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The recent murder of South African white supremacist Eugene Terreblanche should have focused the world’s attention on the exploitative, oppressive and de-humanising conditions of landless peasants and farm workers. But it’s easier for South Africa’s elites to blame racism alone for the incident, than to acknowledge the historic links between race and class dynamics and to tackle the disparities that these have created, writes South African cultural worker and social critic Mphutlane wa Bofelo.
The debate and analysis in the media following the murder of Eugene Terreblanche, founder of the white supremacist Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), on 3 April reflects the penchant for de-linking race from class dynamics. Some of the analysis also betrays the proclivity to equate the legitimate anger and violent rebellion of the black working class – who are victims squeezed at the intersection between race and class – with the oppressive and de-humanising racism of the white farmer abetted by unbridled capitalism.
The mother of the 15-year-old boy, who is one of the accused, told the press that her son told her that when he and his co-worker asked Terreblanche for their wages, he told them first to bring in the cows. After they had brought in the cows, the right-winger still refused to pay them. According to the boy’s narration, this refusal by Terreblanche to pay the workers even after making them run around and fetch his cows, is what provoked the 28-year old farm labourer to hit the white racist four times with an iron rod. The boy also confessed to taking the rod and giving Terreblanche three blows with it.
This case should focus the attention of the world on the exploitative, oppressive and de-humanising conditions of the landless peasants and farm workers in a South Africa where a few whites, foreign firms and the white church still own chunks of the land, while the black majority are squeezed into slums and ghettoes or live in perpetual fear and in squalid conditions on white-owned land.
It should have brought to the attention of the world – especially proponents of flexible labour regulations and free marketeers – that without tight labour regulations and their effective enforcement, the lives of the majority of black farm workers and domestic workers will continue to be an eternal hell and unending gloom.
Call to review land and labour policies
It should have highlighted the fact that without radical transformation of landownership patterns, equitable allocation of land and wealth and a labour-friendly policy regime, the relationships between white people and black people on the farms will continue to be master/serf, owner/slave, baas/boy relationships and white superiority/black inferiority will prevail.
This story therefore should have elicited calls for government to rein in white farmers – and all employers – to ensure fair and just labour practices; to review its land redistribution policies to a design policy programme that ensures a radical and drastic transformation of landownership patterns in this country; and to review its flexible labour policies.
Predictably, this has not been the case. The media, experts, analysts and political parties and political gurus have focused our attention on the possible link between Terreblanche’s murder and African National Congress Youth League President Julius Malema’s ranting of Dubula iBhunu (Kill the Boer).
This is the safest thing for our black and white liberals to do. Not pronouncing that wage-disputes, or rather a rebellion against non-remuneration of workers’ labour, is central to this murder saga will ease the conscience of many black and white liberals – including some radicals and ‘socialists/ communists’ – who pay their workers peanuts and treat their domestic workers and gardeners as slaves.
Dance under a burning roof
Terreblanche’s ill-treatment, abuse, and exploitation of workers were informed by his racist regard of black people as sub-humans and appendages of white society. But he and his ilk would have little space for manoeuvre if we were to have a government that meant business as far as pursuing an egalitarian political economy and social policy trajectory was concerned.
It is the surface modification of apartheid-capitalism that has allowed and continues to allow space and a breeding ground for white supremacists and the super-exploitation, denigration and de-humanisation of black farm-workers and domestic workers.
Merely harping on about incidents of racism without linking them to the historic marriage between race and class and the failure of the current dispensation to confront class and racial disparities, will be a matter of dancing under a burning roof.
But we are a nation of mythology rather than facts. We choose to hide in the security of songs and dance, rhetoric and folklore, rather than deal with bitter realities. Instead of doing away with the socio-economic, structural and institutional arrangements and the impediments to the creation of an egalitarian and anti-racist society, we prefer to sing old struggle songs or blame everything on the singing thereof.
The stubborn fact of the matter is that the murder of Eugene Terreblanche had more to do with black labourers’ outrage against super-exploitation, denigration and de-humanisation by a supremacist white racist than with the out-of-tune singing of a political elite black nouveau riche fat-cat called Malema.
After all it is the politico-economic dispensation of which Malema is a proponent and beneficiary that has retained the structural inequalities and institutional arrangements that maintain unequal power and social relations between black people and white people. This perpetuates the structural racism and elitist disregard for the dignity and rights of the labourers upon which the attitudes and practices of white and non-white owners of capital, landlords and madams thrive.
Mphutlane wa Bofelo is a South African cultural worker and social critic.
This article was first published by Pambazuka News.
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