JOEL NETSHITENZHE: How black professionals could reshape SA’s economic tone and social timbre
Instead of mimicking white elite lifestyles, the ambition should be to launch a new path that frees everyone, writes Joel Netshitenzhe
Most black professionals nowadays belong, at once, in the binary settings of opulence and wretchedness. The sense of "arrival" is daily tempered by the realisation that we are only at the beginning of another episode in a never-ending journey. To ensure the gold at the end of the rainbow does not turn into a mirage, professionals need to relate their narrow interests to the broader aspirations of society.
If there were any fitting articulation of the generic ideal that should guide black professionals, three such assertions from three generations of leaders stand out.
In his speech at Columbia University at the turn of the past century, Pixley ka Isaka Seme asserted: "The regeneration of Africa means that a new and unique civilisation is soon to be added to the world…. The most essential departure of this new civilisation is that it shall be thoroughly spiritual and humanistic — indeed a regeneration, moral and eternal!"
In his book, Let My People Go, Chief Albert Luthuli says: "Somewhere ahead there beckons a civilisation which will take its place in God’s history with other great human syntheses: Chinese, Egyptian, Jewish, European. It will not necessarily be all black: but it will be African."
Writing in Some African Cultural Concepts, Steve Biko argued: "The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving the world an industrial and military look, but the great gift still has to come from Africa — giving the world a more human face."
The significance of these assertions lies in their transcendental paradigm about what should constitute the organising philosophy of black thought, black aspiration and black responsibility.
It would not be correct if, as we seek to construct a new society, the ultimate ambition of black professionals is mimicking white elite lifestyles, believing that being accepted to the colonial courtyard of privilege constitutes the essence of economic transformation.
It would be amiss if, in seeking to correct what is wrong with our social inheritance, the only preoccupation of black professionals is about demanding of the erstwhile oppressors to lift and "bless" us, so we can remake ourselves in their image.
Otherwise, empowerment will merely complement white entitlement to historical privilege with black-elite entitlement to larger crumbs that purchase co-optive silence.
Rather, the black professional should, in outlook and aspiration, present a destination that is liberating of the erstwhile oppressor and the oppressed, to define the new in terms of its broader transformative value.
South African intellectuals and their continental peers became an important frame of reference on theories of social change because they were better able to interrogate, and present solutions to a generic global problem: the intersection of race, class and gender. In that sense, SA remains a giant social experiment to which humanity shall always pay special attention.
We can recount to no end the massive progress that has been made in the transformation process since 1994.
However, if since the political transition, we had been as prolific as before in conceptualising national objectives and acting in unity to realise them, would we have had the Marikana tragedy, the destructive effects of the #FeesMustFall campaign, and the self-immolation of Vuwani, where schools were destroyed to make a point about demarcation?
It would not be correct if, as we seek to construct a new society, the ultimate ambition of black professionals is mimicking white elite lifestyles
Indeed, would we be suffering the torturous stresses of the so-called spy tapes, Nkandla and state capture scandals?
Our society is underpinned by racial capitalism: without systemic interventions, the system reproduces racialised poverty and inequality. Is it possible to construct a capitalist system with humane characteristics?
If 1994 represented, to paraphrase James Baldwin, a rainbow sign that there would be no more floods, are we able to avoid the fire next time? For, left unattended, the social tinder of unresolved antagonisms is bound to catch fire.
Charles Dickens was correct to observe in A Tale of Two Cities, reflecting on the French Revolution: "Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind."
Arising out of this, there are a few critical issues on which society needs to reflect regarding the broader socioeconomic system.
The first is about the market system and human relations. There are many positive contributions this system has made in the evolution of human society, including the development of technology, improvements in quality of life and the recent trend towards global convergence in terms of living standards.
But as we know, this system evolved also in the context of slavery and the hunting of black skins, colonial wars of dispossession and, in the recent period, worsening inequality within most nations. But there is capitalism and capitalism: ranging from the Anglo-American to the German variants, and from Southeast Asian developmental states to Nordic social democracy. We need consciously to determine where this country should locate itself among these variants.
In this regard, we must be inspired by the sense of compassion that characterises our Constitution, and the commitment proactively to prevent the fire next time.
The second issue is about the role of finance. From money as means of exchange to its place as finance capital begetting money, a form of financialisation has emerged, to the extent that the volume of foreign exchange trading in the late 1990s reached about $1.5-trillion per day. By contrast, the global volume of exports (goods and services) for all of 1997 was $2.5bn per day. (Gilpin: 2001)
Is it possible to construct a capitalist system with humane characteristics?
How do we ensure closer linkages between finance capital and the real economy, for the former to act more as a facilitator of growth and development rather than as a virtually self-contained and self-perpetuating subsystem?
Of course, quite a lot happens on a daily basis; but it is precisely because of the many weaknesses that, for instance, the 2003 Growth and Development Summit called for about 5% of investable capital to be directed towards productive and developmental undertakings.
The third issue is about short-termism. Barton of McKinsey and Wiseman of the Canada Pension Board (2015) argue: capitalism may be the greatest engine of prosperity ever devised. But it requires taking a long view to really deliver.
Yet corporate leaders know that any action that negatively affects income statements in the next few quarters risks bringing down the wrath of investors — even if it is likely to create more wealth over time.
Our socioeconomic objectives in this country are largely set out in the National Development Plan.
The question, though, is what to do in a situation in which the state is unable to give leadership. SA today not only lacks a pilot agency from which economic leadership should issue. We have a government that communicates a sense of weakness, indecision, confusion and a debilitating tendency towards self-immolation.
Given this reality, should society wallow in tears of dejection, or should the various sectors — communities, workers, youth, women, business, professionals and others — not act in unison to pursue the common interests of society?
In this way, we would not only strengthen the forces in the government that are genuinely interested in advancing the national interest, we would also narrow the space for the scoundrels who depend on venality and state capture for sustenance.
This is an injunction for black professionals — and indeed all South Africans — to once again rekindle the power of social agency.
•Netshitenzhe is executive director of the Mapungubwe Institute. This article is based on his address at the recent conference of the Association of Black Securities and Investment Professionals.