|| The poor are advancing in a class war unwinnable under prevailing
Ashwin Desai, Brij Maharaj and Patrick Bond
Eye on Civil Society column, (The Mercury) 31 August 2010
During this period of acute social angst over whether underpaid state
workers will successfully withhold services mainly from poor people, so
as to wrench a 1.6% wage increase and R300/month housing allowance (at a
R5 billion cost/annum) from a government that just let FIFA escape our
shores with R25 billion in pure profit (no taxes or exchange controls),
it may be useful to take a step back to put the world’s worst inequality
Consider an all-time favourite challenge: the quest for the Holy Grail.
The twentieth century witnessed the return of this symbol time and
again, in order to make sense of upheavals that accompanied
industrialisation, the horrors of war and the erosion of the influence
It was the theme of probably the most popular English-language book of
the last century, Lord of the Rings by Bloemfontein-born J.R.R. Tolkien.
But in Frodo’s hands, the Grail is not the “healing, heavenly talisman”
but “powerful, corrupting and malevolent”.
Movies followed. John Boorman’s Excalibur, George Lucas’s Star Wars, the
Indiana Jones series, and Monty Python’s were obviously re-tellings.
With the release of the last of the Star Wars episodes and the amazing
popularity of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, the Grail continues to
re-invent itself as representing personal struggle, collective
journeying and the need to achieve the ultimate goal which when found
will reveal a deeper level of truth and meaning to a dispiriting
No matter how exotic the locale, however, the search tends to occur
across social terrain that has been carefully laid by ruling groups.
Whatever poverty-alleviating fruit is found along the path reminds those
missionaries who consume it, that legitimising the earthly garden market
is, ultimately, a worthy substitute for the elusive Grail. ‘The perfect
is the enemy of the good,’ say some who give up the search, content to
eat what’s available; even if that means others go hungry.
In economics, the quest for poverty eradication often represents the
struggle to find one magic solution to bring an end to unnecessary
worldly sufferings. Merlin-like characters abound, peddling various
potions and expounding all manner of sage-like advice.
The last century led to a host of approaches that ranged from
colonialism (civilise the natives), the United States (bomb the
natives), Pol Pot (exterminate the natives), the Bolshevik Revolution
(that ran from permanent revolution to Stalin’s socialism in one country
to Castro’s socialism on one island), home-grown forms of state-led
African socialism (Nyerere’s ujamma), the hybrid of state and market
(the Asian Tigers), and shock therapy economics (post-communist Russia
and post-Allende Chile).
And what of South Africa? A great many of these theories were applied
here in past decades, even if theorising poverty is today far less
common. Most academics have instead taken up consultancies to become
more relevant, and in such a milieu, asking bigger questions about the
mode of production is plainly useless.
The resulting state of intellectual sloth compelled us to ask, are we
uprooting or re-rooting poverty in post-apartheid South Africa?
It appears the latter, for the authoritative SA Labour and Development
Research Unit published a report early this year arguing that while
rural poverty has been reduced, a tiny bit, mainly through expanded
welfare transfer payments and emigration of poor people to the cities,
urban poverty actually increased from 1993-2008.
In other words, what ordinary observers view as a manifestation of
dreadful policy failure – the peri-urban shack settlement stretching for
miles – is in reality an improvement over life in the depressed,
hopeless rural periphery. Urbanisation increases, urban poverty
increases, but overall poverty decreases – leaving the South African
Presidency and some commentators to brag that progress is gradually
being achieved, that the War on Poverty is being won.
It’s not, although the state’s War on the Poor is being waged with
enthusiasm. We know this from the seemingly ubiquitous ‘service delivery
protests’ that turn the state’s attention from attacking poverty, to
attacking people. The poor in turn react by burning down state buildings
and councillors’ houses in townships ranging from small Mpumalanga
dorpies in the mountainous East, to the big-city ghettoes and highways
on the plains of the Western Cape.
The National Intelligence Agency is called upon to investigate the
reasons for protest. Often, the poor find their quest for justice ending
in the same way that the Monty Python quest for the Holy Grail was
subverted: with the entire cast arrested.
Yet the state’s supposed enemy, poverty, is bunkered in and heavily
fortified. From time to time the enemy suddenly emerges in the form of
toyi-toying youth, who manoeuvre with seeming ease around desperately
outnumbered local police forces. Indeed this is now a fully-fledged
class war, unwinnable under the country’s prevailing economic
conditions, given the motley coalition of power brokers engaged in
internecine Alliance warfare, all still held within the vice-grip of
neoliberal Treasury and Reserve Bank officials.
After all, a million jobs have been lost over the last year, and the
macroeconomic ‘recovery’ is accompanied by further job-shedding. The
poor are advancing relentlessly, and the SA War on Poverty looks like a
US/Vietnam or Soviet/US Afghanistan story-line. The state’s forces are
obviously confused and confounded, with anti-poverty strategies
comparable to pre-1942 Maginot lines, easily broken through by a clever
enemy. In this terrain, trickle-down grants are simply not good enough
to stem the broken dike.
The battlefield carnage comes ever closer to home. Just as Pretoria lost
its last war against Cuban fighter jets on the outskirts of the Angolan
city of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988, bodybags containing high-profile
warriors (then it was younger white men, now older ANC politicians) can
no longer be disguised, carrying names like Mbeki, Mlambo-Ngcuka,
Netshitenzhe, Erwin, Chikane, Pahad.
Following a major Durban conference of poverty scholars hosted by the
SA-Netherlands Programme for Research Alternatives in Development, we
sensed this state’s imminent defeat, and thus sought to collect leading
war scholars’ ideas in a book published this week by Africa World Press.
Its title signifies something we had hoped would not happen: Jacob Zuma
turning 180 degrees from his background in poverty, kicking back hard
against tough opponents, but then accidentally (we assume) sending the
ball careening into his own net.
This is just a book, not a Holy Grail. Zuma’s Own Goal will be launched
on Friday by Sanpad at the Elangeni.
You are invited, if you RSVP at 031 279-3900 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 031 279-3900 end_of_the_skype_highlighting.
(Desai, Bond and Maharaj are Durban-based scholar-activists.)