“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” (Nelson Mandela, at the Rivonia trial, 1963-4, at which he was sentenced, along with six others, to lifetime imprisonment)
Thus A Manifesto for Social Change begins – with the famous words uttered by perhaps history’s greatest freedom fighter-turned-politician. Inevitably, for those who follow and commentate, it’s hard to match Mandela’s poetry, and indeed this book is written in the cool, academic prose you might expect of a veteran political analyst and an Economics professor. Full disclosure: the Economics professor was my student in Lesotho during the final years of apartheid.
The book examines South Africa through the lenses of economics, politics, and history, and finds utter dysfunction. The nation has untold mineral wealth, but the vast majority of its people are destitute – an unemployed underclass entirely reliant on the state.
How can a nation with such extraordinary natural resources, temperate climate, geographical advantages, and rich culture, be in such a quagmire? If we look at the rest of Africa, as well as Latin America and most of Asia, the answer becomes obvious. Colonization stripped the country bare. The colonial overlords ensured that profits went to Europe and left the indigenous populations unskilled and empty-handed.
The malaise is nothing new. Indeed, the final chapter begins, “Nothing has changed in South Africa in 350 years.” The economy has long been built on “un-free labour” that simply evolves through time: slavery turns into indentured labour, which turns into migrant labour, and so on.
While the book describes the country’s woes succinctly and with ample statistical evidence, it isn’t really a manifesto, although at 109 pages it’s almost as short as one. Rather, it’s a tragedy.
The authors assert that the current situation is untenable and describe South Africa as “essentially a ticking time bomb.” In its final chapter – called The Manifesto for Social Change – the book offers four scenarios: the status quo gradually worsening; outright civil war; an orderly and organized escalation of violence; or the elite voluntarily handing over power to the underclass (as rare as unicorn sightings in Jo’burg). The authors explain:
“For South Africa to become and remain both productive and stable, it is necessary for the underclass to emerge from the prevailing system of perpetual bondage, breaking their deeply embedded social structure.” (p. 108)
This, then, is a clear-eyed and painful examination of South Africa. The book marks the third part of a trilogy that began with Architects of Poverty (2009), and continued with Advocates for Change (2011), both written by Moeletsi Mbeki and published by Picador Africa.
For anyone interested in this remarkable country, what has been done to it in the name of profit, and what it might become, this is a great socio-economic primer. Just don’t expect easy answers. After all, the problems have been brewing for three and a half centuries.