In post-apartheid South Africa there has been a tendency to misrecognise the global reality in which we find ourselves, writes Jeremy Cronin.
How do we position ourselves as South Africans in a challenging
global reality? How do we avoid provincialism, as if we were an outpost of
Western modernity, forever playing catch-up? How do we avoid the seeming
opposite of this, a backward-gazing Africanism? Listening to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) and its brief dream of Chinese-style
bullet trains and brand-new smart cities emerging from the veld, I thought of
In the early 1930s, when he was a student at Oxford, Fischer
frequently wrote home to his parents in Bloemfontein. One memorable letter
describes a visit to Westminster cathedral. “Not so bad,” he writes, “for
the funeral crypt of a backward feudality.”
When I first read this throw-away comment (in Stephen
Clingman’s wonderful Fischer biography), I suddenly understood something I had
only dimly grasped before, due, no doubt, to the incipient chauvinism of my own
upbringing. Far from feeling himself to be a provincial bumpkin in a grand
metropolis, Fischer saw himself as the bearer of a modern, enlightenment
tradition, a mixture of his newly found Marxism and the anti-British colonial
struggle history of his own family. He is writing to his parents knowing, I
imagine, his comment on the cathedral will evoke a chuckle back home in that
staunchly republican household.
So what does that have to do with bullet trains and new smart
In post-apartheid South Africa there has been a tendency to
misrecognise the global reality in which we find ourselves. For instance, in
his preface to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s interim report, Archbishop
Desmond Tutu wrote that 1994 had finally brought the curtain down on the last
of the “three great evils” of the 20th century – “fascism,
communism and apartheid”.
Isn’t there something missing there?
I won’t enter into a debate here with the archbishop about
communism – but notice how his reading of the 20th century treats “apartheid”
as a stand-alone evil. It is as if it were a reality disconnected from five
centuries (not just one) of colonial conquest in Africa and elsewhere, and from
ongoing patterns of imperial and neo-colonial domination. This apartheid
exceptionalism (and Archbishop Tutu is not remotely alone in this) disconnects
SA and its present challenges from a global history with its persisting legacy that
continues to make the so-called “third world” third.
Mandela also sometimes leaned in this direction, portraying
post-apartheid South Africa as a collective prodigal, with all of us, implicitly
once aberrant blacks and whites, now returning to the bosom of a supposedly
peace-loving, stable, and otherwise normal world with its metropolitan values.
As South Africans we too often erase a more general colonial
background and its ongoing imperial realities. We present apartheid as an
exceptional, stand-out phenomenon. Or, in the case of many whites, we privilege,
however subliminally, our European origins. The result is that we collectively
tend to provincialise ourselves, forever playing catch-up with envious eyes fixed
on the metropole.
Seen within this context, Ramaphosa’s brief SONA pivot
eastwards to evoke a dream of brand new cities and bullet trains at least
invited us to think of modernising aspirations in terms other than strictly
Eurocentric ones. Moreover we should certainly not be shy to learn from diverse
sources, east, west, north and south.
However, seeking to emulate the Chinese example risks a new
form of provincialism, and of misrecognising both our own and China’s reality. That
country’s vast, ordered and in many ways impressive urbanisation process rests
on three main pillars.
One, a massive land reform programme which, after many
trials and some grave errors, lifted hundreds of millions of rural people out
of poverty. Two, the “hukou” system which bears a passing but
deceptive resemblance to what in South Africa was once called influx control.
The “hukou” system limits rights to social welfare and housing in
cities and is used to plan and control urbanisation. For instance, China’s
internal migrant worker population – some 234 million – does not have full
urban rights. But, unlike in apartheid (or even in contemporary South Africa) a
return to a rural Chinese village is not a return to abject poverty thanks to the
extensive land reform. Three, all urban land in China is state-owned.
Contrast these Chinese realities with our own. Over the last
century, South Africa has urbanised without an effective rural land reform that
provides sustainable livelihoods for the one-third of our population still
living in the former bantustans. A majority are women and children,
demi-citizens under what is often capricious “traditional” rule. Two,
some form of internal influx control in our South African reality would be
utterly immoral, not to mention administratively unfeasible. And, three, while
there is state-owned land in urban areas that should be rapidly released for
mixed-income and medium-density settlement, much of our urban development is
still being driven by a speculative property market. It is a market that
excludes the poor from rights to the city as effectively as any apartheid-era
If we are to have more just and equitable urbanisation in
South Africa, then rural land reform needs to prioritise sustainable,
productive livelihoods and the deepening of substantive citizenship rights particularly
for those still living in the poverty traps of the former bantustans. Apart
from this rural focus, which moves beyond a demagogic, race-based revenge
approach to land, we need, above all, to urgently prioritise urban land reform
where the great majority of South Africans now live.
Let’s dream of new urban realities for our country. But let’s
do so in the spirit of a Bram Fischer – neither running away from modernity
back into the confines of volk or a misty Africanism, nor as provincials. As we
dream, let’s build more equitable, human-scale towns and cities with our feet
firmly anchored in our own South African reality.
– Cronin is a member of the SACP’s central committee, and a former member of the ANC’s national executive committee. He was a deputy minister between 2012 and 2019. His first collection of poems, Inside, was released to much acclaim after his release from prison in 1984.
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