THE idea that SA can convert its “masses” into an incipient “middle-class” whose affiliations are with Levi’s not Lenin, Mercedes Benz instead of Marx, and consumerism instead of Fidel Castro, needs to be dispensed with along with Trevor Manual’s trickle-down economics and Thabo Mbeki’s market fascism.
Firstly while South Africans may be marginally better off than they were before 1994, inequalities in society have deepened. Instead of narrowing the gap between rich and poor, the government’s liberal trickle-down economic policies has failed to address the problem of successive “middle classes”, each following upon the creation of South Africa’s first middle class arguably under Verwoerd.
The new, mainly black, politically empowered, commercially viable and attractive second “middle class” touted by the media, is in reality nowhere near as rich as the old middle class under apartheid, comprised of mainly whites, coloured and indians. Trickle down economics coupled with market fascism can never address such vast inequalities and neither can race-based affirmative action.
In order to buy into the myth of an emerging black middle class, conforming to the Bell Curve in which the majority of SA families occupy the centre bulge, creating a new market for business, one would have to search out and discover the actuality on the ground — the stark reality, instead of pipe dreams invented by advertisors and propogandists.
The second middle class is however, just as poor relative to the old middle class as they were under apartheid, and while the first middle class still occupies the upper strata of society, the distinctions based upon race and class remain. In other words, the rich are still rich, and the poor are still poor. The only direct changes we have experienced in our economy are shifts in the form and structure of wealth — producing the so-called hour-glass effect, in which there is no “middle class” to speak of occupying the centre, but rather the insane perception of “middle class values” shared with a state brand which is in reality a vacuum of unfulfilled desires seldom realised.
The mythology of an emerging second middle class, dreamt up by market fascists, is really an attempt to prevent agrarian and peri-urban revolt caused by narrow empowerment deals and market radicalism. The new mantra of “the middle class will save us” is just another way of depriving the working class of their power as workers. Wealth as we have witnessed from BEE does not trickle down, instead it continues to accumulate at the top, as industrialists continue to extract labour.
Even with a growth rate of over 6 percent, the majority of South Africans will still be poor in comparison to the upper echelons of society. One or two black billionaires do not make an equal opportunity society and cannot persuade us that change is occuring for the better. In fact as old “middle class values” whither and the second middle class fails, the minor gains to be had from such narrow attempts at propoganda and state tinkering with enterprises will diminish.
In short, we will lose the opportunity to create a great society built upon human rights and equality instead of the marketplace. South Africa may never escape its developmental phase, without a coherent debate about citizenship, the role of diversity and the global commons, and we could be doomed to an institutional failure to address fundemental inequalities within our society as South Africa splits into two states, comprised of the haves and have-nots.
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