Inequality in the US mirrors situation brewing in South Africa, says UP research fellow

Posted on June 18, 2020

The daylight murder of Mr George Floyd in a street in my hometown of Minneapolis shocked many who had previously denied that institutional racism existed in America. Young people across the world poured into the streets to register their revulsion, and demand far-reaching reforms. But there is a large portion of Americans and political leaders unmoved by these events. The muteness of this group reflects the reality of where America might be heading. What might be the lessons for South Africa?

America had two original sins that laid an enduring foundation for the dehumanisation of African and Native Americans. Access to land and political power determined their fate. Enslaved Africans in colonial America were denied ownership to this vital source of personal freedom and self-worth. In addition, their labour built the wealth of their white owners. Similarly, the native population was dispossessed of their continent and locked in reservations akin to South Africa’s Bantustans. White America dumped Natives in areas deemed worthless. At the end of the Trail of Tears, the Osage people were discarded in a hilly area of Oklahoma. Years later, oil was discovered there, and the Osage became the richest tribe in the world. As David Grann demonstrates in his 2018 book, Killers of the Flower Moon, whites would not allow this to stand as they coveted the wealth and began a systematic murder of the Osage. 

The white population used political power and security forces to maintain slavery, segregation, racism, and marginalisation for almost 400 years. Those earlier political and economic foundations remained intact despite Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the reconstruction era, the civil rights movement, and the rise of liberal America. Thus, American racism is a product of power and wealth inequality that go back to the country’s founding.

Race, class, and gender are the anchors of inequality and injustice in America. Figures on inequality show that people of colour lag well behind whites. African-American households earn about $30 000 (R516 000) per year less than their white counterparts, while the black poverty rate of 24% is three times that of whites. The most alarming figure is the poverty of black children, which is 38%. The net effect of such deprivation is that more than 50% of African-American children attend substandard schools, dooming them for life.

Lack of political, economic, and educational power has undermined the centuries-long struggle for equal justice and fair play. The liberal reforms of the past 60 years have made a difference, but they have failed to undo the cage of inequality. Police brutality is the tip of that iceberg and reengineering the tip will not change the misfortunes of African-Americans and others. What is needed are two bundles of far-reaching transformation of the structures of injustices:

A.            An American commitment to provide equal quality education from pre-school through secondary school. Second, rebuilding impoverished communities so they become self-sustaining. Third, a systemic overhaul of the police and the judiciary to expunge deep sediments of racism. Fourth, a thorough reform of the tax code to ensure the rich pay their fair share of taxes.

B.            An equally difficult but parallel individual and collective retrospection in the African-American public is essential to confront social disorders within the community that undermine individual and collective upliftment. Second, the African-American elite must take its leadership responsibilities and invest resources and energy in communities.

The likelihood of realising these transformations is slim, as the majority of white Americans will baulk at the magnitude of what is required, because they deny the enduring economic benefits of African and Native American exploitation. Such institutional and personal racism has been responsible for the failure of liberalism in America.       

South Africa: The Mirror Image

South Africa’s settler political economy is a miniature version of America and manifests the same racist and classist structures and behaviours. Despite the history of land alienation, job reservation, institutionalised segregation, migrant labour, Bantu education, and disenfranchisement of black people until 1994, most white South Africans are still in denial of the sources of their wealth and comfort. The downside of the negotiated settlement has been the legalisation of the historic loot and the naturalisation of neo-liberal economic ideology. South Africa’s post-1994 political economy has further enriched the beneficiaries of apartheid, and meteorically enriched a sliver of blacks. The land question is still unresolved, and a huge proportion of poor children are trapped in under-resourced schools a quarter of a century after liberation. Landlessness and squalid conditions are still the fate of a very large share of the population, while 57% of the population live in abject poverty. 

Although black people have gained political freedom, the ruling black elite has succumbed to the dominant global economic ideology that assumes the market will undo structural poverty. Not surprisingly, the market has not done that, even for the majority of white Americans. In the past 40 years 0.1% of the population still earn more than 90% of the people. Living in the hope that liberalism will deliver dignity for black South Africans is an illusion that will produce a bitter harvest for decades to come. Already, poverty directly or indirectly kills many black citizens every day, and the ruling elite is oblivious to this tragedy.

To avoid a fate worse than black America, South Africa needs to dream anew before the current inequality fossilises beyond redemption in the next 25 years. Such a vision calls for the articulation of a set of societal values that must guide the market. These are:

a) land reform that advances social justice and agricultural productivity;

(b) quality education for all children for tomorrow’s jobs;

(c) sustained investment in productive jobs to satisfy local needs as well as meet the challenges of competitive external markets; and

(d) a sane energy policy that exploits South Africa’s natural systems.

At the heart of these is the development of a dignified life and livelihoods for all citizens. Tinkering with the tip of the iceberg will be a farce.

Professor Abdi I Samatar is a Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria and Professor at the University of Minnesota.

- Author Professor Abdi I Samatar

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