Friday, December 6, 2013

The tragedy of South Africa: racial apartheid fell, economic apartheid rose

As a revolutionary, the late Nelson Mandela was somewhat unusual in that he was both a liberal and a leftist. Today, we remember, and celebrate, the liberal elements of Mandela's philosophy and leadership: Mandela the champion of democracy and human rights. But Mandela had also been a man of the left; politically, he was a democratic socialist. Ultimately, the liberal part of his legacy proved to be far stronger than the democratic socialism.

By the time he was elected president in 1994, however, communism had fallen and European social democracy had suffered a series of historic reverses.  Mandela succumbed to pressures to enact the set of neoliberal economic policies known as the "Washington consensus." Mandela, for example, supported nationalizing industries like the banks and mines, but institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund demanded market-centered reforms.

This is not to cast blame on Mandela; such a course of action was probably all but inevitable, given the power of global capital and American foreign policy. Nor does it diminish Mandela's personal greatness and heroism. But what followed was tragic.

By 2011, South Africa  was ranked as the most economically unequal country in the world. In 2013, fully 47 percent of its citizens live in poverty, over 25 percent of them are unemployed, white South Africans earn six times as much as black South Africans, and growth is slow. Shockingly, rates of economic inequality, poverty, life expectancy, and unemployment are all worse than they were in the apartheid era.

The horror of apartheid lives on, only what had been a racial caste system has morphed into an economic one.

Slavoj Zizek has more on "Mandela's Socialist Failure" here. His essay ends on this provocative note:
If we want to remain faithful to Mandela’s legacy, we should thus forget about celebratory crocodile tears and focus on the unfulfilled promises his leadership gave rise to. We can safely surmise that, on account of his doubtless moral and political greatness, he was at the end of his life also a bitter, old man, well aware how his very political triumph and his elevation into a universal hero was the mask of a bitter defeat. His universal glory is also a sign that he really didn’t disturb the global order of power.

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