Letter from Hobeni, 6th November 2014

My desk in the libraryMandela in George Square, 9th October 1003

A young South African, possibly young enough to have been a “born free” after the 1994 elections, asked me if I thought the struggle was over.   My unhesitating reply was “No”.   So, I had to explain.

It seems to me that the struggle has got to a second stage. I first read about this in the question raised by Agostinho Neto, the first President of Angola.   He asked “What would be the point of all this struggle, if all that we achieve is that our masters have black faces?”   And it was certainly the case that, during the 1980s, people were arguing for the two-stage struggle.   The first stage was the achievement of national liberation, and the second was the achievement of economic empowerment.

The first has been achieved, but on the second there is a long way to go.   It strikes me that it is essential in any society for people to have decent housing, enough food, access to education and medical care, clean water and a host of other things that we in the west simply take for granted.   People, in my view, are entitled to a lot more than this but this is, very crudely, the essence of social democracy.   The state ensures the stability of the existing society by giving the majority of people a decent standard of living.

South Africa has made considerable progress in transforming people’s lives.   I shall never forget walking down a township street which had pavements and street lights.   On my previous visit, it did not.   And it was a lot safer.   But South Africa has a long way to go.   Living in a rural area has brought that home to me.   I am living in some comfort, if not the lap of luxury.   There is electricity here.   I do not have to walk to the stream to get water.   I have enough to eat.   I have a comfortable room, and access to a flush toilet.   In South African terms, I am rich.

And I want everyone to be rich like me.   In my view, the greatest challenge facing the South African government is this: How is this to be achieved?

One of the methods tried has been Black Economic Empowerment (BEE).   This kind of action worked for the Afrikaners in the 1950s.   Afrikaner economic empowerment was one of the bedrocks on which apartheid was built, and it worked because there were relatively few people to be empowered, and so many to be disadvantaged, to achieve success.   For BEE to be successful for the vast majority now, it would require massive state intervention, ensuring the censure of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Perhaps we need to campaign, to challenge the current economic orthodoxies of these institutions and to insist that they take social responsibilities into account when drawing up the economic rules.   Actually, there is no “perhaps” about it.

And how did my young South African react to my answer.   He replied “I am glad you said that”.


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