The myth of suburbia

In the midst of COVID19 and lockdown in South Africa, there has been much commentary on the class fault lines suggesting a return to ‘normal’ should never be contemplated. In the space of a few weeks, we have seen forced removals under the guise of court sanctioned removals, outcry over the temporary homeless shelter in Strandfontein and the chaos of competition for basic food parcels in both Manenberg and Mitchell’s Plain. Perhaps the best illustration defining this purported class schism within the pandemic are contained in the photo essay published by the Daily Maverick on 8 April 2020. Beyond politics, social activists point to a country reminiscent of the tale of two cities, the privileged and the poor. Irrespective of the validity of differing socioeconomic and health analyses, it is clear that as Vannie Kaap would say that ‘alles is nie reg by die huis nie’. 

Cape Town and Johannesburg, both epicenters of the confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, are a microcosm of a broader reality facing middle class South Africa. It is not a popular topic. Certainly not as public-figures amongst these ranks appear to muddy individual liberties with lobbying for the alcohol and tobacco industry. The Woolworths rotisserie chicken debacle entrenched the picture of a class so out of touch with the socioeconomic realities of their country, that they would call the current President, the worst ever in our history. Tone deaf given actions of many political leaders during Apartheid. To seemingly place their right not to cook above a growing majority who have nothing to cook appears grossly inhumane.  A perception has emerged that the middle class have finally drawn a line around their suburbs – a line guarded by lawyers, willing to litigate that some interests and livelihoods are ostensibly more valuable than others, some lives more dispensable than others. The truth however is not as simple as social media would have us believe. 

In 2019, the Southern African – Towards Inclusive Economic Development (SA-TIED) released a working paper which used in part data from the South African Revenue Service. Key findings included that the wealth of the top 1% was doubling whilst the remainder saw stagnation. Who are the 1%? According to SA-TIED, individuals earning R800,000 per annum. In the same year, the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) published data suggesting that the top 1% was made up of individuals earning R48,753 per month. This study placed the middle class as being top 10% that earned R7,313 a month. In perspective, the median wage is R3,300. Herein lies the myth of the middle class in South Africa. The work of Dr Jason Musyoka of the University of Pretoria packages the disparate data and suggests that there are few South Africans, of all races, that are both not poor and yet don’t own assets beyond a salaried or regular monthly income. Researchers place this percent at around 20% of the population. In sum, South Africa is not a middle class, but rather a working class society. When seen in this context, the dynamics of the class war seemingly raging in South Africa takes on a new perspective. A perspective of which I think lays squarely at the door of mischievous politicians on all sides of the spectrum.

Our political narrative has been one of poverty versus privilege as if they were binary. The economics without the politicking tell a different story. The 13 May 2019 cover of Time Magazine starkly shows that the middle class is not to be found in Camps Bay or Sandton but in communities in the likes Boksburg, Pretoria Moot and Retreat. Somewhere between the salary percentiles of R3,300 and R48,753 is a sea of over-indebtedness to the extent the people outside the 1% are turning to credit to cover costs such as groceries, transport, education and healthcare. In a 2019 interview, Paul Slot from the Debt Counselling Association indicated that around 10 million had bad debt, with an average of 8 loans each, spending typically 63% of monthly income on debt servicing.  These figures give credence to the assertion that above the 6.8 million Stats SA indicated had experienced hunger in 2017, food insecurity is a far wider challenge that encompasses to a degree the working and middle class. Even amongst the limited few who have access to tertiary education, are many who at times struggle to access affordable and nutritious food, which the Centre of Excellence in Food Security describes as ‘a skeleton in universities’ closets’

There is a good argument to be made, without undermining the impoverished conditions of 60% of our population, that the socioeconomic conditions prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic, were more pervasive than partisan public discourse would have us believe. Within this context, it is understandable that those in the 20% are afraid of what lockdown means for their families’ survival. The reasonable fear is played upon by right-leaning organizations to reinforce neoliberal agendas. This coupled with eloquent communication by provocateurs who do not represent the lived reality of those they claim to represent, creates a false history of this tale of two cities as it were. If the wail for rotisserie chicken was made, it was done by those who would need to pay for it on credit, but more likely an opportunity seized by the 1% to drum up sympathetic support amongst two classes, smaller than the majority, but already long buckling under the weight of economic decline. 

The true bearer of the flag of privilege is the 1%.

The remaining 99% are separated by degrees of poverty.

Whilst we don’t know what realities we will face on the other side of COVID19, we must be wary to ignite a class war that has no winners except those with no pun intended, already in the pound seat. 

Freedom or Fallacy: A collage of South African perspectives. Where are we 26 years later?

Annually since 1995, we commemorate Freedom Day which marks the first South African non-racial, democratic elections held on 27 February 1994. The first democratic president, President Nelson Mandela is quoted as saying ‘for to be free is not merely to cast off one’s own chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others’. In 2018 in an article for the Sowetan Live, Prince Mashele, urged South Africans to reevaluate what the day means in their own words, within their own communities and without the influence of political rhetoric. Last year, our country celebrated 25 years of political freedom. As we go into the next chapter, it would be amiss to this generation and the next, not to assess in an iterative, non-partisan and fair manner, the progress made to the upfront acknowledged challenges of inequality, poverty and unemployment. 

Instead of conveying my evaluation, a purposive selection of societal commentators across professional and personal backgrounds had the blog title put to them and asked to sum up their assessment in a paragraph. The views are their personal reflections and not of their employers, organizations or affiliations. This is South Africa of April 2020. This is South Africa constructively dialoguing.

Cameron Mackenzie, a former Johannesburg city councillor from 2009 and current member of Parliament since 2014 for the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, advances that ‘freedom, unless you know how to use it, is only a word’. He acknowledges the political progress made from the repressive Apartheid state to a constitutional democracy in 1994 however cautions that the current state failure in education and healthcare, amongst others, perpetuates the cycle of freedom not being a lived reality for the majority of South Africans. 

Tessa Dooms is a sociologist, director at Jasoro Consulting, a Nelson Mandela George Washington Fellow with several other professional accolades. She notes that South Africa’s democracy is maturing due to an increased plurality, willingness to challenge and test powerful leaders and institutions. She is mindful that our democracy remains fragile due to the failure to deliver development and transform lives. The result, especially amongst youth,  is a distrust of our democratic leadership and more precarious, democratic processes. She suggests that the next phase must see us building and unleashing the abilities plus agency of young people for political, social and economic development for all. 

According to Russell Rensburg, an expert in healthcare and current director of the Rural Health Advocacy Project, the preamble of the constitution commits us to improving the quality of life for all citizens. He recognizes the significant progress to education and healthcare access but argues that the access is derailed by the quality of services and general commodification of public goods which have delayed the overall realization of freedom. 

Nkanyiso Ngqulunga, a law student and exceptional young contributor to decolonial thought, asserts the question highlights the dichotomy inherited from colonialism and Apartheid. For him, the democratic dispensation is a neo-Apartheid version, still unable to understand or meet the needs of the majority, who remain in permanent dispossession and poverty. He calls for socioeconomic justice premised on an African-based transformational philosophy and spirituality that denounces and breaks away from past crimes against humanity to truly fulfil a clean slate of human rights recognition. 

He is a management consultant but Melusi Maposa prefers to describe himself as someone who knows a little about a lot of things and a lot about a little things. He responds that 26 years it is not a question of freedom or fallacy, rather both. He emphasizes the immense achievements that are often forgotten e.g. 10 million households electrified since 1994 and the millions with never before, access to running water. In the same breath, he talks of the continued gross inequality and widening socioeconomic divide. He urges us to surge ahead to deliver freedom to those who have as yet not fully experienced it for not to do so lies the peril of our nation.  

Mzwandile Manto is a lifelong student of philosophy and an experienced contributor to international public capacity building. He reminds us that freedom is the ability to self-actualize which includes our health and human security. The inability to self-actualize is a failure of political freedom. Our system of so-called proportional representation is representative of the self-limitations we have imposed for freedom to be achieved. He continues that in practice over quarter of a century, these system “representatives” have proven that they are allegiant to their parties not us, the citizens, the electorate who provide them with the mandate to serve. He bluntly states that the majoritianism in place, mocks and bastardises our freedom in the current political system and to be truly free, means to tackle the system first. 

The prolific current events commentator @linley_sa prefers to be engaged through this handle on Twitter. He argues that without human dignity, there can be no freedom. Pronouncing political freedom does not equate to releasing the chains of those that remain modern slaves by virtue of hunger, unemployment and squalor. The only release is true socioeconomic freedom. 

My work particularly with the homeless and un/under employed has set me on a path to advocate for an active citizenry. As Freedom Day 2020 approaches, with COVID19 showing up the fault lines of our grossly inequitable society, I realize that in our eagerness to give up the ghost of Apartheid, we gave too much power to the ANC-led government, a movement I generally support. The power corrupted many of them and in turn our people suffered a new oppression – knowing they had rights but being unable to access them. If COVID19 teaches us anything, let it be that from this, our Freedom Month, we cannot continue business as usual. 

We need to change trajectory, check our ideology and privilege at the door, pragmatically evaluate the last two decades and usher in a new system of governance. I say governance because the time of government being our leaders must be over. We the citizens must take our power back, elect representatives, hold them directly accountable and release them from duty if they do not perform. A new social compact is required, one where equality of opportunity and access to services are not rights in a story told to us in 1999 but a lived reality for all. For me, the answer is that we have political freedom but it is a fallacy as it is limited to a class that simply isn’t reflective of how the majority of South Africans live. My question to you, is simply this, freedom or fallacy: where are we 26 years later?