moral collapse’ of the society. True, political change or technological change does not necessarily remove poverty because it does not remove economic exploitation. The problem of poverty and the loss of freedom are not separate, as he said.
I have seen at close quarters, how a SEWA member experiences economic freedom. When she has a roof of her own, a farm of her own, a well of her own, or trees of her own, and as she moves towards full employment at her level, she has more ‘operational freedom’ on a day-to-day basis in her world of work. She arrives at a bargaining position in the dealings with the local vested interests, inside or outside her own home. Land reforms, green revolution, water management were the nationwide initiatives of the early years. It is in the later years that they gained operational meaning.
As soon as I passed my law degree (1954), I joined the Textile Labour Association the TLA founded by Gandhiji in 1917, a unique trade union built on the philosophy of trusteeship. The union aimed at the total development of the workers, not just economic. The TLA was known as ‘a laboratory of human relations.’ Here I learnt the first lessons of the trade union movement.
In 1971, migrant women working as cart-pullers in the city’s cloth market came to me in TLA, where I had started my work life working for textile mill workers of Ahmedabad. The women who lived on the footpath, were seeking help for better living conditions. Next month came the head loader women of the same cloth market, feeling agitated about very low rates of payment (30 paise per trip carrying the bale of cloth from a wholesaler to a retailer). They felt exploited by the traders. Then followed the used garment dealer women in search of credit facility from the recently nationalised banks. The women were paying 10 percent per day as interest rate to the moneylender. They felt enslaved to the lenders. Women vendors of downtown Manekchowk market came seeking protection from police harassment. And then came Hawa Bibi of Patan, a bidi roller who had lost her work after 20 years, from the contractor who first started rejecting 50 percent of her rolled bidis, complaining they were ‘bad’. And then ultimately he stopped giving her any material to roll bidis. Losing her livelihood, a very agitated Hawa Bibi came to the TLA office seeking ways to get justice. The Labour Commissioner’s office had said to her that she was not a ‘worker’ because she was ‘not working’. Working in her home, and on piece rate is not ‘work’ by law. That was 1971. Some of these urban, poor, self- employed women workers came to the meeting that I called in a public garden where we formed our trade union (1972). We called it the Self Employed Women’s Association, SEWA. Gandhian thinking has been the source of guidance for us in forming the SEWA union. We wanted to be both workers and citizens, and not remain on the margins of society.
Only two things were clear in my mind then. First, when 89 percent (now 92 percent) of the working population of the country engaged in the self-employed and the informal sector economy is outside the labour movement, there is no labour movement worth its name. Secondly, about 80 percent of women in India are rural, poor, illiterate or semi literate, and economically very active, so, in the women’s movement of India, it is these women who should be playing a leading role. Their major pressing concerns were of economic survival : poverty and exploitation. To fight them the poor have to organise and build up collective strength – only that much I knew. We had seen that amongst the poor, all women work. So, a labour union of poor women was the answer we found. Why women’s union? Because there is a significant relationship between being a woman, working in the informal sector and being poor. In the informal sector, there are more economically active women than men. And also women are poorer than men in the sector, because women are working in lower income activities, most often as casual workers, sub-contract workers, petty vendors and hawkers.
But nothing is easy. The Registrar of Unions was not ready to register us as a trade union in 1972, because we did not fit into his definition of a trade union. For him, garment workers, cart pullers, rag pickers, weavers, shepherds, embroiderers, dais, forest produce gatherers were not ‘workers’. The Indian Census did not count them amongst working population nor did our economists. Such invisibility of women’s informal work kept them powerless as producers, traders and workers. This has become a matter of serious concern about equity ever since. If women’s invisible informal work were to be fully counted, both the share of informal workers in the workforce and the estimates of the contribution of the informal sector to the total output would increase.
Organising the informal sector is of absolutely critical importance to informal sector workers themselves and to the labour movement more broadly. Only when they are organised, informal sector workers can gain visibility and a voice and can demand their needs and their concerns be addressed at different levels. Without being organised, they remain invisible to policy makers and isolated from mainstream social and economic institutions, particularly if they are women. Because of their invisibility and isolation, their problems are not well understood (if at all).
SEWA as a trade union started in 1972, it has a membership of 5,30,000 self employed women. SEWA also organizes members tradewise in co-operatives, amounting to 86 cooperatives so far. Joint action of trade unions and co-operatives has been the strategy of SEWA, in order to make a presence felt in the national economy.
For SEWA, women’s empowerment means full employment and self reliance. When there is an increase in her income, security of work and assets in her name, she feels economically strong, independent, autonomous. Her self reliance is not only considered on her own individual basis, but also organizationally. She has learnt to manage their own organization. She sits on the boards and committees of her own union and co-operative and takes decisions. She has learnt to deal with traders, employers, officials and bankers on equal terms, where earlier she was a worker serving her master. She knows that without economic strength she will not be able to exercise her political rights in the village panchayat. However, basically, she has to have adequate work, that ensures her income as well as food and social security, that ensures at least healthcare, childcare, insurance and shelter. Unlike those in the formal sector, the workers and the producers in the unorganized, informal, self employed sector have to attain full employment on their own, through their own organizations.
Another component of empowerment for poor women is self reliance. Self reliance in terms of financial self sufficiency and management, as well as in terms of decision making. For them, collective empowerment is more important than individual. With collective strength, she is able to combat the outside exploitative and corrupt forces like money lenders or police or black marketers. As her economic strength and self reliance grows, her respect within the family and the community soon follows.
Kamala, a bidi worker became a senior organizer in SEWA. Today she heads her caste council. She is helping the community take larger decisions. Her SEWA union committee has been a training ground for her public life.
Which types of organizations can lead to empowerment? Not organizations which are charitable in nature or which are controlled by one person. Truly empowering ones should belong to the women workers themselves. It should be owned by them and democratically controlled by them. The dairy co-operative of the women in village Rupal put up a severe fight to the land grabbers (men) of the village who wanted to usurp the co-operative’s fodder farm. ‘Vanraji’ the Women’s Tree Growers Co-operative fought the Bharwads (shepherds) in court, to retain the waste land acquired from the government for collective plantations. ‘Haryali’ the Vegetable Vendors Co-operative managed their co-operative so well that from their surplus, they gifted a building to the SEWA union. The union helped the vendors in the co-operative to win a case in the Supreme Court to establish their right of place in the Manek Chowk Market of Ahmedabad where they have been vending for the last three generations, when they were being pushed out from there by the authorities.
These organizations help their members to enter the mainstream. The SEWA Cooperative Bank could bring the illiterate, poor women workers and producers in the mainstream, formal banking system, who are able to deal with the Reserve Bank of India at par with other government banks; the auditors of the Federal Bank have to discuss (may be for the first time) banking and audit issues with the Board of Directors of SEWA Bank, who are self employed women representatives of artisans, labourers, hawkers and vendors, sitting together at the same table. This provides a unique opportunity for exposure and dialogue to both sides. Sure, SEWA Co-operative Bank would not have been able to perform effectively if there was no SEWA, the umbrella union organization of self employed women. Similarly, SEWA would not have been able to take up causes effectively, if there was no standby in the form of SEWA Bank, to provide financial support to SEWA Members.
The collectiveness of the organization generates tremendous power and strength for its members, even in their individual lives. Famidabi of Bhopal, a bidi worker, on her way to attend the bidi workers meeting in Ahmedabad, dropped her ‘burqa’ (veil) for ever. Karimabe, leader of chindi workers of Dariapur, openly confronted her own brother who represented the employers, and she representing the chindi workers while negotiating a wage rise with the Labour Commissioner.
When women organize on the basis of their work, their self esteem grows and she realizes the fact that she is a ‘worker’ a ‘producer’ an active contributor to the national income and not merely somebody’s wife, mother or daughter. While participating in the organization and management of her cooperative or union, her self confidence and competence grows, a sense of responsibility grows, leadership within her grows. SEWA - UNESCO study of 873 SEWA leaders, found : 52% of them perceive themselves as the head of the household and 20% as joint heads. The same self worth is reflected in their answers: It is necessary to be (i) economically strong, (ii) for women to own assets, (iii) since women work equal to men, they should have equal rights. All women surveyed 100% answered as above, and, 67% of the leaders also added to the last statement, saying that women work more than men.
When women are workers/producers and form their own organizations, they are also able to break new grounds; Examples include, (i) Teachers and mothers forming SEWA’s Childcare Co-operative; (ii) Doctors and dais form health care cooperative that traditional midwives runs drug counters at municipal hospitals thereby propogating the use of rational drugs vis-à-vis brand named patent drugs, (iii) ‘Soundarya’ the cleaners’ Co-operative won a historic court case establishing their right to negotiate employment conditions with the Company’s Employees’ Union.
SEWA has made an effort to federate these cooperatives serving their needs for technical and managerial assistance in production, and marketing while SEWA Bank provides the financial services.
Cooperatives and Trade Unions are two structures which satisfy the needs of women workers and small producers of the weaker sections, because these organizations are member-owned, member controlled and democratic in nature. They are both part of already established, mainstream, national and international structures having networks all the way down to their members. Both Co-operatives and Trade Unions started off as movements of the poor disadvantaged working class. It is only in the last few decades that trade unions have bcome a movement limited to those in the formal sector i.e. in industrial plants and offices, and co-operatives, a vehicle for mostly the better off farmers and traders. We need to go to the roots of the Co-operatives, which arose from the labour movement.
Interaction between Co-operatives and Trade Unions is mutually strengthening to each other, in order to make a dent in the national economy, and in raising the bargaining power as well as the political visibility of the poor.
SEWA has consciously and consistently perceived its role as influencing the policy-making process by participating as a representative organization of the unorganized sector workers. For them the bargaining and negotiating is with the state and public policies. This means creating impact to influence, educate and reorient the direction of change as envisaged by policy makers. It may be making amendments in law or lobbying for new law e.g. for homeworkers or street vendors. It may be related to reclaiming the right to have access to credit or raw materials or information, know-how, or market infrastructure. Grassroots, national, and international levels are involved in formulating policies, hence as a representative organization of self-employed workers, we have to be effective at all these levels.
While talking about future of women workers, all workers for that matter, amongst all challenges, globalisation is most recent and perhaps the biggest one. Because some basics of trade unionism are changing with globalisation through the enormous increase in the power of transnational corporations. There is a decline in the state’s role of administering the social compromise which the transnational capital no longer needs because it now operates at a global level where it can escape the political control of society at national level. Also trade unionism is changing, and will change still more, through the rise of a global labour market. Countries underbid each other in an effort to preserve or attract foreign investment. At the end, it is workers who suffer. This is why the challange of the globalisation of capital is above all a challange of unions’ internationalism. In fact, it seems real trade union movement is yet to be built.
Therefore, we as women workers have to consider a political agenda, a trade union agenda and most importantly an organising agenda.
Let me dwell on organising. At world level, only 13% or so of wage workers are organised into unions, and if the informal sector is added, this figure would drop to 4 or 5%. In Japan it fell from 56% to 25% during the last decade. In the USA it fell from 35 to 13%. Northern Europe is an exception where the workers have held on their own.
Much has to do with the changing structure of the enterprise. Most companies are reducing direct employment to a core workforce, and then subcontracting their operations. The modern company is mainly the coordinator of work done on its behalf by others. Sub-contracting cascades down from one sub contractor to the other, eventually ending up with the homebased worker, with conditions and wages worsening as one moves to the outer circle.
What the unions have not done is to follow their members and to follow the work. Their membership has shrunk as their core constituency has shrunk. This is the story of the industrialised countries. We in India too are moving on the same track.
For this reason, the organising of the informal sector is a vital necessity for the trade union movement, also in what remains of the formal sector. The informal sector is growing everywhere, in industrialised and developing countries both. The European Unions used to call it ‘atypical’ work, but what is becoming, ‘atypical’ is permanent, regular, paid employment.
But the good news is that workers in informal employment are taking the situation into their own hands. Being workers, they do what workers do naturally whenever they have a chance : they organise.
Successful organising in the informal sector, and also in the service trades, means women in the trade union movement. If we are serious about organising the majority of workers, it needs to open the unions for more to women than has been the case so far. We women need to enter the union movement in a big number. Our number has been in the informal sector not formal sector because, a vast majority of workers in the informal sector is women including all those in casual, temporary, part time employment. Opening trade unions to the informal sector workers or women not only means taking them on board and the specific demands of women, but also changing the work style and the culture of trade unions movement.
These workers rarely engage in the typical collective bargaining, although they do social bargaining. It calls for a re-thinking on what is worker, what is union. This kind of organising can only be done by unions that see themselves as a social movement, it cannot be done by companies.
This brings me to our structures. We need to ask ourselves whether our present structures are the most effective ones to respond to the challanges of globalisation. I am not only referring to the need to overcome the fragmentation of the movement because of a multiplicity of organisations who perpetuate political divisions which have already become irrelevant.
Other questions arise. What sense does company based unionism make at a time when companies are merging or are being taken over so frequently? Do even industrial unions make sense at a time when such boundaries are shifting in economic reality – and – also workers change employers several times in their working lives, with periods of unemployment in between? Why should they have to change unions every time they change employment?
As Dan Gallin says, can we think of one union card for life? Should we not make our organising job easier for the members? We need to think again about the role of general unions in the new organising context. Who can be our allies in the labour movement? I suggest cooperatives. We have to study/what extent a joint action of union and cooperatives be a strategy to impact the government policies in the new economy.
Lastly, capital has long ceased to bother about national borders. Borders are dissolving anyway in larger political and economic entities. Trans-border unions is another thought that need s to be considered today. International unionising has become a necessity when globalisation imposes stresses on union organisation. These will be pressing questions for women workers in near future.
In essence, informal sector is the future of the labour movement, where women will be leaders.
The Basic Income Grant: Poverty, Politics and Policy-making: Ravi Naidoo's Wolpe lecture
The concept of a Basic Income Grant is at the heart of an intense debate in our society, a debate that is revealing much about South Africa’s post-1994 class transformation. This is a debate that increasingly reflects the balance of forces for and against redistribution in what remains one of the most economically unjust countries in the world.
The concept of a Basic Income Grant is at the heart of an intense debate in our society, a debate that is revealing much about South Africa’s post-1994 class transformation. This is a debate that increasingly reflects the balance of forces for and against redistribution in what remains one of the most economically unjust countries in the world.
I am pleased to be able to give this Harold Wolpe lecture on the B.I.G, which is truly a BIG debate in every sense of the word, and which I predict will remain so for as long as South Africa continues to experience conditions of mass poverty and inequality.
In the time available, I will be talking to the following points:
· Mass poverty as reality
· What are the alternatives to a BIG?
· What did the Taylor Committee propose?
· The BIG: technical issues
· The BIG: politics
1. Mass poverty is the reality in South Africa, and this reality has not receded meaningfully in the past eight years. Scenario planners at the highest levels of government start with the baseline that poverty and inequality levels have not decreased since 1994, and are unlikely to do so with our current economic policies. Of course official public statements don’t usually acknowledge this reality. Predictably some may be heard to talk in vague terms of “life is getting better”, which in some respects, mainly procedural, it is -- but it is not getting better in terms of poverty outcomes.
The impact of this state of mass poverty on South Africa is harsh. (A few examples follow).
· 25% of all births in 1999 were into households in extreme destitution, and about 75% into poor households. Such adverse circumstances experienced in early life, of course, have an enormous impact on a child’s chances of future success. Children born into poverty are more likely to suffer from disability and illness, get a poor education, suffer violence and abuse, be unemployed, and so on.
· Poverty induces behaviour that increases vulnerability to HIV/ AIDS, now estimated at 25% prevalence. A woman may be so financially dependent on her husband, for example, that she may feel she cannot refuse unsafe sex.
· Poverty and inequality are heavily correlated to property and violent crimes. This we know intuitively, though even a recent World Bank study of South Africa confirms this. Poverty also contributes to domestic violence and child abuse; the Ministry of Justice found that its programmes for children fail in the poorest communities, because of the effects of poverty.
· Twenty two percent of all households report hunger, and 166 children were reported to have starved to death in the Eastern Cape last month.
On the economic side an investment study for the Office of the President found that mass poverty is a major constraint to investment. The study found that the poverty and inequality situation looks untenable to investors, who are convinced that this will backfire on South Africa, and have the view that government is not doing enough.
So it is in this context that COSATU proposed a BIG at the Presidential Job Summit in 1998.
So what is a Basic Income Grant?
A Basic Income Grant is a grant that is paid to all citizens without the psychologically damaging stigma of means-testing. In other words, it is a universal grant that does not impose a judgement as to whether someone is a “deserving” poor person or not. Rather this grant goes to everyone as a right. This does not mean that the rich actually get the benefit, since the tax system can be reworked to ensure that the better off actually pay back the cost of the grant, and then some.
The concept is quite simple, though it fundamentally turns on their heads many concepts of our current social security – concepts that we borrowed from Britain over the past century.
When the Taylor Committee studied the potential impact of a BIG in South Africa it found the following:
Poverty Gap Reduction Additional People Freed From Poverty
Current situation 23% --
Full take-up of existing grants 37% 0,8 million
BIG 74% 6,3 million
If everyone were to receive a BIG of R100 per month, the BIG would cost approximately R48 billion per annum. After we claim back the taxes, however, the net cost can be brought down to approximately R15 billion (this net amount is what the grant would actually cost the State) -- and this benefit would be in the hands of the poor not the rich.
2. What are the alternatives to a BIG?
Public works programmes – Creating temporary jobs for the unemployed through public works programmes would cost between R36 billion – R64 billion a year, and that is paying at below the poverty line. A high proportion of the budget, up to 85% in some instances, goes to administration costs. Finally, the possibility of scaling up the public works programmes by 30 times its current 200,000 jobs a year appears next to impossible given the serious project management problems experienced at this small roll-out. Other questions, such as how public works programmes could address poverty issues like AIDS orphans, are also relevant.
Thus while one accepts that public works are very important, they cannot be seen as a serious measure to reduce mass poverty.
Create quality jobs – The creation of millions quality jobs is obviously first prize, if this can be done. Unfortunately, key formal sectors shed almost 600,000 jobs between 1996-2001. Some growth appears to have occurred in other sectors, but these have tended to be mainly low-paid, poor quality jobs.
The reality is that unemployment/ informal work covers approximately 50% of the total workforce. Despite what we hope for, the research of the Taylor Committee found that the creation of millions of quality jobs is not likely to happen for a long time to come.
Redistribution of income-generating assets – People are poor because they don’t have the means to generate an income. The racial distribution of poverty is obviously linked to the racially skewed distribution of economic assets in South Africa. Fundamentally changing this underlying distribution is a necessary goal – but, like public works and quality job creation, the policy outcomes thus far have been dismal (for example, for land where only 1% was redistributed against a target of 30%). In short, there has been an inability to redistribute assets to the poor on any major scale.
Use existing grants – South Africa’s most effective grant is currently the State Old Age pension, which is responsible for approximately 50% of rural income. So why don’t we just increase this grant instead of introducing a BIG? Because 81% of adults and 76% of children live in households without pensioners – so they would not gain from an increase in the SOAP. The other existing grants have even bigger gaps in coverage.
In short, all these are important strategies that need to be pursued. But none can really claim to be serious alternatives to BIG in terms of denting mass poverty.
3. What did the Taylor Committee propose?
The Committee recommended a framework for Comprehensive Social Security for South Africa. This covered retirement provision, national health insurance, social insurance funds, administration and institutional arrangements, etc. – not only the BIG (though the BIG has grabbed the headlines).
The Taylor Committee recommended a universal social security package to address income, service and asset poverty. However the Committee found that income poverty was the biggest problem. The Committee found that the lack of income was undermining government service and asset programmes (where, for example, people cannot pay for transport to access services, and people are selling the assets that the government is transferring to them thus creating some perverse secondary markets).
The Committee proposed that a BIG (which is called a solidarity grant) be phased in by 2006, starting with children up to the age of 18. Such a phasing-in would reduce the financial and administrative risk to government.
The Committee found that such a phased-in approach made BIG both “affordable and feasible”.
I will not go into all the details on the Taylor Committee report, suffice it to say that all the key government departments were on the Committee, including the National Treasury. And in the almost two years of the Committee investigation and debate, there was never a substantive argument that could be mustered against these conclusions.
4. Some of the “technical” issues in the BIG debate
Affordability – Throughout history “affordability” has been used a reason not to implement radical social reforms. So the “New Deal” in the US was opposed by US business for the same reason, and the Beveridge social security in Britain just after the Second World War. In most cases, when a national crisis was recognised the argument of affordability was set aside.
Of course, with “affordability” you also have to look at the cost of not acting. Delaying necessary spending to save money is a false economy, because the cost gets higher once the damage is done.
Most importantly, what does “affordability” mean in the context where income and company taxes has been cut by R48 billion since 1996? This is more than three times the net cost of the BIG (+-R15 billion).
Economic growth – There is a growth and development strategy paper doing the rounds disingenuously argues that “[W]ith growth, poverty decreases…” – inferring an automatic relationship between economic growth (estimated at a low 2,6% of GDP for 2003) and poverty reduction.
However, it does not take much to know that South Africa has very skewed patterns of distribution. With South Africa’s extremely high levels of inequality you need extremely high levels of economic growth, for there to be any meaningful trickle down to the poor.
Dependency – Since the demise of “affordability” as an objection, it is now argued that a BIG of R100 will “create dependency”. Let’s just think about the logic of this view -- that giving greater income security to, say, a poor women is going to make her more dependent than she already is. You would think that this woman is already dependent on others, possibly an abusive partner whom she cannot afford to leave. Poverty, after all, creates the worst kind of dependencies.
The “creating dependency” argument is also extremely hypocritical. We are all dependent, after all. A man is dependent on his wife. A student is dependent on her teacher. Most of all, businesses and the rich in this country are heavily dependent on explicit and implicit State subsidies.
Lastly, several of the alternatives to a BIG (such as public works) clearly carry a greater dependency than a BIG, as one discovers when a scheme ends in a particular area.
Administrative capacity -- This is a real issue. Any new social security system requires that a new administration system be developed to implement it. This is obvious. So it is disingenuous to argue that a proposed scheme is unviable because the administrative system doesn’t exist at the time that the scheme is proposed.
It was for exactly that reason that the Committee recommended that BIG is phased in, allowing time for the development of administrative capacity.
This included the creation of a national social security agency to deliver the scheme, and the completion of a new ID system. In both of these areas there has been progress. A new ID system is being developed, and is due for completion by 2005; and a few weeks ago Cabinet approved the creation of a national social security agency.
5. Some of the politics of the BIG debate
There are three challenges facing the BIG.
BIG as part of the “Developmental State” – The Developmental State must address issues of assets, services and incomes. In this sense, the BIG is not a panacea that is an alternative to assets and services, but rather an essential income strategy of a Developmental State.
However some have attempted to distinguish a Developmental State from a so-called Welfare State. In this view the Developmental State is about things and the Welfare State is about giving people money. Part of this misunderstanding of a Developmental State is recent, and is a wilful misunderstanding aimed at undermining the BIG proposal.
However, another part of the misunderstanding stems from past approaches, such as the Social Security White Paper of 1997, which sought to promote the trendy concept of “Developmental Social Welfare”, which has failed miserably. This concept was built around a deep-seated notion of an “undeserving poor”; and promoted ways for the “able-bodied” to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. This notion bears no relation to the human development policies followed by Developmental States that were actually successful.
Challenge to existing policy approach – Consistent with the mistitled Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy (GEAR), there is a desire to find “a market strategy” (investor friendly) to reduce poverty. The experience since 1996 has been that no such strategy can be found.
Nonetheless, what we have seen, and are seeing, is a process of company tax reduction coupled with increased appeals for corporate social responsibility. This is, in a sense, a reversion to the policy approach of the 19th century, altruism of the rich rather than rights administered by the State (and paid for through compulsory taxes). Thus there has recently been much interaction between government and business on poverty reduction focused on leveraging corporate social responsibility. Such approaches will probably amount to little more than opportunities for corporate branding.
Challenge to economic policy makers’ authority – Policy approaches do not develop in a vacuum. These approaches are developed by important people (at a political and bureaucratic level), whose careers are heavily invested in them. Thus, by promoting a very different approach to poverty, the BIG challenges the position of these policy-makers as the decisive influence in policy-formulation in South Africa.
As a result, we can look forward to two responses.
First, a much higher burden of proof will be set for the BIG proposal. BIG will be buried under a mountain of apparently legitimate technical queries -- and some blatantly ridiculous, like one government economist who opposed BIG because the Committee hadn’t studied the effect that BIG may have in increasing domestic violence. The sole purpose of this higher burden of proof would be to act as a veritable barrier to taking the policy further. These would be policy barriers that would not be raised in regard to other policy approaches that serve prevailing interests (such as the recent announcement to expand public works).
Second, as happens everywhere else in the world, there will be a natural herding effect on those intellectuals who want to stay on the right side of officialdom. Thus these “respectable” intellectuals will be lining up to create the required levels of technical noise. And as Joseph Stiglitz said of his former World Bank research teams, if you try hard enough and manipulate the data, you can always find ways to get your research to reflect the official concerns.
6. A concluding thought
I’d like to conclude with a real life story that describes how I think this debate will play out.
Last year NALEDI acted as the advisor to unions in stopping the privatisation of Spoornet (railways). Initially NALEDI did research showing that privatisation of the railways would result in poor areas being cut-off and economic development objectives would be undermined. This research was ignored, even though it was entirely accurate.
Then the union threatened strike action unless the research was engaged. That engagement then happened, and eventually government conceded that the privatisation plans would indeed not have the benefits that were claimed.
So in February 2002, the President in his Address to the Nation stated that, finally, government and labour have reached an agreement on restructuring a state asset. What was omitted, of course, was that the agreement was that the privatisation plan was not going to work!
Nonetheless, the point of the story is this: the research and appeals to reason, while important in making a case, ultimately do not determine policy. Research and appeals to reason can be ignored. When power is mobilised behind a proposal, only then does a debate on the merits of the issue become likely. In other words, it is power that facilitates a real debate.
And it is there that those in favour of a BIG need to focus their energies.
The Basic Income Grant: The Most Effective Means of Alleviating Poverty in South Africa? A review by Nina Hunter
Francie Lund and Ravi Naidoo discussed the Basic Income Grant BIG at the 5th Harold Wolpe Lecture.
The 5th Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture saw a representative of the labour movement and a prominent academic called upon to talk on a topic that is currently receiving much public attention. Their task was to respond to the question of whether a Basic Income Grant is the most effective means of alleviating poverty in the current South African context.
The Basic Income Grant (BIG) is a universal (non-means tested) grant that is being proposed by a coalition that includes NGOs, faith- and rights based organisations and, notably, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). There is broad consensus that the BIG should consist of a minimum of R100 per person per month on introduction, and that it should go to every South African citizen as a right. The idea is that it will not replace the existing system of pensions and grants, which currently go to approximately three million people – mainly the elderly, the disabled and children. The intention is for much of the cost of the grant to be recovered through progressive taxation. The proposed BIG has recently received renewed attention by the publication of the report of the Committee of Inquiry into a Comprehensive Social Security System for South Africa. This Committee – widely referred to as the Taylor Committee – was tasked in 2000 with engaging in consultations and generating proposals with respect to an improved social security system. The Committee’s report was publicly released in May of this year.
The first speaker was Ravi Naidoo, director of the National Labour Economic Development Institute (NALEDI), which conducts research and formulates strategy for the labour movement. Naidoo is a member of the Statistics Council of South Africa, sits on the Department of Trade and Industry’s policy review committee, serves on the International Labour Organisation’s technical team on poverty alleviation, and attends COSATU central executive committee meetings. Naidoo’s invitation to address this issue was no doubt motivated by the fact that he served as a member of the Taylor Committee.
Naidoo began his presentation by spending some time going over the facts of poverty in South Africa, clearly laying the platform for an argument which would support some form of redistributive intervention on behalf of the poor. He outlined aspects of the work of the Taylor Committee and its recommendations, highlighting the fact that the Committee found income poverty to be a key problem in the South African context. A quote from the Taylor Committee’s report, interestingly also used by the second speaker, gives a succinct account of the Committee’s view of the proposed grant. According to the Committee, the BIG “has the potential more than any other possible social protection intervention, to reduce poverty and promote human development and sustainable livelihoods”. Naidoo detailed some of the Committee’s proposals with regard to the BIG, and not surprisingly, clearly advocated the position of the Committee on which he sat.
Next, Naidoo unpacked some of the alternatives to the BIG. He pointed to public works programmes, the creation of quality jobs, the redistribution of income-generating assets, and the use of existing grants, but all the time emphasizing the inappropriateness of these interventions in terms of dealing with poverty. He concluded that while these are important strategies that need to be pursued, none are serious alternatives to the BIG in terms of “denting mass poverty”. The speaker’s support for the BIG was underscored by his understanding of the debate around the BIG proposal as one that reflects the balances of forces for and against redistribution.
Naidoo also pointed to some of the ‘technical’ issues in the BIG debate, frequently used in arguments against the grant. The issues of affordability and dependency, as well as the argument for economic growth with a resulting ‘trickle down’ to the poor, were all recounted, but only the issue of administrative capacity was regarded by Naidoo as requiring due attention in the consideration of the BIG. Yet in this regard he referred the audience to the proposals of the Taylor Committee, which would, he believed, aid considerably in the administration of the BIG.
Finally, Naidoo also gave an indication of some of the challenges that face the acceptance of the BIG at a political level. He noted that the notion of the BIG goes against the government’s policy approach of developmental social welfare. Moreover, he charged that the misrepresentation of the concept of a ‘developmental state’ was central to the politics of the BIG, and described it as a willful misunderstanding aimed at undermining the BIG proposal. He also argued that the BIG poses a challenge to the government’s existing policy, which is heavily influenced by the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy, and that it goes against ‘investor friendly’ strategies to reduce poverty. Naidoo also indicated that the BIG poses a challenge to economic policy makers’ authority. That is, by promoting a very different approach to poverty, the BIG challenges the position of policy-makers as the decisive influence in policy-formulation in South Africa. Naidoo argued that as a result of these elements a high burden of proof could be set for the BIG, and the appearance of intellectuals creating “the required levels of technical noise” could also come about. He concluded his presentation by indicating that it may only be once power is mobilised that debate may be facilitated, and that this is where those in favour of the BIG should focus their energies.
Although it was clear that Naidoo was arguing for the introduction of the BIG, it seemed that he did not want to in any way put his neck on the line. Naidoo seemed to use the Committee’s proposals as a reference point, and to some extent as a shield, in his response to the topic at hand. This is understandable given the plethora of Committees and task teams he sits on, and the circles in which he moves, yet somewhat disappointing for an audience hoping to gain new insights into the debate. He did hint at some of the views expressed at a high level, but nevertheless, one was left with a sense of wanting to hear …. something more.
Professor Francie Lund, an Associate Professor in the School of Development Studies at the University of Natal, was the second speaker to address the audience. Her invitation to participate in the lecture stemmed from seminal research which she conducted in the 1980s and 1990s on the beneficial impact of old age pensions on the standards of living of South Africans, and her involvement in legislative reform in the years leading up to the new democratic government. Moreover, in 1998 she chaired the Lund Committee on Child and Family Support that led to the introduction of the government’s most recently introduced grant – the Child Support Grant. Lund is currently international director of the Social Protection Programme of the international research and activist network: Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising.
While Naidoo was prepared to suffer with the problematic powerpoint presentation set-up, Lund abandoned all technical support, preferring to speak directly from her notes. While she gave a commendable oral presentation sans overheads, the lack of graphic presentation was at times felt.
Lund structured her contribution to the debate by posing questions, and raising concerns and points for pressure that should enter the negotiations with government simultaneously with the negotiations around the BIG. To begin, in answering some of the questions she set, Lund emphasized the fact that socially and politically the conditions are being set for growing instability and turbulence, particularly considering the extreme levels of poverty alongside extreme levels of wealth, evidenced so starkly in the country. She also indicated that the state could and should spend more on programmes that fundamentally support some sort of security for the majority – such as land reform, adult basic education, primary health care, and the existing social security system. Moreover, she argued for the need for the state to play a more active role in regulation, in addition to direct provision, in the interests of the poor.
Next Lund pointed to some issues that she believed deserved attention in considering the merits of the BIG as a redistributive measure. On the issue of financial sustainability, she referred to the growing body of highly sophisticated modeling currently taking place and to various cost estimates that have been put forward for the BIG. She highlighted the importance of such work, since knowing the additional tax burden that would be imposed would, she believed, play a crucial part in the decision made for or against the BIG. On the issue of whether the BIG would be administratively doable, Lund expressed optimism, but emphasized that it would not be acceptable for the private sector to make an even “fatter profit” than is the case in the delivery of public money to current grant recipients. On the issue of being well-targeted, Lund put forward that if the grant is to be universal it would be well targeted, and that attention is being given to how to get it back from the rich in order to ensure that it is a pro-poor measure.
However, Lund felt that it was not clear – as yet – whether the BIG, as presently mooted, is likely to be an effective response to poverty alleviation and reduction of inequality. She suggested that “we simply do not know this, at this point”, and described the evidence of the efficacy of the BIG as coming from two main sources. Firstly, from the abstract modeling work about what spending on the BIG would do to income in different income deciles – that is, how much of the poverty gap would be closed. And secondly, from generalizing from what we know about what present cash transfers do. She pointed to a body of research that shows the direct good effects for pensioners and the disabled and for the families in which they live. Yet she cut to the core of the assumption held by proponents of the BIG that the grant would be pooled, by drawing attention to the differing amounts of the proposed BIG and the grants on which this research rests, of over six times the amount of the proposed grant. Lund emphasized that the efficacy of the BIG depends too much on the idea of people in households, and on the idea of a household as having fixed boundaries, and of persons having just one household. She indicated that work needs to be done on this “most profoundly problematic aspect of the BIG”. Lund argued that until this work is done, it would have to be assumed that the BIG will go to individuals, and that the present amount of R100 that is being proposed is too small to make much difference to actually existing poverty.
Lund also identified as the most fundamental flaw in the proposed BIG the lack of coherent articulated economic or social theory about what the money is meant to do. She asked why the amount of the BIG had been pegged at R100 – what the purpose of doing so was. Was it an amount that could pass through Treasury’s fierce inspection with relative ease? Or could other, higher amounts just as easily be argued for? She recommended that attention be paid to alternatives to the fixed description of the BIG that is being widely touted. Lund suggested that the idea of a cash grant – universal and non-means tested – be maintained, but that creative means be employed to “do something more generous and possibly more effective”, even though possibly for a more limited number of years of life for each person.
Lund then went on to recount some of her strategic concerns in the debate around the BIG. For one, she noted the lack of articulated purpose around the BIG which could see the BIG hooked to some mechanism to determine increases, should it be introduced. She pointed to the high risk involved in advocating for a relatively low amount that will have the potential to make a significant difference to poverty, and warned that this could have the completely unintentional effect of eroding the robustness of other grants currently in place. Lund also identified the contradiction in stance being taken by those in the BIG campaign whose primary commitment is to expanding the years of eligibility for the CSG. She observed that child support campaign advocates had been concentrating on the years of eligibility for a CSG, and also on the level of the grant, but had not focused much on the means test. While Lund acknowledged that the extension of the CSG to older ages was good news, she cautioned that this would serve to entrench the idea of a continuation of the means test - “the most useless instrument”. She felt that energies should be spent in removing the means test – a challenging task considering that this and the past government have shown a lack of sympathy with universal grants. Finally, Lund emphasized the need for a leading partner (she suggested COSATU as the most obvious example) to get government to partner with financial institutions in building affordable and sustainable people-oriented savings and loan facilities to be made available to the informally working poorer people.
To end, Lund indicated some instant actions that are not receiving attention in the wake of the BIG campaign, which should be “put on the negotiating table”. She proposed that the poor be listened to and that the costs of schooling be reduced; that mechanisms be set up for monitoring and making transparent how food prices are set; that an equitable system of land redistribution be driven that is completely delinked from agricultural policy; that the building of financial institutions that are affordable to the poor be subsidized; and finally, that civil society organisations pay more attention to the potential interaction between the BIG and other forms of subsidy.
On the whole Lund’s contribution was reflective of her years of experience in undertaking research and working in the social policy arena, and made for a thought-provoking delivery. While Lund was not for the BIG as presently proposed, she was for redistribution, and therefore her argument did not fall into the camp Naidoo had been intimating, of being either for the BIG or against redistribution. Lund’s not supporting the BIG as an effective poverty alleviation strategy did not simply result in a string of anti-BIG arguments. Through a cleverly structured presentation she took something of a middle road. The fact that she had found it exceedingly difficult to come to a clear position on the BIG possibly struck a chord in some audience members, and was reflective of the complexity of the debate.
In addition, while a debate between the presenters may have been expected, and perhaps eagerly anticipated by the audience, no public exchange took place, and the speakers were obviously not opposed. Rather, the question time allocated to the audience reflected for the first time in this Wolpe lecture something of an exchange.
The audience was made up of grassroots activists and academics, students and some who usually have little to do with university institutions, which spoke of the reach and relevance of the issue under discussion. One of the contributors in the discussion time identified himself as coming from Pietermaritzburg, which too reflects the widespread interest this issue enjoys, and the reach of the Wolpe lecture series. The first round of questions suggested the unease of certain segments of the audience with the presentations, described by one contributor as “too academic”. Various members of the audience who took the microphone identified very real everyday concerns that drove at the heart of the need to be discussing some form of redistributive mechanism. Alarm was expressed that the issue of HIV/AIDS had not been mentioned; concern over deepening levels of poverty was emphasized; anger at the uncontrolled rise in food prices was displayed; and the continuing loss of employment was underscored. On the issue of neglecting to mention the impact of AIDS, both speakers were quick to assure the audience that this was of crucial import. But this reinforced the pervasive sense of mismatch between the expectations of audience members and the task that the speakers had been assigned.
Perhaps this disquiet was addressed most concisely, and also appropriately, by the head of the Centre for Civil Society. Struck by a “lack of politics”, the contributor pointed to the emphasis on the technical and policy components of the debate, and the lack of action in the political arena. He cogently argued that the problem lies with a labour movement that is not demonstrating power in the strategic alliance in which it is located, and that it is only when the ruling party sees a threat at the polls that concessions will be made. Naidoo had touched on some of the politics of the BIG debate, also asserting that this may be the key to forward movement with the BIG campaign. Yet while members of the audience pointed to the role that urgently needs to be played by COSATU, Naidoo seemingly dismissed his role in the labour movement, and side-stepped the issue. Lund had not especially referred to issues of politics, and defended this stance by arguing that the political component of the debate had not fallen within the ambit of the brief she had been given for this lecture. And yet, at the end of this joint lecture, publicized as a debate over the effectiveness of the BIG in alleviating poverty, one was left wondering whether it is indeed possible to weigh up this policy proposal if issues of politics are not discussed. Certainly this seemed to be what the contributions from the audience signified. Nonetheless, the substantive input that had been made in the lecture had contributed a great deal to the South African debate over the effectiveness of a possible BIG, leaving audience members with an expanded knowledge base from which to move on these weighty issues.
Anton Harber's Harold Wolpe Lecture on Journalism in the Age of the Market
In South Africa, we have an awful irony – that much of the journalism and the public debate (even when it had to be conducted secretly) was richer under the repressive conditions of apartheid than it is in a free South Africa. We have fought long and hard to enjoy a rich and open public debate; now we have to fight as hard to make sure that we do not squander what we have won.
Professor Anton Harber
JOURNALISM IN THE AGE OF THE MARKET
By Professor Anton Harber
Caxton Professor of Journalism and Director of the Graduate Journalism Programme, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
26 September 2002
I first went to University in that momentous year, 1976. One of the first things I was given to read in my Nusas education was Harold Wolpe’s essay, “Capitalism and Cheap Labour Power in South Africa from Segregation to Apartheid”. It was an eye-opener for me, a seminal article in the development of the political thinking of a naïve 17-year-old. I am proud and grateful to now, some 26 years later, be making some small contribution to the spirit of independent intellectual debate represented by that article, a spirit which was so important to the anti-apartheid struggle and which should be more important to the process of creating a new South Africa.
I was originally asked to speak about Media in the Age of the Market. I asked to change this to Journalism in the Age of the Market to highlight the fact that I am not a real academic, but a mere journalist in the newly acquired garb of academe. I have, after all, been a journalist for some 20 years, and an academic for only a few months. I hope you will excuse me if I speak primarily as a person passionate about the role that journalism can and should play in enriching the national political debate, promoting independent thinking and views and building a culture of democratic participation in the national discourse. I hope that in doing so I can do justice to the noble intellectual tradition we are here to re-invoke tonight.
Professor Anton Harber at the 4th Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture
I have been asked to talk about the market and journalism. This is a discussion about the public sphere and the nature and quality of debate within it. In South Africa, we have an awful irony – that much of the journalism and the public debate (even when it had to be conducted secretly) was richer under the repressive conditions of apartheid than it is in a free South Africa. George Orwell, in his famous essay on censorship said: “One thing we now for sure it that the mind, like certain wild animals, does not breed in captivity.” In fact, we proved him wrong in South Africa. The mind did breed in captivity – whether it was in the cells of Robben Island or the newsrooms of the alternative press – there was a powerful use of the imagination, of innovation and of public debate and discussion about waus to survive and destroy apartheid.
It is harder now to see the same depth of public debate, imagination and intellectual innovation. We as journalists have had great difficulty dealing with freedom and the opportunities it presents. Our newspapers, our journalists have all grappled with the role of the media in a free and open democratic South Africa. We seem to have divided ourselves into two crude camps: one which says that the sole role of journalism is to act as a vigilant watchdog of government, and one which says it is our role to assist the government in nation. Both are inadequate positions; both put their adherents into political corners where they tend to produce predictable and shallow journalism.
I think you could say, that, to paraphrase Orwell, like certain wild animals, we have found it difficult to cope with being reintroduced into the wild.
But first, let me place this in a global context. All over the world, there is a raging debate around the impact of the marketplace on journalism. The issue is raised at three different levels.
The first centres around the effects of the emergence of a handful of companies which dominate global media. The six giant companies – General Electric, Viacom, .Disney, Bertelsman, Time Warner and Murdoch’s News Corporation – now have a size and presence in a range of media which gives them an unprecedented reach into homes across American, Europe and Asia. And writers like Bagdikian and McChesney have been powerful in their analysis of the impact this has on the quality and range of our media. The biggest merger of all time was, of course, last year’s AOL-Time Warner merger which looked set to create a $350-billion empire, “the most powerful global advertising force across all media, including Internet, publishing, television and music.” It would have 100-million global subscribers, 20 million homes on cable, 30 major magazines and the 75-million homes which receive their cable networks CNN, TBS and TNT.
More recently, we have seen this merger run into trouble, and other major media companies severely weakened, but I suspect this is no more than a bump on the road to continued media agglomeration.
While this debate is important, we have had something of a lucky exemption from this consolidation in this country because our broadcasting legislation has kept a tight hold on cross-media ownership and promoted empowerment and diversity in a way which has led to the creation of new owners rather than the consolidation of existing ones.
The second issue which has taken centre stage in international debate around the future of journalism, centres around the intrusion of commercial decisions into the setting of news agendas. This argument has recently been given added impetus by a new book by two longstanding and senior Washington Post editors, Leonard Downie Jnr and Robert G Kaiser. In their News about the News, they carefully examine the effect of changing business standards, the merger of news and entertainment and the Internet explosion on how reporting is produced and consumed. Their purpose is to explain why so much American journalism is bad, parochial and shallow and what can be done about it. They demonstrate how the media preoccupation with celebrities, entertainment, sensationalism and profit often makes a mockery of news. They demonstrate how the need to make local television or radio profitable – driven by ratings – pervades the decision-making and culture of these newsrooms.
But significantly, they also provide an argument – which is certainly easier to do from the lofty heights of the Washington Post - that there is still space for the serious, incorruptible, revelatory reporting so important to a democracy. And they argue that such reporting will still flourish alongside the mass of useless and incorrect and unfiltered information flooding us from the Internet.
A third focus of concern is best encapsulated by a book called Warp Speed, by well-known former editor Bill Kovach and his associate Tom Rosenstiel. They focus on the impact of technology, the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle of live television on the standards of journalism. In particular, they take apart the coverage of that all-time low-point of American journalism, the Monica Lewinsky Affair.
In the introduction to the book, David Halberstam writes: “The past year has been, I think, the worse year for American journalism … What is disturbing about the bad odour of journalism today is that, I think, many of the critics are right, and the people who have been performing as journalists in the past year have in fact seriously trivialised the profession, often doing what is fashionable rather than what is right. Very simply, like many of my colleagues, I think that the proportion of coverage given to the (Monica Lewinsky) story – compared to the rest of the news budget - is hopelessly out of synch, and that the standards for verifications, so critical to serious and fair reporting, have fallen dramatically.”
Kovach and Rosenstiel talk about a media in which the cultures of entertainment, infotainment, argument, analysis, tabloid and mainstream press intermingle and merge. “It is a culture in which Matt Drudge (the internet gossip who boasts that he is happy with 80% accuracy) sits alongside William Safire on Meet the Press and Ted Koppel talks about the nuances of oral sex, in which Hard Copy and CBS news jostle for camera position outside the federal grand jury to hear from a special prosecutor.”
They point to five effects of a media which demands instant live, 24/7 response to events:
- A never-ending news cycle makes journalism less complete, they argue. Faced with the demands of live news, the media is increasingly oriented towards ferrying allegations rather than ferreting out the truth. Gone are the days when an allegation is tested and checked before being aired; it is rushed out, then vamped and revamped until a response – perhaps an outright refutation – emerges.
- Sources are gaining power over journalists. By shopping around between competing media outlets, sources increasingly dictate the terms of their interaction with the media, thus circumventing many of the traditional checks and balances
- There are no more gatekeepers. Information is moving so fast, news organisations are barely able to keep an eye on a story before it is out there being canvassed by their competition.
- Argument is overwhelming reporting. The rise of 24-hour television and internet news means one has to fill space all the time – and do it cheaply. We therefore see the space and time filled with commentary, speculation, opinion, chat, argument, controversy and punditry because this fills time cost-effectively.
- The blockbuster mentality. As media audiences fragment, media can occasionally reassemble their mass audience only through the big formulaic stories such as the OJ Simpson trail and Monicagate, hardly examples of great American journalism.
But you have to contrast this with some of the extraordinary coverage of the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks and their aftermath, for example. And you do have to bear in mind that the US – as well as London, Paris and Bonn – are able to sustain some extraordinarily good and powerful journalism. A notable example is the NYT running an obituary of every single victim of 9/11 – an extraordinary feat which can only be achieved by a great newspaper with huge resources.
I think you have to conclude that the marketplace is at different times the worst enemy and the best friend of journalism – it is the latter when it can create the space and resources for this kind of extraordinary display of the power and value of great journalism; it is the worst enemy when it subjugates this to petty commercialism and infotainment.
In South Africa, the issue of the market and journalism is particularly apt these weeks, when we see being debated in parliament a Broadcasting Amendment Bill which is intended, inter alia, to:
- Remove the guarantee of freedom of expression from the SABC’s statutory charter.
- Have SABC draft policies on editorial matters for ministerial approval
- Have the government authorise two new public service television channels, thus circumventing the position and authority of our independent regulator, Icasa, who would normally make such decisions.
There is a lot to be said against these misguided actions and the threat they pose to the system set in place in the 1990s to open up the airwaves and ensure the democratic exercise of authority in the broadcasting arena. It is difficult to see why the government believes that the way to deal with the problems of the SABC will be dealt with if the minister has more personal control, or by circumventing the power and authority of the independent regulator which lies at the heart of our democratic broadcasting system, or take for itself even more broadcasting channels in a situation where it already controls four of the five free-to-air channels.
But I want to focus on the assumptions which lie behind this Bill. In justifying these actions, the Minister of Communications said she believed the SABC was not fulfilling its public service mandate. This from a government that has consistently forced the SABC to serve, first and foremost, the demands of the marketplace. This from a government that has not been prepared to put money into public service broadcasting, to fund African language programming or local drama and documentary.
And in this we see the fundamental contradiction at the heart of this government. It is a government that can never quite choose between its historic social responsibilities – the values of equality and justice which brought it to power – and the fiscal restraints imposed on it since then. It is constantly trying to balance these impossible pressures, usually satisfying neither. So it is not prepared to fund public broadcasting, and throws SABC to the market wolves, and then is upset when our airwaves are dominated by soaps and so-called reality television. We have a public broadcaster expected to compete in the open market as well as deliver extremely demanding public services – in other words, caught between two stools, not knowing whether it is a commercial or a public service broadcaster, with the result that it does neither very effectively.
The government has been able to bend the fiscal rules to buy a jet for the president. And to give a huge boost to our military capacity. But it has found it difficult to do the same for the cultural industry which sets us apart from the rest of the world, that defines our uniqueness, that gives us pride and self-confidence in what we make with our hands and imaginations.
I am not opposed to the government’s fiscal policy. I am certainly not suggesting they should be profligate. But it also has to make decisions on the priorities of where it spends. And if it chooses to spend its money on luxury jets and military weaponry, then it is unconvincing to complain about the soaps and so-called reality television which dominates our screens.
Of course, the government does have a serious problem with the SABC which spends R400-m a year on television news and has one of the biggest and best-resourced news operations in the world, yet struggles to get a half-decent news bulletin on the air. One can well understand the government’s frustration with this, but the current Bill before parliament is a particularly ham-handed way of dealing with it.
In the printed media, we have seen in the last few years devastating cut-backs in newsrooms and their resources. Financial pressures on our newspaper industry – arising out of the proliferation of other media, depressed advertising markets, rising costs of paper and distribution, and related factors – have led newspaper owners massively to reduce their staff numbers, their resources, and the skills levels of remaining journalists. Particularly hard-hit has been Independent Newspapers, partly because the decline of our currency has made it harder and harder to meet the expectations of an owner counting it in Irish pounds. Every time the Rand dips, the only way to give the investor the return he expects is to cut costs.
The results have been devastating. One of our serious quality newspapers does not even have, for example, a fulltime editor. It has a reporting staff of two-and-a-half. Another major Saturday newspaper has one-and-a-half reporters.
At one of the biggest newspaper newsrooms in this country, the management were upset with staff surfing the Internet. So they put in place only one online terminal, thus depriving journalists of their primary research base, particularly since this newspaper no longer has an active library.
Newsrooms have fewer and fewer experienced specialist journalists, and more and more green generalists. And these reporters have to produce at such a rate, given the shortages of staff in these papers, that they have little time to give substantial research and thought into most of what they right.
We have certainly seen the breakdown of the traditional barriers between marketing and editing, with commercial considerations no longer kept out of editorial decision-making. The Editor of Business Day recently wrote a column about how well things were going for him: he didn’t cite any great stories, any editorial breakthroughs, all he said was that the paper had a better operating margin than ever before. The editor of a woman’s magazine was recently hailed by a leading advertising industry guru as “a new breed of editor: the editor-as-marketer”.
It has to be said too that there is a long history in South Africa of the combination of market forces and political interference reeking havoc with our media and with the practice and quality of journalism.
The pioneer black newspapers of the early 1900s – the newspapers of Plaatje, Jabavu, and Dube - fell victim to the market. None of them were huge newspapers, all of them struggled financially from month to month, but they played a key role in the articulation of the protest politics of the period. They were subsumed with the emergence of the more commercial Bantu World in the 1930s, with much more financial, distribution and advertising clout, and it wiped out the smaller, weaker independents. These papers died because they were on the economic fringe, reflecting the fact that black people were being kept on the economic fringe, and when faced with the strength of white capital entering the black newspaper market, they folded under the pressure. The victor, Bantu World, quickly became a part of the leading Argus Company, and proved a much more conservative voice than the independent, black-owned, black-edited press of earlier years.
If you read the left-wing press of the 1950s and 60s, most notably the Guardian and its successors, New Age and Spark, you will find a constant battle for financial survival with constant appeals for donations, support, etc. But what killed them in the end was the political repression of the early 1960s.
The press that remained was constrained thereafter by the fact that they could only survive – both politically and commercially - by staying within the bounds of the politics of that period, the period when resistance voices were silent and parliament defined the limits of political debate.
When I became a journalist in 1980, there was a culture in the press – even in the most liberal of them, the Rand Daily Mail - that circumscribed our journalism. Politics was white politics; it happened in parliament; the Opposition was the parliamentary opposition; there were whole areas of South African life, the crucial areas like prisons, about which it had come to be accepted after the persecution of the Rand Daily Mail for the prison expose of the 1960s, which could not be covered at all. But even what the RDM did to pander to the sentiment of the time was insufficient – and once again you saw the combination of market and political forces closing that paper.
Overlayed in our market place is the complication of the difficult issues of empowerment and transformation. The issue of empowerment has in many ways enriched our media. It led to broadcasting legislation that promoted diversity and the emergence of new owners, which ensured we have avoided the gross consolidation and homogenisation, which other countries have experienced.
The issue of transformation is more complicated. The debate around it has, at least moved on from where it began about a decade ago. In the early years of the new democratic order, debate around transformation was almost entirely focussed on changing the racial composition of our owners, managers and journalists. This was the agenda set originally by the ANC and by Nelson Mandela in keynote speeches on the subject in the early 1990s: the media gave a narrow and distorted view of the country because it reflected the views of a narrow band of ageing white males who were distant from the political and demographic realities of the country. Since then it is widely acknowledged that there have been significant shifts in the racial composition of owners, managers and journalists. There is less consensus on the significance of this. Keyan Tomasselli has argued that it is mere “racial substitution”, that will not “automatically provide increased access or diversity of opinion in the media”. Our media make-up is more racially inclusive, he said, but still is class-based. Guy Berger has taken issue, arguing that there have been significant race and class shifts. He talks of “mammoth positive developments” in the first six years of transformation, though acknowledges that this is just a first stage and there is still some way to go.
The ANC itself has shifted its view on this. Having given the first shove, and focussed original attention on racial composition, the ANC’s assessement of five years of its own rule in 1999 concluded: “Little has changed in the media environment. The ANC is still faced with a primarily hostile environment …” This view was probably best summed up by the Black Lawyers’ Association, the body which led the call for the Human Rights Commission’s investigation into racism in the media, which said: “Despite recent changes at ownership level, the political agenda of the media remains the same.”
But the ANC’s latest analysis, contained in the draft policy papers for its conference in December of this year and published just last month has a different tone: “Considerable progress has been made and some significant milestones achieved”, it said, with respect to ownership, the licensing of new media, the increase in black and women journalists, editors and managers, and the repositioning of the SABC.
But these are now what the ANC calls “putative first steps” towards transformation. “They have not altered the environment and practice of media in any fundamental way,” the ANC says. The problem is now defined differently: it is that there is insufficient diversity of views in the media; there is insufficient access for many South Africans, particularly the poor and the rural; there remains a watchdog attitude which the ANC considers hostile and inappropriate; and the media is setting an agenda out of keeping with the nation-building tasks we face.
All of which is a roundabout way of getting to the point really worrying the ANC: “Most probably, it is in South African where a political movement that enjoys almost two-thirds of electoral support does not have any media outlet which supports its programmes and functions editorially within its political ambit.”
One can debate the veracity of this, but you should have no doubt that the ANC places the highest importance on this concern. Just two weeks ago, Smuts Ngonyama of the presidency wrote of the “urgent need to address the unbalanced reporting by the media in this country …Any delay in this regard,” he wrote,” can only be to the detriment of our young democracy.”
If you look at this rhetoric alone, you might be quite alarmed. In fact, the measures proposed by the ANC and by Ngonyama are more considered and tempered: they call for a boosting of the public and community sectors of our media. This is why the government has tabled a Bill to deal with the SABC’s public service role and has formed the Media Development and Diversity Agency to fund community media. One may criticise the crass way it is being handled – particularly the reform of the public service television - but I cannot see any grounds to attack the desire to fix and strengthen these sectors.
But it is a mistake I think to put too much faith in this. For one thing, I think it quite likely that the ANC will find that the community sector – being the one that will be closest to the poor and the rural - becomes over time much more critical of it than the commercial sector.
For another, problems of access to media – why only 25% of South African read newspapers, for example – are enormous social problems that cannot be solved by the media alone without the concomitant socio-economic change.
But, more fundamentally, I don’t know of any great journalism which has emerged with government funding. There is value in boosting the public and community sectors in order to get more people consuming and participating in the media. But don’t expect to achieve better journalism by giving government more direct influence over these sectors.
But my main concern about the current debate over transformation over the media is this:
Firstly, I fear that we will have a constantly changing definition of the end-goal of transformation, and we will be constantly battered for not achieving it. Whenever the government is unhappy with the media, they will tell us it is because we have not transformed enough. Whenever we transform, we will be told that it is not enough. If you start by saying transformation is about corrective action over representivity, then when you achieve that you say it is about letting that filter through to the culture of the media, then you say it is to ensure the media reaches a wider audience … then you are going to be able to point finger at the media constantly and without end for failing to transform enough.
My second concern is that this debate is creating an atmosphere and culture that is inimical to free expression and good journalism. It is in the end an attempt to shape the output of the media and encourage a conformism built around the notions of nation-building. I know that as an academic I am expected to quote people with fancy French names, but I am going to resort once again to good old Orwell, and note that he wrote this 1946 when people were celebrating the freedom gained by the end of the Second World War: “Any writer or journalist who wishes to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than by active persecution. Everything in our age threatens to turn the writer into a minor official, working on themes handed to him from above and never telling the whole of the truth.”
We see pressure from above to transform the culture of the media, we see newspaper groups and key people in the SABC willing to go along with this, and the danger lies not in outright repression of opinions, but in the kind of caution and conformism inimical to good journalism.
I would argue that South Africa’s most interesting journalism has always come from what you could call its “fringe”, “alternative” or radical press. This press has been characterised by its vigorous opposition to apartheid, its outspokenness and defiance of dominant conventional wisdom, its willingness to give voice to the voiceless, but most fundamentally by its non-commercialism. It is this factor that repeatedly made it the most interesting, dynamic, outspoken, democratic and lively media – and doomed it to a short-life.
South Africa has also always had journalists who have striven to break through the restraints of the market to produce outspoken and vigorous journalism – not just on the so-called alternative papers, but to various degrees in the mainstream papers as well, struggling to get their voice heard, to sneak stuff into the newspapers, to keep a spirit alive in those newsrooms.
These people showed that it does not always take a lot of money to create great journalism. Whether it was the independent black press of the 1920 and 30s; the leftwing press of the 1950s; the black consciousness publications of the 1970s; or the alternative press of the 1980s, with which I was associated, I believe that these papers emerged because they added something significant to the intellectual and cultural landscape and each one of them reflected an important emerging political tide.
The one over-riding characteristic these papers had was that they were non-commercial. They existed, in a sense, outside of the commercial demands of the publishing world. And yet each of them had an enormous impact – way out of proportion to their size - on the mainstream newspapers and on the society around them.
One further point about this alternative media. A major factor in its existence through every period of South African history was technology, the emergence of new capacity which enabled cheaper, simpler production. In the late 19th century, the black press was enabled by the importation, largely by mission stations, of relatively effective printing presses. In the 1950s, the emergence of new and cheaper printing and typesetting technology made it possible. And in the 1980s, it was driven by the importation of the first generation of desktop publishing.
This leads to an obvious question: will the emergency of the Internet mean that this is the vehicle for the new voices of the future? Certainly, the Internet boom of the 1990s led the gurus of cyberculture to predict that it would give every writer access to every reader, it would lead to a proliferation of voices and opportunities. The truth is that the Internet has produced precious little good journalism and the breakdown of the gatekeeping function – which would ensure material is selected, edited and checked before we have to read it – has not helped.
There are, however, signs worth watching. Have a look, for example, at Health E-News, a foundation-funded health site which has about four high skilled and knowledgeable specialists producing copy about one of the central issues of the new South Africa – it’s health, particularly issues related to HIV/Aids. Interestingly we are seeing their copy used increasingly by the mainstream media, such as The Star and the SABC.
It is an interesting phenomenon – maybe the beginning of a noteworthy trend. Specialist writers, unable to find the space to work in the mainstream media, are getting support to create specialist reporting Websites, and then offering the material to the mainstream media, who find it cost-effective to use it when they do not have their own senior writers covering such stories. You could comment, no doubt, on the morality of large and profitable media groups getting free material by courtesy of the subsidy of international foundations, but at least these stories are getting coverage as a result.
Health E-News does not have a viable business model, but it is starting to have an impact on coverage of health issues.
So where are our alternative voices of today? Let me hasten to say that we would not be looking for the same voice as before. Great journalism would not longer, I believe, be defined by defiance and bravery – as it had to be during the years of repression, when getting something said was often more important than how one said it; courage will be required, yes, the courage to swim against the tide, to probe uncomfortable wounds; it is now about telling stories which get under the skin of this complex and difficult country; it is about material which – through careful research and thoughtful compilation - leads us to understandings which are not apparent on the surface; it is about writing which makes us think more carefully about this country and its people.
I fear the debate about transformation steers us away from this. So involved are we in debates about what our attitude is to the ANC, or to development, or to the new South Africa, that we forget that if a piece is thoroughly researched, well-written and insightful then the reader will not care too much if it is pro- or anti-government, or if its conclusion is critical or complimentary.
To summarise, let me say that the enemy of such journalism in our newsrooms is, firstly, the cutbacks which deprive journalists of the resources to spend time, develop knowledge, do extended research and develop substantial journalism. If we are to overcome this, newsrooms will have to make some resources available for it to happen. We will have to convince owners and editor-marketers that an investment in quality journalism will pay off in the long run in higher readership and greater credibility.
Secondly, we will have to fight back the tide of conformism which is sweeping our polity and infiltrating our newsrooms. We will have to take the debate to the ANC, telling them that our overwhelming concern is with the quality of our journalists’ output; that we want to foster the standards of public debate, and you don’t do this by constantly questioning the bone fides of journalists. We will have to encourage individual journalists who are prepared, even at their own cost, to give time and energy to doing in-depth, substantial and well-written material. And we will probably have to assist them in fighting the resistance of their managers, editors and many of their audience.
A review of Anton Harber's Harold Wolpe Lecture on Journalism in the Age of the Market
By Mandisa Mbali
We live in an era in which a handful of mass-media multinational corporations control much of the global media. Twenty four hour news has meant that facts are checked less before stories are released. Scandal and the cult of celebrity often supersede serious political news. All of this affects the political culture of debate in the public sphere, the strength of democracy and the strength of civil society. In the light of all this, the role of the media in the ‘age of the market’ is a highly relevant issue with regard to the state of South African society and democracy.
Anton Harber played a courageous role in exposing apartheid era abuses as editor at the Weekly Mail and recently became professor of journalism at Wits. In the 4th Wolpe Memorial lecture he set out to analyse the effect of the global trend of increasing market influence on the South African media.
He refused to see the impact of the market in polarised terms as either inimical to or the catalyst for good journalism. Instead, he presented a nuanced vision where “…the marketplace is at different times the worst enemy and the best friend of journalism”.
Drawing on American literature on the impact of the market on journalism, Harber presented the market as the worst enemy of journalism when it trivialises the profession and when the cultures of entertainment, infotainment, argument, analysis, tabloid and mainstream press mingle together and merge.
Citing Kovach and Rosenstiel on CNN style live 24/7 journalism Harber raised the five main effects they have shown this to have on journalism. In 24/7 journalism allegations are often not checked before being aired and are rather rushed out then vamped and re-vamped until a response or refutation is made. Sources increasingly dictate the terms under which they interact with the media. Editorial standards drop as information moves too fast for news organisations to vet a story before their competitors run it. To fill space cheaply commentary, speculation, opinion, argument and punditry are overwhelming reporting. In 24/7 live journalism there is a blockbuster mentality where big formulaic stories such as the Monica Lewinsky Affair and the OJ Simpson trial are used to gain mass-audiences.
On the other hand, for Harber, the marketplace was the best friend of journalism when the New York Times was able to marshal its considerable resources to the task of running a careful and detailed obituary for every single victim of the 9/11 attacks.
The double-edged sword of the market in South Africa has also been evinced in the Broadcasting Amendment Bill recently debated in parliament. According to Harber, this Bill, in its current form, will remove the guarantee of the freedom of expression from the SABC’s statutory charter. It will also force the SABC to have ministerial approval for draft policies on editorial matters. Under the bill the government will also authorise two new public service channels thereby circumventing the position and authority of ICASA, the independent regulator.
For Harber, the Bill, in undermining the authority of the independent regulator, will undermine the democratic broadcasting system currently in place.
How does all this relate to the market? Harber showed that the Minister of Communications, in justifying the Bill, argued that it was necessary to make the SABC fulfil its public service mandate; this comes somewhat ironically from a government that has increasingly forced the public broadcaster to rely on the market for its revenues, leading to a lessening of local content and TV channels dominated by soap operas and reality TV.
If the market is sometimes the problem, then the state must sometimes be part of the solution. However, as Harber highlighted there is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the current government, which is between its historical social responsibilities to the values of equality and justice and fiscal restraints imposed since then.
Whilst Harber made it clear his is not opposed to the government’s fiscal policy, and does not desire profligacy on the government’s part, he argued for more government spending on public broadcasting. He pointed out that spending on presidential jets and new weapons has taken priority over spending on better programming such as decent South African dramas and programming in indigenous languages.
The market has not only ‘dumbed down’ public broadcasting though. It has also led to dramatic cutbacks in newsrooms, with the falling rand making it harder for foreign newspaper owners to take the kinds of profits they expect. Harber pointed out that one serious quality newspaper does not have a fulltime editor; another only has a reporting staff of two. There are fewer experienced journalists in newsrooms. Also, there is the rise of the new phenomenon of the ‘editor-as-marketer’, with editors increasingly not being judged primarily in terms of the quality of the journalism in their newspapers, but more in terms of the sales they achieve and the advertising they attract.
Harber also pointed to the long history of market forces and political interference reeking havoc on South Africa’s independent media. Citing the folding of independent black newspapers in the early 1900s, the left wing press in the 1950s and 1960s and the Rand Daily Mails’ demise in the 1980s, Harber showed what a deadly combination political interference and hostile market forces can be to independent, quality journalism.
He was seemingly in favour of empowerment, holding that it may have prevented concentration of media ownership in too few companies as has happened in the US.
On the other hand, transformation has increasingly become the cloak for political interference by the government in the media. Whilst in the early post-apartheid era it was fundamentally about changing the racial composition of owners, managers and journalists it has shifted in meaning, in terms of how the government understands the term. Five years into democratic rule in 1999 the ANC government has come to view the media as political hostile towards it and as opposed to ‘nation-building’. By boosting the community and public sectors of the media the government hopes to counteract this. However, Harber argued that the community sector may end up being just as critical as the commercial sector. Most importantly though, he warned that the changing goalposts of in the transformation debate may give government an endless justification from undue interference in the media.
Fundamentally, for Harber, government funding does not produce good journalism, so there clearly is a need for privately owned journalism. It is the cutbacks being induced in the private sector by market forces that are threatening good journalism.
In terms of censorship, the danger lies not in outright repression of opinions by the state but more in a culture of conformism and caution, which is inimical to good journalism. In Harber’s opinion, good journalism is ultimately well-written, thoroughly researched and insightful, not merely whether the piece is pro- or anti-government.
Harber’s talk clearly stimulated much interest in the audience as question time was vigorous and the Centre was inundated with requests for copies of his talk for days after the event.
In question time, Harber once again dealt with the issue of self-censorship. He argued that criticism is not encouraged and that much of the issue hinges on whether editors are prepared to protect the journalists working under them.
A question arose about the use of rights-based discourse by liberals in South Africa to justify their opposition to the situation in Zimbabwe. In response, Harber argued that the language of rights should not merely be left to white liberals and stated his own opposition to the situation in Zimbabwe.
In response to a question about whether journalists merely pursue their own political agendas in opposing the government, Harber posited that journalists need personal political agendas to write well. He also positioned the media as a counterpoise to government power, and as one of the checks and balances of government power necessary to democracy.
Lasting impressions from the lecture are that the rise of market ideology clearly poses a threat to the media in terms of cutbacks in newsrooms, and the 24/7 live approach to media.
However, I found that in setting up the media as either dominated by state or by market, Harber ignored other possibilities. He did not mention the actual and potential role of civil society in fostering good, independent journalism. Also I found him too uncritical about the notion of ‘fiscal discipline’ which some would find inherently in opposition to increasing social and cultural spending.
I found that he underestimated the role of the internet in facilitating independent, alternative media. A glaring omission, for instance, was to mention the indymedia website (www.southafrica.indymedia.org) which has provided excellent coverage of protests against the government’s implementation of market ideology by new social movements. He generally dismissed the internet as lacking enough ‘gatekeeping’ editorial control, but such control may exclude certain voices from being heard. Certainly there is a lot of nonsense written on the internet, but there is also the space for oppositional voices can be heard.
On the whole though his talk was informative, stimulating and enjoying. It spoke to real things I have seen as an avid newspaper reader and follower of the news. In the age of reality TV, infotainment, cutbacks in newsrooms, and increasing political interference by the state in our media, it is refreshing to hear legitimate concerns eloquently expressed about the need to maintain media independence.
The Extraordinary Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture with Naomi Klein and Ashwin Desai: A review by Annsilla Nyar
Naomi Klein at the Extraordinary Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture
Pushing back fences with Naomi Klein (and putting up barriers with Ashwin Desai)
Klein first entered the public consciousness through the seminal Seattle demonstrations in 1999 and her best-selling book on the global impact of corporate greed No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. No Logo rapidly established Klein as an authoritative voice in the anti-corporate movement and she was widely lauded for reinventing left politics, particularly among hitherto apolitical alienated youth. The phenomenal success of No Logo has consequently made for a climate of great anticipation surrounding her new book Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Globalisation, upon which her Wolpe presentation was based. The book follows the No Logo story and is a collection of journalistic snapshots from Klein’s activist experience from late 1999 to 2002.
Klein’s presentation was simple and immensely powerful. She spoke eloquently about the scourge of the era of globalisation as that of the demand for self-determination or what she called “more control over our lives, from the food we eat (that its safe enough) to the air we breathe (that’s its not contaminated with toxic fumes) to defining the parameters of homeland such as in Palestine.” Two principle images dominated her presentation; that of fences both physical and metaphorical. The physical fences she described are part of the reality of barbed wire, police lines, razor fences and steel barricades that keep anti-globalisation demonstrators out of top-level summits. These physical fences have to be reinforced by what she calls 'metaphorical' or 'virtual' fences, such as the fence of poverty that keeps the poor from receiving adequate health care or basic services, with some examples of virtual fences named as 'privatisation', 'public-private partnerships', ‘structural adjustment’ programs, ‘patent protection’. She called GEAR and NEPAD local versions of ‘virtual fences’, drawing appreciative laughter from the audience.
Naomi with Fazel Khan from the CCF
She expounded at length on the insiduousness of virtual fences, derived from their inherently deceptive character. Presenting itself in the guise of obfuscation and rhetoric, the elusiveness of virtual fences to the eye is what keeps people captive to external forces beyond their own control: “(these are) millions of small walls, (they are) harder to see because they deny that they’re there even as you’re banging your head against them.” In this way, it is fundamentally unlike an identifiable tangible enemy such as apartheid. Apartheid was big, bad and highly visible, any intelligent person could see through its grotesqueries and distortions. These kinds of fences, declared Klein, "put fences around our freedoms, but also around our imaginations and our ability to imagine that change is possible".
She spoke also of the fences around social exclusion and exiled people: "neo-liberalism doesn’t just oppress or exploit its victims, it ‘disappears’ them, now people are becoming economically 'disappeared'. This condemns people to a shadow world… the worst way to oppress someone is to say your life counts less." Klein's flawless imagery drew on the Western illusion of a borderless world and then proceeded to quash it by pointing to the physical fencing off of freedoms and the consequent crushing of dissent at the FTAA meeting in Quebec City, April 2001.
Klein spoke anecdotally of her past 10 days spent in Johannesburg, and the police brutality experienced on the candle light freedom of expression march held on August 24 to protest the mass arrests of 77 demonstrators, including the entire leadership of the Landless People’s Movement (LPM). She raised the issue of media responsibility, speaking of the tendency of media to misrepresent the protesters as “serial complainers (who are seen as) anti-progress, anti-business, anti-globalisation, anti-everything!”
Klein is pointing to one of the primary dilemmas at the heart of the movement against neo-liberalism: the struggle to define itself not only for itself but against the multiplicity of agents who demonise and criminalise it such as mainstream media in the wake of Seattle, Prague, Gothenburg, Genoa etc. But Klein does not go further in examining the plurality of the protesters. Some are self-interested, some are idealistic, some are criminal and a small angry minority happens to capture the media's undivided attention. Why should we imagine that social movements would be a homogenous force? Why should they not be riven by tensions and divisions as any other political grouping?
How then can these fences be dismantled? Klein cited such examples as trading music on the net, "landless peasants planting vegetables over golf courses, Bolivian peasants resisting privatisation of their water". The latter is a particularly heartening example of the transnational company Bechtel being driven out of Cochabamba, Bolivia after a strike protesting water tariffs (though won at the price of state bullets in the bodies of 5 Bolivians). She reminded us that pushing down fences is not as monumental a challenge as it assumes. What it involves is reawakening and reasserting humanity's natural impulse toward hopefulness and “breaking the spell of passivity” imposed by the hard realities of daily life.
Ashwin Desai followed Klein with a thought-provoking and provocative presentation, which might even have been useful had it not degenerated into a generalised and arbitrary diatribe against academics and intellectuals which bore little relation to the stated aim of contextualising local struggles against neo-liberalism. He appears to derive enjoyment in his status as ‘agent provocateur’ (as the title of his column in the Saturday Independent), stating at the outset his well established anti-establishment credentials: “…(the Center for Civil Society) being “one of the few places I’m welcome at, I’ve been barred from UDW and gotten an interdict at Engen.”
Desai chose to focus, in mordantly myopic style, on the role of academia in relation to the state. He addressed himself directly to “you academics and intellectuals” whom he labelled as “whores of money, recognition and power (who) genuflect and serve the ruling class with blinkers on". His invective continued at some length: “ (you are) at best neutral, parasitical over other people’s struggles, (you have) no neutrality, (you) take no sides, (you) get helped by globalisation, (while you are) clocking up publications in left journals.” Flagrantly biased and sensationalist, his hurtling train of invective did not omit the role of “young black academics”: “When (you) get mad”, proclaimed Desai, “its only for personal advancement.”
There did not appear to be much substantive content to Desai’s train of invective. Particularly pointless was his contention that “when crime gets to be too much, your response is to move the picket fences…” This line of criticism belongs in the same camp of ill-logic as those who take issue with Klein for earning large royalties from her books whilst criticising corporate salary discrepancies. Perhaps Desai would have us remain sitting ducks in our homes waiting to be targeted? The poor are victims to crime inasmuch as the middle classes. No doubt Desai’s aggressive stance sells newspapers (in which he writes) and boosts ratings (of television programmes he has appeared on). However for the purposes of the Wolpe lecture, perhaps a more thoughtful voice may have been more appropriate, rather than the voice of baseless demagoguery. What can be found buried beneath the weight of Desai’s vitriol? He clearly does not lack passion or the courage of his convictions. There was a sense of sincerity and conviction about his presentation that communicated itself clearly to the audience. His greatest value must lie in his status as iconoclast, which is a necessary (if dislocating) commodity in every society. But it is clear that Desai has fallen on the wrong side of such provocative attractions.
There is some irony that a public figure such as Desai from a historically disadvantaged background, armed against injustice with the lived experience of apartheid, should use the spaces of responsibility and privilege accorded him to advance arguments that are at best, only antagonistic. The most empowering message came instead from a young woman out of the North American enclave of maddened consumerism and rampant individualism, whose nurturings of activism are derived solely from a left-wing family and her own conscience. In this way Klein showed up Desai as small-minded, churlish, even foolish, particularly in terms of disregarding the responsibility which falls to the shoulders of intellectuals such as Desai who have been endowed with the privilege of education and public standing.
Powerful stuff. Klein reminded us that neo-liberalism may be powerful but it is not invulnerable. For me, still tending to the psychological wounds of an armed hijacking, Klein helped to reassert, if only briefly, some kind of semblance of order over the leap into chaos signified by three men and one gun. This, I realised, is the real seduction of Klein: she allows the disempowered global citizen a space. But this, I realise, goes even deeper. By helping to connect the lack of control within the individualised personal sphere to the global, she pointed out the insiduous tendency toward insularity that we all fall victim of. Currently hijackings and other acts of crime are a very South African phenomena. It is easy to assume that armed hijackings (and other such heinous acts of crime) are a very South African phenomenon. But that kind of gratuitous violence, which I have recently, experienced is not as quintessentially South African as it appears. Perhaps it appears so in the aftermath of trauma, as we seek something to hold onto, while we exchange our stories of life, death and near-death, united by the borders within which we roam and the history we share as South Africans. But all the conditions abhorred by South Africans exist to different degrees elsewhere in the world: crime, poverty, wrenching hopelessness, brute viciousness of agents of the state, the vast divides between poor and wealthy and the haves and have-nots. This is at odds with, for example, Desai's accusation of hypocrisy on the part of academics and intellectuals: “many of us (are) seen as hypocrites, (you) don’t raise your voices, but you want us to get angry about Mugabe!” Well, why should we not look beyond our borders? Does struggling against neo-liberalism at home preclude us from recognising those selfsame struggles in Zimbabwe?
It is clear that these voices of the left are coming from fundamentally different places. If the metaphor of fences is used, Klein represents the politics of pushing down the barriers between and amongst each other while Desai is about erecting yet more virtual fences. These barriers are insiduous because he does so in the name of 'local struggles against neo-liberalism'. Klein is no less confrontational and direct than Desai, but she is able to inspire and empower rather than simply aggressively polarise.
Clearly, we need to move our debates into more substantive and less oppositional terms. For one, there needs to be a substantial rethink of the politics of representation and the ways in which academics function in relation to communities. What entitles some people to the right to speak on behalf of or "with" or "for" the poor? Are we idealising or underplaying community struggles? But I am not speaking merely about initiating debate, but rather the way in which we frame and contextualise the debates and dialogue amongst those of us genuinely working for change. It is not something we can do in email debates or in public lectures. We need to expand our mental horizons by looking inside ourselves, and not just the people into whose lives we tread. This is big stuff. This is not easy, nor is it comfortable. It is ambitious and frightening, because we are offering ourselves as resources in achieving the changes we would like to effect. How many of us are willing to do this?
You Get What You Can Pay For: Cost Recovery and the Crisis of Service Delivery in South Africa
A critical analysis of the devastating impact of cost recovery policies on poor communities in South Africa.
(Please note that the fully annotated version of this paper is in the CCS online library)
Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture, August 28, 2002
University of Natal at Durban
Cost recovery refers to the practice of charging consumers the full (or near full) costs of providing services such as water and electricity. In direct contrast to the long-standing practice of subsidizing these services, where the state absorbs some or all of the costs of provision, service users around the world are increasingly expected to pay for the full costs of service delivery themselves.
This paper lays out the theory and practice of cost recovery in South Africa as it applies to basic municipal services such as water, electricity, sanitation and waste management. It draws on international literature and practice in this regard – particularly as it has been articulated by the World Bank and its partners – and illustrates how and why these policies have been introduced in post-apartheid South Africa.
The paper was originally published as the lead chapter in a book on cost recovery in South Africa (see McDonald and Pape 2002) and was written to provide a conceptual overview of what cost recovery means in practical and theoretical terms in advance of a series of empirical case studies in the rest of the book. The paper begins with an overview of what cost recovery means in practice and then reviews the fiscal, moral, environmental and commercial arguments used to justify its implementation. The paper concludes with an overview of the problems associated with cost recovery in the South African context, particularly as it relates to low-income households. As dry and mundane as it sounds at first blush, an examination of cost recovery takes us to the very heart of the neoliberal paradigm, with its focus on balanced budgets, fiscal restraint, market discipline, and privatization.
The paper is also intended as a preparatory discussion to the concluding section of the book that deals with “alternatives”. For it is only when we fully understand the models within which we operate that we can hope to develop different options.
What is cost recovery?
The concept of cost recovery is a simple one: the recovery of all, or most, of the costs associated with providing a particular service by a service provider. For publicly-owned service providers this may or may not include a surplus above and beyond the costs of production, while for private sector providers it necessarily includes a surplus (i.e. profit). In either case, the objective is to recoup the full costs of production.
Determining what to charge consumers is the difficult part. The devil, as the saying goes, is in the details, and it is to the pricing of services that we must first turn to better understand the basis of cost recovery.
For those services that can be accurately measured in volumetric terms (e.g. water, electricity, water-borne sewerage) cost recovery is achieved by charging end-users the (full) short-run marginal costs of production plus a portion of long-term operating and maintenance costs. To illustrate, if a person wanted to have electricity provided to their home, they would be expected to pay the costs of connecting the household to the electricity grid, a portion of the amortized operating and maintenance costs of the bulk infrastructure required to generate and distribute electricity, and a volumetric rate for the marginal cost of every kilowatt hour of electricity consumed.
There are several different ways of calculating these costs (Dinar 2000) but most models incorporate a downward sloping marginal cost curve where, due to economies of scale, those who consume more of a service are charged less per unit of consumption than those who consume less. In practice this has meant that poor households are penalized on a per unit basis because they consume less while wealthy households and industry benefit from the economies of scale.
In response to these equity concerns, progressive block tariffs have been introduced in many countries (including South Africa) in an effort to make the initial levels of consumption (or “blocks”) more affordable – or even free – while charging increasingly higher prices as consumption levels rise. This rising tariff has the added potential benefit of curbing consumption at the top end, thereby introducing conservation incentives.
Block tariffs are not inconsistent with cost recovery, however. The difference with more orthodox pricing models is that block tariffs charge higher than marginal cost prices at upper levels of consumption in order to make up for lower than marginal cost prices at low levels of consumption, effectively cross-subsidizing the poor. Most importantly, they also provide individual consumers with a certain level of subsidized consumption.
It is important to highlight, however, that not all services can be measured and priced on a volumetric basis. With services such as refuse collection and dry sewerage (as well as non-metered water or electricity) there is no way of accurately and easily measuring what an individual household has consumed. In these cases cost recovery models follow a flat rate that covers the average fixed and variable costs of the service. This can be done through a separate flat rate charge or can be included in a general rates account. Equity concerns can be dealt with through the application of differential rates, either along household income lines (i.e. means testing) or through some form of property valuation (i.e. the higher the value of your home, the more you pay, regardless of your level of consumption).
Whether volumetric or flat, all cost recovery models depend on “ringfencing” – i.e. the isolation of costs and revenues associated with a given service and the removal of subsidies in or out of that sector. Ringfencing means that resources – be they human or capital – cannot be shared between different service sectors unless they are paid for on a cost recovery basis to the unit that provided them (e.g. a water department would pay the accounting department of a municipality for the costs of keeping its books). The intent is to ensure that a service provider knows all its fixed and variable costs and is therefore able to apply (marginal) cost pricing to its consumers.
Managerially, ringfenced units are controlled by officials who operate independently of all other service sectors and at arm’s length from elected authorities. Politicians generally retain the right to set standards and service delivery goals for a service unit, as well as monitor and evaluate their activities, but the daily management and long-term planning of the unit – including decisions about cost recovery – are done by the ringfenced management team, whose only concern is the management of their own sector.
In theory, therefore, all of the costs of water, electricity, refuse and sanitation can be isolated and applied to end-users (with varying degrees of equity considerations). In reality, however, the actual costs of service production are seldom known: costs are complex and difficult to measure; they are constantly changing due to the lumpy nature of infrastructure investments; there are inevitably joint costs that are difficult to apportion; accounting for externalities is constantly evolving, and so on (Renzetti 2000, 130). At best, cost recovery models are an approximation of real costs.
In the end, it is fuller cost recovery that agencies such as the World Bank are after – charging prices that are as close as possible to the marginal costs in the short-term and the average cost curve in the long-term, with the aim of eventually achieving full cost recovery. I therefore use the term “cost recovery” to refer not only to full cost recovery but also to the intermediary stages of fuller cost recovery.
How is Cost Recovery Enforced?
For any cost recovery policy to be effective a service provider must be able to regularly and accurately measure the consumption of a particular service by an individual household, and it must be able to collect the payments. For volumetric services such as water and electricity measurement is relatively easy with the use of (increasingly sophisticated) meters that measure the number of litres used and kilowatt hours consumed. Without meters it is virtually impossible to apply marginal cost pricing. For those services that are not measurable on a volumetric basis it is necessary to approximate average consumption and charge the average cost (with or without differential rates).
But the most accurate measurement and pricing systems in the world mean little if the service provider cannot collect the monies owed for services rendered. Effective administration is important here – including a good postal/payment system – but so too are the punitive measures/threats used to persuade and force consumers to pay their bills. The most common form of punishment is to cut off a service to a household (or merely threaten to do so). In the case of water and electricity this means disconnecting the household from the water and electricity mains. In most situations this is temporary – turning off of a switch or valve that can be switched back on after the bills have been paid – but in an increasing number of “delinquent” cases in South Africa it involves shutting off services for weeks or months and sometimes the permanent removal of infrastructure to prevent illegal reconnections. Other enforcement tools include legal action, the attachment of assets, and, most controversially in the case of South Africa, the eviction from one’s home for non-payment of services. Cutoffs are more difficult with services such as refuse collection and non-water borne sewerage, but there have been cases in South Africa of households being denied these services as a penalty for non-payment of water or electricity (see Ruiters, this volume).
Cutoffs and evictions are expensive and politically sensitive enforcement weapons, however, which is why service providers interested in cost recovery are moving towards the use of prepaid meters wherever possible. A prepaid meter is a device that not only measures the exact amount of a service that is consumed – allowing for marginal cost pricing – it also forces users to purchase the consumption in advance. ‘Units’ (be it litres of water or kilowatt hours of electricity) are purchased at a retail outlet and then entered into the prepaid meter with the use of an electronic “smart card” (the meters are usually located at the household but can sometimes be centrally controlled).
Prepaid meters are the ultimate cost recovery scheme: they collect money in advance (and earn interest for the service provider in the process); do not allow the consumer to go into default; and they require no overt punitive measures. There are cases where prepaid meters have been tampered with, and the system can be cheated, but service providers and meter manufacturers are actively working to develop more sophisticated meters and to sell the prepaid meter as “pro-poor” (by arguing that it allows low-income households to budget more effectively for services and to avoid crippling debts). As one manufacturer of prepaid electricity meters stated to me in an email on the subject: “Without controlling the meter it is not possible to control the [electricity] business”.
The enforcement of cost recovery therefore requires a measuring system that allows a service provider to allocate costs to individual end-users, a billing system that informs consumers of their payment obligations, and collection mechanisms which ensures the payment of bills.
Cost Recovery in South Africa
This next section demonstrates that cost recovery on basic municipal services is a policy of national and local governments in South Africa. This has not always been the case, however. It is only since the end of apartheid in the mid-1990s that full (or fuller) cost recovery has been an explicit and widespread policy objective in the country.
There were user fees, tariffs and general property rates for services under successive apartheid regimes, but for the most part these charges had little relevance to the actual marginal costs of providing them. This was due in part to the fact that it was virtually impossible to estimate the costs of a given municipal service because apartheid local governments were so fragmented (the City of Cape Town, for example, which is now a single “unicity”, was composed of 25 municipalities and 69 local authorities prior to 1996). More importantly, there was little interest on the part of the apartheid state (national and local) to pursue full cost recovery. Indeed, the opposite was true with heavy subsidies (both hidden and transparent) being provided for services such as water, electricity, sewerage and refuse collection. This was particularly true for white suburbs and industry which received per capita infrastructure investments on par with, or even higher than, most European and North American countries during the 1970s and 1980s (Ahmad 1995) and yet continued to pay extremely low rates for these services.
Even the black townships and “bantustans” received considerable subsidies for services (although much smaller in relative and absolute terms than that of white areas). Part of this subsidization was direct, in the form of infrastructure developments and public housing in the 1960s and 1970s, but the bulk of it was indirect and in fact extracted unwittingly from the apartheid state in the form of payment boycotts by township residents in the 1980s and early 1990s. The apartheid state continued to provide services to these areas in spite of the boycotts– albeit in poor and deteriorating form – in fear of the political fall-out from not doing so, resulting in a de facto subsidization of township services.
These service subsidizations were no doubt motivated in part by clientelist politics (e.g. to win votes in an election; to keep puppet regimes in power in the “homelands”) but they were also driven by a “statist” vision of service delivery. In direct contrast to the neoliberal view of cost recovery and privatization that dominates official service delivery discourse in South Africa today, the apartheid state – be it national or local – saw its role as one of providing and subsidizing the delivery of essential municipal services (albeit in a racially skewed manner).
This statist model came under attack as early as the mid-1970s with the formation of the Anglo American-financed Urban Foundation, however, and began to splinter in the 1980s with the retreat of the National Party from state housing. But it was only in the 1990s that the subsidization paradigm began to crumble in a significant way. In fact, it has really been under the post-1994 African National Congress – both nationally and at the municipal level – that the push for cost recovery on basic municipal services has been most clearly and vociferously articulated. This shift has been supported and encouraged by an increasingly neoliberal civil service as well as an ideologically reconstituted New National Party (NNP) and overtly neoliberal Democratic Party (DP) (Bond 1999, Marais 2000, McDonald and Smith 2002).
This ideological transformation is not total, however. There are still some bureaucrats, politicians, and other members of the ruling elite who believe that basic municipal services should be delivered by the state and should be heavily subsidized. But the paradigmatic shift to privatization and cost recovery has been deep and profound. Virtually every political party in the country has expressed explicit support for cost recovery in policy documents – most notably the ANC and the Democratic Alliance (DA), which is a merger of the NNP and the DP – while implicit support from other quarters is evident in the silence that has met the introduction of aggressive cost recovery measures in the legislatures and councils of the country.
Most South African municipalities are still a long way from meeting these cost recovery goals – with payment rates in some areas as low 21% of billings – but the desire for full cost recovery is clear. In the meantime it is fuller cost recovery that the South African government is after, with “cost reflexive” pricing being the preferred nomenclature.
Take, for example, the directive in the Municipal Systems Act (RSA 2000a) – the omnibus legislation that deals with municipal services throughout the country – that service delivery should be as “cost reflexive” as possible (s74.2.d). The same applies to policies for specific services such as electricity, water and sanitation. In the Draft White Paper on Energy Policy (RSA 1998b, 7) it is stated that “Government policy is to…encourage energy prices to be as cost-reflective as possible.” In the White Paper on Water and Sanitation (RSA 1994, 19) it is argued that "government may subsidise the cost of construction of basic minimum services but not the operating, maintenance or replacement costs." The subsequent National Sanitation Policy White Paper (RSA 1996, 4) stated that: "Sanitation systems must be sustainable. This means…payment by the user is essential to ensure this."
Some policy documents make it clear that full cost recovery is the objective. The White Paper on Water Policy (RSA 1997, 4) proposed that in order to “promote the efficient use of water, the policy will be to charge users for the full financial costs of providing access to water, including infrastructure development and catchment management activities.”
It must be noted, however, that in each of these policy documents attention is paid to questions of equity in the form of indigency clauses, progressive block tariffs and, most recently, “free services” for an initial block of consumption. After stating that government will “charge users for the full financial costs of providing access to water”, for example, the White Paper on Water Policy (RSA 1997, 4) goes on to state that in order to “promote equitable access to water for basic needs, provision will also be made for some or all of these charges to be waived.”
The National Water Act (RSA 1998, Chapt. 5, Part 1) takes this equity issue further:
The Minister may from time to time, after public consultation, establish a pricing strategy which may differentiate among geographical areas, categories of water users or individual water users. The achievement of social equity is one of the considerations in setting differentiated charges. Water use charges are to be used to fund the direct and related costs of water resource management, development and use, and may also be used to achieve an equitable and efficient allocation of water.
Similarly, the Municipal Systems Act (RSA 2000a, s97.1.c) states that tariffs for municipal services can be differentiated based on indigency (i.e. poverty).
In other words, the cost recovery policy in South Africa has explicit equity considerations and distinguishes itself in this respect from more orthodox cost recovery models based on simplistic downward sloping marginal cost curves.
But as noted above, progressive block tariffs, indigent policies, and even free blocks of services, are not necessarily inconsistent with full cost recovery. The difference is where price points are placed vis-à-vis levels of consumption and at what point on the consumption scale consumers are expected to pay towards the full costs of service delivery. And as we shall see below, the manner in which block tariffs, free services and indigency policies have been introduced in South Africa have only marginally protected the poor while disproportionately benefiting the rich, and are very much constrained by being part of a broader cost recovery model within a neoliberal state (i.e. they are there to alleviate some of the hardest edges of cost recovery, not to replace it).
Another sign of the move to cost recovery in South Africa is the rapid and extensive introduction of meters – particularly prepaid meters – for volumetric services. Even communal water stands are being metered using prepaid systems in many municipalities, while in some areas communal taps are being removed and replaced with yard taps or in-house connections (for significant connection fees of up to several thousand Rands).
But the most visible feature of the move to cost recovery in South Africa comes in the form of punitive measures for non-payment of service bills. Service cutoffs, attachment of assets, and evictions from households are now common throughout the country, receiving considerable media attention. Research undertaken by the Municipal Services Project (McDonald 2002) suggests that as many as 10 million South Africans have had their water cutoff and 10 million have had their electricity cut off since the end of apartheid, with some two million people having been evicted from their homes for non-payment of service bills. Legislatively, The Municipal Systems Act grants local authorities this power, most notably the right to “seize property” for non-payment of services (s104.1.f).
The Rationale for Cost Recovery
Having established what cost recovery is in practical terms, and the fact that it is a formal policy of the South African government, we now turn to the question of ‘why’: what is the rationale behind the introduction of cost recovery on basic municipal services. The following sections provide a theoretical overview of the fiscal, moral, environmental and commercial arguments used by those who support cost recovery measures, and highlights how these arguments have been adopted in the South African context.
The single most important reason given for cost recovery is the need to ‘balance the books’. Cost recovery, as the World Bank (1998, 44) is wont to say, is “a matter of good public fiscal practice”, allowing governments to reduce tax burdens and thereby attract and retain human and financial capital. Cost recovery in lower-income areas, it is argued, reduces the need for cross-subsidization from industry and higher-income households, making a country or a municipality a more financially attractive place to locate. These competitive pressures are often most explicit at the national level but are becoming increasingly common at the municipal level as cities and towns compete with each other for investment and struggle to deal with the downloading of responsibilities and cutbacks in inter-governmental transfers.
It is also argued that cost recovery is necessary to sustain services on a long-term basis. Without cost recovery, the argument goes, the state will not have the funds to invest in future service and infrastructure upgrades and extensions. Cost recovery is seen as “pro-poor” because it provides the fiscal basis for further service improvements and expansion: “When a public sector utility does not recover the costs of providing a service, it is often unable to extend the system – leaving poorer, marginal areas unconnected to the grid” (Brook and Locussol 2002, 37).
The South African government adopts the same basic lines of argument, stating in the Water Supply and Sanitation Policy White Paper (RSA 1994, 23) that if government does not recover operating and maintenance costs there will be a "reduction in finances available for the development of basic services for those citizens who have nothing. It is therefore not equitable for any community to expect not to have to pay for the recurring costs of their services. It is not the Government who is paying for their free services but the unserved."
These micro-economic policies are reinforced at the macro level with the fiscally-conservative Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) framework. Introduced by the ANC national government in 1996 without any consultation with its labour or civic allies, GEAR’s effect on cost recovery has been profound. First, it has resulted in significant decreases in intergovernmental transfers from national to local governments, resulting in an 85% decrease (in real terms) between 1991 and 1997 and further decreases of up to 55% between 1997 and 2000 (Finance and Fiscal Commission 1997; Unicity Commission 2000). Moreover, the amount of funding from central government is so low that it will take decades to address the backlogs. In fiscal 2000 total transfers to local governments across South Africa were only R3 billion. Projections of the capital costs required to address service backlogs, meanwhile, are in the order of R45 to R89 billion (depending on the level of services provided) with government-sponsored operating costs adding many billions more (RSA 1995, 2000c).
National government has also put caps on rates increases that local governments are able to levy on (wealthy) property owners. The Draft Local Government Property Rates Bill (RSA 2000b, chapter 2, sections 4-5), for example, states that local governments cannot apply taxes at the local level which threaten its own tax-reducing, fiscally conservative strategy, as evidenced by the following quotations:
A municipality may not…exercise its power to levy rates on property in a way that would materially and unreasonably prejudice national economic policies, economic activities across its boundaries, or the national mobility of goods, services, capital or labour.
The Minister, with the concurrence of the Minister of Finance, may by notice in the Gazette set a limit on the amount of the rate that municipalities may levy on property; or the percentage by which a rate on property may be increased annually.
With approximately 90% of all local government revenues being generated locally (of which approximately 25% come from property rates), these caps mean that local governments are unable to significantly increase their own revenue pools through progressive taxation. Little wonder, then, that local authorities have begun to push for fuller cost recovery as a way to finance and expand service delivery.
Competition for investment is a critical factor here as well (both within South Africa and internationally). As South Africa and its larger cities vie for increasingly mobile and fickle flows of private capital, municipal governments are under pressure to reduce tax and tariff rates in order to make it cheaper for firms to operate. As a result, there are pressures to minimize (if not eliminate and even reverse) cross subsidization measures in commercial, industrial, and high-income areas to assist with service delivery to the poor.
Consider the following. The Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry “has in recent years expressed the concern of its members regarding the increasing cost of doing business in the Durban Unicity area. The cost of water is one of the major components of the total infrastructural cost, over which our members have no control….The prime concern of the Chamber is ensuring that the trading environment in the Unicity area contributes to the national and international competitiveness of its members in both commerce and industry”. The Chamber goes on to complain that the “expensive rural water schemes” in the newly-formed Unicity have “exacerbated the financial implications of possible solutions [i.e. put pressure on business to help pay for the costs of these water extensions]” and says that they will work to maintain “acceptable” bulk water tariffs (Anon. 2002).
Another revealing quote comes from the former Director General of the Department of Constitutional Development (the person in charge of all infrastructure development in the country): "If we increase the price of electricity to users like Alusaf [a major aluminium exporter], their products will become uncompetitive”.
In other words, if a country/city wants to be internationally competitive in terms of attracting private capital it must reduce subsidies (at least for the poor) and boost its cost recovery efforts.
Another set of arguments used to justify cost recovery are moral in nature. The first of these revolve around liberal notions of rights and responsibilities. If people have the “right” to a service like water then they also have the “responsibility” to pay for it.
The South African Constitution and Bill of Rights are classic expressions of this thesis. “Everyone has the right”, for example, “to have access to sufficient food and water” (Bill of Rights, Section 27 (1)b). All South Africans would also appear to have the right to services that protect their basic health and well-being such as refuse removal and sanitation, as captured in the Bill of Rights environment clause (Section 24): “Everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that prevent pollution and ecological degradation (for more on this point see Glazewski 2002).
The right to electricity is more difficult to ascertain but the Department of Minerals and Energy’s Draft White Paper on the Energy Policy of the Republic of South Africa (RSA 1998b, 3) does argue that “Energy should…be available to all citizens at an affordable cost”.
But these rights are met with obligations. The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, for example, has taken out half-page newspaper advertisements entitled “Knowing your water and sanitation rights and obligations” in which it is clearly stated that one obligation is “paying your bills for services rendered”. According to the Municipal Systems Act (RSA 2000a, s5.2.6), this obligation applies across the board, with residents having the “duty” to pay for all of their municipal services.
Considerable efforts have gone into enforcing this message of civic responsibility in South Africa and tying it to a broader notion of civic and personal development. These goals are perhaps best exemplified by the Masakhane campaign (“let’s build together”). Introduced with much fanfare in 1995 by then-president Nelson Mandela, the campaign has focussed largely on convincing (low-income) consumers to pay their bills for water, electricity and other municipal services. But the ANC has also been at pains to point out that Masakhane is about more than bill payments. It is seen as a broad political vision that makes service payments part of a larger societal transformation: “The true essence of Masakhane [is] mass involvement in the transformation process” (ANC 1997).
A related argument is to be found in the burgeoning “willingness to pay” literature. The rationale here is that most people – low-income households included – accept their civic responsibility to pay the full costs of service delivery, and are happy to do so as long as the services are reliable, affordable and of good quality (see, for example, Jimenez 1987; Whittington, Briscoe and Mu 1990; Whittington, Lauria and Mu 1991; Alberini and Krupnick 2000).
Finally, it is argued that only by paying the full cost of a good or service can one appreciate its true “value”. Receiving a service for free, or having it heavily subsidized, distorts not only its exchange value but its use value as well; the very essence of the thing being consumed. According to the World Bank (1998, 44), only “a fee reflecting the costs will encourage users to correctly value the service they receive”. Charging a fee will “help reverse the ‘entitlement mentality’ that has been the historical result of subsidizing public services.”
The notion that a service such as water could have a use value without an exchange value – i.e. a right without a (financial) responsibility – is an alien one to the commodity-oriented cost recovery literature. This final point takes on a proselytizing tone in South Africa, with private capital and (apartheid-era) municipal bureaucrats keen to inculcate market values into township dwellers and rural Africans through tough cost recovery measures that will educate low-income households, like naïve children, about the “correct value” of municipal services.
These moral arguments are extended to the environmental arena. Subsidization, it is argued, promotes wasteful consumption of environmentally-sensitive services such as water, electricity and refuse collection because the “correct value” is not reflected in the price, meaning that there is little financial incentive to limit consumption. In oth
The 3rd Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture - David McDonald on Cost Recovery: A review by Annsilla Nyar
The lecture was also timeous for two reasons, one being that the seeds of radical discontent sown by cost-recovery are rapidly flowering into strong and increasingly organised civil unrest amongst those denied their right to basic services. The most visible representations of such popular resistance being the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC), the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF), the Concerned Citizens’ Forum (CCF) and the Anti-Eviction Campaign (AEC). The cost recovery policy has been mercilessly and indiscriminately enforced by the state, with those who cannot afford to pay simply being cut off, disconnected or evicted. Evictions are being performed, often at gunpoint, with homes and furniture sold in public auctions to recover arrears. Media coverage of such grim realities of the service delivery crisis has been wholly inadequate.
The other reason for the lecture's timeousness was the fact that service delivery issues were simultaneously being discussed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Sandton, Johannesburg.
The guest speaker at this Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture was the distinguished political economist and geographer Dr. David McDonald, who is co-director of the Municipal Services Project (MSP) and head of Queens University’s Development Studies Program in Kingston, Ontario. The MSP, partly sponsored by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), is a multi-partner initiative examining the restructuring of municipal services in South Africa and other countries.
McDonald immediately endeared himself to the audience through his sincere expression of appreciation for Durban as a site of creative intellectual debate, unlike, as he declared (somewhat unfairly, I thought), “Cape Town, the city where I have lived, where such debate seems to be on the wane.” The lecture that followed was brilliantly informative. It was based on a book co-authored by McDonald and John Pape, Cost Recovery and the Crisis of Service Delivery in South Africa, which is a joint HSRC/Zed publication. McDonald structured his presentation very well and provided an accessible introduction to the theory and practice of cost recovery, the resulting crisis and possible alternatives to cost recovery. The lecture was also refreshing in that McDonald was careful not to succumb to the ever-present danger of lapsing into technicist-type explanations, which confine the discussion to the providence of experts, and often assume, a priori, a policy context that is anti-poor.
McDonald began by developing a rigorously definition of cost recovery. He explained cost recovery in terms of neo-liberal prescription as essentially, the removal of public subsidies and the institution of fee collection for basic services such as sanitation, water and electricity supplies, such that the full costs of operation and maintenance are covered. This, he emphasised, “goes to the heart of the neo-liberal agenda.” He pointed out that cost recovery is different to the subsidisation, that took place during apartheid, and drove home the fact that cost recovery is a post-apartheid phenomenon. Cost recovery is intimately linked to privatisation, as it often serves as a precursor to the latter by increasing the revenue base and thus maximising profitability before sale. It is often a common error to conflate cost recovery and privatisation, because as McDonald pointed out, many publicly owned service providers in South Africa are as aggressive in pursuing cost recovery models as their private sector counterparts.
Cost recovery is essentially about fiscal discipline, the bare-bones issues of Rands and cents, which is directly antithetical to the rights-based, pro-poor stance that the ANC government endorsed in its first revolutionary flush, through such powerful liberatory slogans as 'a better life for all' and 'from resistance to reconstruction'.
Apart from fiscal reasons, McDonald cited several factors relevant to the promotion of cost recovery including the inadequacy of local-national government transfers and the idea of ‘competitive cities’ that keep taxes low for businesses whilst transferring the burden of carrying the cost of service provision to the poor.
McDonald explained the inequities of the present tariff structure as well as the failures of enforcement mechanisms for payment. He also pointed out the historical injustices of “rural areas paying more than the urban areas for an indifferent service” while big business and white surburban households, that benefited the most from service subsidies under apartheid, are untouched by the crises of service delivery. MSP research shows that in Cape Town one third of outstanding arrears belong to big business but that business almost never suffers disconnections while the bulk of the 10 million disconnections of water and electricity effected since 1996 have been imposed on the poor.
One of the main arguments used to buttress the cost recovery line, is the argument that people are refusing to pay due to an ‘entitlement mentality’ – hence the Masakhane (lets build together) campaign’s attempt to encourage the civic responsibility to pay. McDonald criticised government's stance on cost recovery to be “blindly ideological” and lacking the firm grounding of research, statistics and any kind of analysis: “You simply can’t squeeze blood from a stone”. Most people, the research shows clearly, simply cannot pay. Moreover many of those that do pay do so at the cost of not paying school fees or even cutting back on food.
One of the tragedies of the cost recovery story was demonstrated in mid-2000 with the outbreak of the cholera epidemic in KwaZulu-Natal. The primary causal factor was the imposition of fees for water that had hitherto been free (with the R51 reconnection fee being unaffordable for families living below the breadline), which forced desperate people to use water from polluted streams and rivers. The ensuing cholera outbreak was, as Deedat and Cottle describe, "the worst in the history of South Africa." Their data catalogues cholera fatalities as 229 for KwaZulu Natal and the total number of cases 105 762.
The cholera outbreak in KwaZulu Natal showed clearly the peculiar schizophrenic tendency so characteristic of government, with the Water Ministry simultaneously bristling in defence (claiming cholera to be a disease born of poverty) and yet admitting a level of responsibility. Many on the left (prematurely) saw it as a victory when Water Minister Ronnie Kasrils' declared that disconnections were "unconstitutional" as well as “unethical”. Despite this encouraging announcement, disconnections and cutoffs still continued. MSP research shows that 256 325 households across the country had their electricity cut off and 133 456 households had their water disconnected in the last three months of 2001, which makes for six months after the DWAF free services programme was introduced. The crisis management efforts of the government (not including direct medical costs and losses in economic production) cost far in excess of what it would cost to supply proper water and sanitation to the country.
Thus those much-vaunted slogans of ‘a better life for all’ and ‘from resistance to reconstruction’ assume a ringing hollowness particularly when juxtaposed against the regular onslaught of relentlessly positive delivery statistics that South Africans are presented with. The ANC had itself voted into power on the strength of such promises as well as, more importantly, the understanding that the eventual beneficiaries of liberation, would be the urban and rural poor. There is no doubt that the issue of service delivery and the corresponding bitterness of unfulfilled expectations, is certain to lead to a serious crisis of governance for the ANC.
Should we not be positing viable alternatives, rather than just shouting ‘treason’ at the ANC? Certainly the MSP study has produced some interesting alternatives. John Pape has done this in depth in the last chapter of Cost Recovery and the Crisis of Service Delivery in South Africa. Regretfully, McDonald did not elaborate enough on what he called the task of finding, “ways of distributing resources without a price mechanism”. He cited some short term solutions as be flexible payment plans, block tarrifs that shift the cost to big users, fewer penalties, more realistic minimum 'lifeline' supplies for low-end users and a moratorium on service cut-offs.
That being said, it is impossible to sustain empathy for a state that unconscionably spends vast amounts on defence and arms to the detriment of social spending and basic services. It calls into question how government values the welfare of its citizens. Such services are a fundamental and very basic human right, not disembodied economic units that can be subject to cost benefit analyses. But then there are other forces at work.
The lecture was framed within the broader context of global neo-liberalism, as national governments around the world attempt to balance their budgets by shifting responsibilities onto municipalities and decreasing their funding transfers. Thus one notably missing element from the lecture was the role of international business and financial interests (such as the IFIs, the US government etc) in promoting cost recovery policies in South Africa. Northern donors, such as USAID notably, have been instrumental in pushing cost recovery by funding much of the work on service delivery options with private sector participation and cost recovery as a prerequisite.
It needs to be pointed out that the term ‘cost recovery' is itself specifically derived from World Bank developmental- jargon lexicon. It is part of an arsenal of euphemistic deception promoted by The Bank, which masquerades as apolitical and value-neutral and which is determinedly deployed within the embattled terrain of world development under the guise of ‘poverty reduction’. Related terms such as ‘cost reflexive’ (meaning maximising profit) or ‘credit control’ (meaning disconnections) are also part of the dominant language of development-speak as developed, refined and transmitted by the IFIs. Such terms perform a mystifying and overall numbing function that insulates expense- account development officials, consultants and politicians from real-life struggles, dulls empathy to hardship, reproduces class-race segregations and so dehumanises the very people in whose name the new order is justified.
The combination of an intelligent presentation with a receptive and diverse audience of 183 made for an extremely successful Harold Wolpe Memorial lecture. More food for thought came from a comment by the moderator Professor Adam Habib during question time, when he said, “I'm surprised by the silence of the academics. I'd like to hear what they have to say.” Well, I though, perhaps we should not be berating the 'silence of academics'. The stock in trade of academia is talk. Talk that is more often than not, unaccompanied by meaningful action or praxis. Academics can provoke and stimulate debate, but they can also block and distort it. The assumption of elitist knowledge and intellectual superiority over the plebeian masses does not carry with it the corresponding ability to promote enlightenment or human progress. This is not to diminish the important role that academics play in society. But, in looking around the room in which so many different faces, from all walks of life were represented (from Concerned Citizens Forum members with red bhindis on their foreheads, to young dreadlocked men from KwaMashu, suburban housewives, intense note-taking students and staid academic heads of department), it might have been more appropriate to instead laud the fact that a cross-section of society was represented and that voices other than the norm were speaking. I am, of course, mindful of the fact that it takes patience and time to cultivate the confidence of self-expression, especially amongst those who have been historically disempowered by forces such as apartheid.
But the comment I carried home with me and reflected on at length, came from McDonald. As part of his response to audience questions about the influence of social movements and the extent of grassroots involvement in the MSP research, McDonald countered, “I know a white petty bourgeois academic from Canada won’t change the world. Only grassroots activists will.” This is a very limited view of the possibilities for change. Why should change only be the province of the grassroots activists? We all have our part to play in changing the world: petty bourgeois academics, housewives, students, Northerners, Southerners i.e. all of us. This is so by virtue of the fact that all of us, as conscientious, self-aware and developmentally-conscious human beings, have our own particular skills, talents, energies and passions that we can contribute and shape toward such a progressive end. This then is surely our greatest challenge.
Annsilla Nyar is a researcher at the School of Development Studies at the University of Natal.
The 2nd Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture - Stephen Gelb and Roger Southall on NEPAD: A review by Annsilla Nyar
Facing NEPAD Head-on: Who’s Fooling Who?
As a woman attempting a critique of the second Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture on NEPAD by distinguished guests Roger Southall and Stephen Gelb, there is one immediately striking impression. It is that of the predominance of Y- chromosomes in and around the processes of NEPAD. This could easily range from the hands- on involvement of its principal (male) architects, (Presidents Mbeki, Bouteflika and Obasanjo of South Africa, Algeria and Nigeria respectively) to the colourful procession of states(men) at the African Union, and then to the fact that NEPAD is simply devoid of any substantive reference to women. Ironically for this woman writer, this bias could be felt at the Wolpe lecture itself, trickling as far down to two highly-educated males expounding on NEPAD, (plus a male moderator) even in such a fairly liberal (but nonetheless male-centered) institutional environment as the University of Natal.
Gendered as it may have been, the lecture began on a sobering note with venerable economist Dr. Stephen Gelb, who is director of the Edge Institute. He is well- known to South African political observers as co-architect of the government’s macroeconomic policy, the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR). He also served as a consultant on the South African side of NEPAD.
Gelb’s presentation consisted largely of a sizeable dose of realpolitik, making for a vision of dry technicism through a faultless but intellectually sterile Powerpoint presentation of the NEPAD developmental model. Despite prefacing his presentation with the statement that that he would be presenting his own personal views, (which would, in any case, he explained, "be overlapping with the official view"), the dense thicket of official rhetoric used in the presentation often made it difficult to distinguish between both.
He began by outlining the 'preconditions' for development as a) peace and security, b) political governance d) economic governance and e) regional and sub-regional approaches to development. Such 'preconditions' are referred to as 'initiatives' at various points in the 60- page NEPAD document and are interestingly resonant of the (self-prescribed, it may be added) 'conditionalities' in the style of World Bank parlance.
NEPAD has several priority sectors a) infrastructure including ICT, b) human development: health, education, poverty alleviation, c) agriculture, d) diversification of production and exports e) more domestic savings (public and private) retained in Africa f) more ODA and debt relief and g) capital flows.
Gelb’s portrayal of Africa rankled somewhat disturbingly. Even given the broad level of generalisation that such a presentation usually involves, he seemed to make constant reference to a static picture of Africa as a homogenous entity, rather than the complex and richly diverse continent that it is, with its varying levels of development and with all of its huge differentiations amongst the various sub-regions and countries.
Terms such as ‘weak states' and 'bad governance' were casually bandied about by Gelb, unmindful of their overtly political overtones, in a clear appropriation of the Washington-consensus type language of diagnosis and prescription. This then raises the following questions. Why are African states 'weak' and why is African governance 'bad'? Why is 'openness so difficult' for African states? Therefore, does the responsibility lie only with us Africans?
Gelb’s allusion to issues of responsibility was piecemeal: "African investors have contributed to the marginalisation of the continent” was all that he had to say. To espouse the NEPAD principle of 'African solutions for African problems' does and cannot preclude frank acknowledgement of historically-based responsibilities on the part of the developed North as well as the injustices of the (ever-growing) unevenness of world capitalist development.
Perhaps the most violently contentious aspect of NEPAD, i.e. the adverse role of globalisation, was all but denied by Gelb." NEPAD is not about advancing neo-liberalism," he insisted vehemently. If neo-liberalism is understood to be about the weakening of the state, then, he insisted, NEPAD is ‘really about strengthening the state’.
His only concession to the need for structural change within the global order was “Africa's relationships with the rest of the world need to be restructured. The globalisation process needs to be regulated and we need more intervention in markets."
There is a wealth of internal contradictions and limitations contained within the NEPAD project, to which Gelb only weakly alluded. One might cite the much-lauded African Peer Review Mechanism, located under the Democracy and Political Governance Initiative. As constantly emphasised by President Mbeki, the Peer Review Mechanism is central to the NEPAD mission and as explained by Gelb, involves countries who join NEPAD submitting to an external peer review every three years, by respected international bodies as well as country missions of 'eminent Africans'.
There is no doubt that the peer review mechanism, like NEPAD itself, is a laudable initiative. However it is difficult to see how NEPAD could work, whereas conflict resolution mechanisms such as in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have failed in the past. Why, it may be reasoned, should the peer review process be any different? It has to be also borne in mind that the integrity of the peer review process will undoubtedly have to contend with issues of corruption, bias, abuse, national interests, competing interpretations etc.
The question may be asked, what makes NEPAD such a ‘new’ approach to African development? The current discourse on the ‘newness’ of NEPAD and its ability to propel the continent along a new course of prosperity, ignores a whole slew of indigenous initiatives at challenging Africa’s current political and socio-economic malaise. For example, what makes the chances of success for the peer review mechanism any greater than the previous initiatives? Remembering, of course, that President Robert Mugabe was once chair of the OAU’s Organ on Politics, Defence and Security!
The NEPAD document proclaims, "across the continent, democracy is spreading, backed by the African Union (AU) which has shown a new resolve to deal with conflicts and censure deviation from the norm." One would be hard-pressed to find evidence of the spread of such ‘democracy’ let alone even countries within the AU who could measure up to the stringent standards of democracy and governance as set by NEPAD. Presidents Obasanjo and Bouteflika, let alone our own President Mbeki facing a barrage of domestic political ferment, are hardly model African leaders!
The “non-rivalist club of African nations" that Gelb speaks of downplays such imperative issues as the self interest of elites whose very political survival strategies are premised on everything that is the antithesis of what NEPAD supposedly stands for. As rightly pointed out by Patrick Bond, Zimbabwe remains a crucial testing ground for Nepad, noting of course that certain rabid NEPAD supporters would insist that Zimbabwe does not have NEPAD membership and therefore eligible for the peer review process.
Gelb made shallow reference to what must be the most obviously damning critique of NEPAD, which is its exclusivist formulation over the heads of ordinary Africans for whose benefit the project is presumably intended. Instead he declared "without civil society, NEPAD would not succeed" and "we can use NEPAD to build civil society." The problem is that terms such as democracy and civil society have been worn out in popular usage and now assumes the status of a kind of ‘right all wrongs’ developmental mantra to be trotted out to lend legitimicacy to any political project. For example, civil society is perfectly compatible with an authoritarian state!
Gelb’s counterpart at the lecture was the eminent Professor Roger Southall, political analyst and director of the Democracy & Governance Group at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). Southall was scrupulously even-handed in his treatment of the controversial pros and cons of NEPAD. It would be fair even to say that his presentation was so rigorously balanced as to fail at offering any kind of sustained challenge to the views espoused by Gelb, the nature of which certainly demanded a vigorous rebuttal.
Southall made a good overview of the current range of critiques on NEPAD, beginning with a reference to a UNDP report ‘Deepening Democracy.’ In striving to be balanced, he explained NEPAD to be two documents: first, a neo-liberal strategy which "is lambasted by radicals" and then as "a forthright analysis which does acknowledge the structural constraints" (on Africa). The incompatibility of both views assumes strangely schizophrenic overtones. How can two such views be possibly compatible?
The body of Southall's presentation involved a careful consideration of the issues surrounding NEPAD and its model, implementation and future challenges. Interestingly, he began by outlining some popular criticisms levelled at NEPAD (such as its depth of commitment to democracy, the capacity and performance issues, the over-reliance on international assistance) and then he went on to elaborate on ‘radical’ views of NEPAD.
Some reflection on the importance of academic labels is necessary at this point, given Southall’s careful separation of the ‘radical’ point of view of NEPAD, from other such critiques. Why indeed should this be so?
There are distinct associative surface-oriented overtones of the radical critique with long-haired angry youth, rebels without a (real) cause and extremist political views, despite, of course, him saying,”one cannot easily discard these arguments" and "clearly something's going badly wrong." Not to be taken too seriously, perhaps? One might even say (judging from Southall’s remarks) that the ‘radical’ critique of NEPAD is to somehow confine the voices on the left to the peripheral margins of extremist political debate and discourse. If this is not the intention of the separation of radical critique as a set of issues on its own, then there is something in the labeling that demands rigorous consideration.
In summation, Gelb asked, “can it work?” (adding,“I’m not implying that in 15 or 20 years time, African economies will have risen to European or North American standards”) The necessary attitude should be one of “skepticism, not cynicism.”
It seems that ‘skepticism’ is too vapid an attitudinal stance toward so a far-reaching project with deeply political ramifications involving the fate of millions of Africans, male, female, young, old, poor. There is simply too much at stake.
It cannot be termed ‘cynicism’ let alone ‘radical’ to recognize that NEPAD is clearly not feasible and only means further indignities for the continent. Through NEPAD Africa continues to extend the begging bowl in a further erosion of the dignity that has been denied by centuries of exploitation, first through slavery, colonialism, apartheid and now what Patrick Bond has popularized as ‘global apartheid.’
In his opening remarks, Gelb had sounded an ancillary cautioning note in stating that 'the NEPAD model' was perhaps an inappropriate term as "these cannot be implemented in a straightforward way." How then will implementation work? Gelb could not answer that question.
NEPAD’s claims to ‘rebirth’ and ‘rejuvenation’ are flamboyant, as is its baseless claim to being ‘people-oriented’. There is modest reference to gender issues, let alone human rights and HIV/AIDS. Its strategies ie more privatization, more ODA, more trade with the developed North, the accent on humility for Africa’s apparent wrongs, etc do not, in any way, begin to challenge the prevailing dominant power structures that keep the continent in its current state of deeply skewed under-development and abject marginalisation. It brings to mind the lyrics of the old song “who”, (albeit to a feckless lover),”is fooling who?"
The audience reaction to both Wolpe presentations was fairly subdued. As I closed my notebook, I reflected that perhaps one of the most serious indictments of the Wolpe NEPAD lecture was not merely the fundamental lack of a gendered input. Male or not, the Wolpe guests lacked any real passion or inner belief that could have turned a bland presentation on NEPAD into a truly lively thing for the audience, to be deconstructed, unpacked and thoroughly and emotively engaged with. If anything, it could have provided, at least within the micro-context of the Wolpe lecture, the local social anchor that has been missing from the larger NEPAD project. That, in itself, would have given even a modicum of legitimacy to NEPAD at least from the side of the Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture Series and from the point of view of the Natal University intelligentsia.
What are our alternatives? Ultimately, one is left with the feeling that, in searching for the answer to Africa’s problems (which NEPAD clearly is not), maybe the most damning thing we may find ourselves guilty of is the idea that development is value-free. Certainly mild-mannered technocrats benignly wielding Powerpoint slides will not provide the kinds of answers Africa should be looking for, nor smartly besuited statesmen with impressive utterances of 'rebirth' for the continent. Development is fraught and conflictual as well as riddled through with tensions and contradictions. NEPAD, for all its glorified presentation to us, will not prove an exception to that immutable reality. Until then we Africans must and will continue to search and struggle for alternative developmental paradigms.
Annsilla Nyar is a researcher at the School of Development Studies at the University of Natal.
The Inaugural Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture with Sipho Seepe and Pallo Jordan: A review by Annsilla Nyar
It could be seen as yet another posthumous tribute to intellectual luminary Harold Wolpe that six years after his death, the veteran ANC/ SACP activist still managed to draw a crowd of more than 400 people on a winter’s evening in Durban. The occasion was the inauguration of the Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture Series, the place Howard College Theatre at Natal University, and the mood jubilant in anticipation of such prominent minds as Dr. Pallo Jordan and Professor Sipho Seepe, crossing intellectual swords over the ‘the State of the Nation’ at the same table.
Sipho Seepe Speaking at the Inuagural Harold Wolpe Lecture
Were such ardent expectations met? The exchange between Vista University political scientist/ physicist Professor Sipho Seepe, best known for his Mail & Guardian column, and ANC MP and head of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Dr. Pallo Jordan, could be described as lukewarm at best.
Much of the public discourse in South Africa is defined by rigorous defence of one particular position or the other, without much room for a middle way. Though powerfully delivered, and with a great strength of conviction on the part of both, the presentations by Professor Seepe and Dr. Jordan proved no exception to the norm. With both speakers in any case taking pains to decry their purported intellectual status, the debate itself might have been mistaken for a political rally of sorts. The arguments were disappointingly one-sided and almost wholly devoid of substantive observations. At several points, the presentations threatened to degenerate into sheer political banality. A cogent example of the latter is Dr. Jordan’s oft-used statement “there’s no free lunch in South Africa, everything costs something”, to describe such serious socio-economic shortcomings as the provision of basic services to poor and marginalised communities.
Jordan revived Ghanaian statesman Kwame Nkrumah’s famed Pan-Africanist exhortation “Seek ye the political kingdom (and all other things shall be added unto it) without any genuine attempt to elucidate how such a theory could play itself out in contemporary South Africa. He was able to neatly sidestep (and avoid altogether) such critical issues as NEPAD and South Africa’s policy toward Zimbabwe with “maybe we can talk about that later”. Certainly the skilful answers reeled off with a politician’s ease before the microphone clearly exposed Jordan for the political animal that he, in essence, truly is, without otherwise obfuscatory academic labels.
For all of that, there were some humorous moments such as when Seepe displayed a number of tongue-in-cheek Zapiro cartoons. Regrettably these satirical pieces were whisked rapidly off the projector without allowing any discussion of their political significance. Such tactics, clearly designed to score quick points with the receptive audience, inevitably diverted attention away from more sobering issues that were intended to be the subject at hand.
It was interesting to note that the starting point of Seepe’s vigorous presentation was his identification of himself to the audience as a Sowetan. His modest description of himself as an “ordinary Sowetan, born and raised, having been through the 1976 riots managed to be self-effacing at the same time that it strategically placed his struggle credentials up-front for the audience to deal with. Seepe was unflinchingly critical in his assessment of post-apartheid governance, speaking contemptuously of the rampant careerism within the ANC and what he called “the culture of ‘praise-singers’”. He commented that “the only time our politicians want to be quoted is when they agree with the powers that be”.
Seepe’s observations were keen but failed to resonate, largely in terms of the highly personalised nature of his attacks on President Mbeki. For example, he commented scathingly on the “arrogance of (some-one) who has never been in a laboratory” or “did not have the decency to say ‘I don’t know’. By personalising his criticisms, Seepe misses the point. What he portrays as character flaws in Mbeki may be seen instead as characteristic of the prevailing ANC world-view, rather than simply baffling presidential foibles.
The debate failed on one central level: both presentations lacked a firm grounding in real issues and real complexities ie the complexities of the global economic order and the dominance of both global and local market forces, as well as the country's own internal structure of power. For example, in labouring the point of the “stone-hard realities” which need to be taken into account, Jordan actually misses them himself. There are several that could be pointed out: the increased centralisation of the party around the office of the president, the ANC's slow drift to the right as exemplified by its adherence to the home-grown structural adjustment program GEAR, the narrowing of the space for public dissent etc. To admit to these serious problems requires the 'intellectual honesty' as well as 'humility' that both Seepe and Jordan spoke eloquently of.
Thus they failed in what Edward Said claims to be one of the most important responsibilities of the intellectual i.e. to construct fields of co-existence rather than fields of battle as the outcome of intellectual labour. Ultimately both were simply talking past each other; Jordan spoke emotively of new-found freedoms and civil liberties as well as the vibrancies of political activism, “no-one could suggest that the people are cowed, intimidated or shy about asserting their freedoms” and dismissing all criticism as 'Afro-pessimism'. Seepe spoke to the contrary, about “people (being) afraid to express themselves” with the corollary of Jordan's contention about Afro-pessimism, “if you disagree, you are unpatriotic”.
The accusation of Afro-pessimism sits uncomfortably with many South Africans. The I told you so' rebuttal is common, especially with many and varying voices on the left, particularly those who have all along been suspicious of the ANC. Are such criticisms out of order, especially as one audience member complained, if those critics have no alternatives to offer?
The answer would have to be, emphatically, no. We need to robustly challenge our elected leaders. Anything less is a threat to the democracy that has been so painstakingly built. Yet while we mount such vigorous challenges to the government, we need to recognise the folly of setting up the opposing poles of 'us and them' which promotes the kind of unhealthy antagonism between and amongst those presumably working toward the same goals. Our discourse needs to find a balance between an uncritical acceptance of government and what Jordan would call 'Afro-pessimism'.
How, I wondered, would Wolpe have reacted to such an exchange? When I studied political science in the mid-nineties, it was a seminal Wolpe text 'Race, Class and the Apartheid State' that excited the most discussion under the tutelage of another ANC stalwart, the venerable Dr. Ian Philips. However Wolpe's impact was hardly confined only to students of political science. Wolpe's work was instrumental in shaping the way in which social scientists understood South African society and the means for transformative change. Venerated as one of South Africa’s keenest academic minds, Wolpe was director of the Education Policy Unit at the University of the Western Cape and had literally just finished a report for the central task group for the National Commission on Higher Education, when he passed away. First as a lawyer with a degree from Wits University and then as a committed political activist and academic, Wolpe argued passionately for theory combined with action as a powerful revolutionary principle. He warned against mere theorising for the sake of theorising as what he called, a futile and self-indulgent exercise, a luxury available only to those with tenured posts and enough to eat.
Those are powerful words, powerful enough to give one pause. How much power do we attribute to educated voices? More importantly, what do those educated voices offer South Africa from a transformational point of view? The political science teacher who had introduced me to Wolpe, now makes an eloquent argument for privatisation in his capacity as adviser to Public Enterprises Minister Jeff Hadebe, in what may be seen as a a blatant repudiation of the ideals which fired a generation of political science scholars just eight years ago. Are we creating a laager around those figures with considerable privilege, resources, training and of course the means to expression and then stopping all productive dialogue at that point? Where then lies the opportunity for real exchanges that echo meaningfully outside of conference rooms and lecture halls?
Annsilla Nyar is a researcher at the School of Development Studies at the University of Natal. She can be contacted at email@example.com
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