Black South Africans have suffered a lot over the last two centuries. I am an economic historian and, together with some of my students, have recently begun a project which hopes to quantify the material inequalities between black and white South Africans over the last 200 years. It is not easy, because the colonial records have often ignored the black experience. And yet, there are clues everywhere. From early nineteenth-century government payrolls (where black translators earned one-tenthousandth of what the white governor earned) to mid-twentieth century cadaver heights (where blacks are significantly shorter in height than their white compatriots).
All this evidence points to the incredible material injury of black South Africans. And this is to say nothing of the psychological scars and social strife that has accompanied this material hurt.
This suffering is much longer than the colonial experiences of many other Africans on the continent. Although Van Riebeeck already arrived in 1652 and first contact with the isiXhosa’s at the infamous Fish River was more than a century later, this was still much earlier than the colonial experiences of other African countries, which started around the end of the nineteenth century. True, many countries across Africa suffered the vulgarities of the slave trade, most pronounced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But South Africa’s colonisation, I would argue, was worse, with Europeans subjugating complex agricultural societies to material inferiority by taking their lands, stealing their cattle and, above all, exploiting the minerals that they had claim to. (Is it not ironic that the Queen of England still wears Africa’s most prized diamond?)
When and where black societies adjusted to the new reality of colonialism – proverbially pulling themselves up by their shoelaces – they were punished, either through higher head and hut taxes to ensure that they remain docile labourers, or through more sinister (but also more effective) policies, like building a railroad circumventing the black areas, excluding blacks from the vote despite their immense contribution (to both sides) during the Second South Africa War, or, most infamously, by providing rubbish education (with the 1953 Bantu Education Act). For two centuries, at least until 1994, whites did their best to discourage, disrupt and, when those two did not work, destroy, African innovation and entrepreneurship.
All this changed in the new South Africa, for although blacks were (and many remain) at a serious disadvantage, there was no one to now stand in their way. And so, we witness the rise of the black middle class and the black diamonds. Sandton today is perhaps the epitome of this black entrepreneurial class; confident, successful, prosperous. South Africa has moved from a nation of between-group inequality (i.e. white vs black inequality) to a nation of within-group inequality. As an example, if all of South Africa’s whites were to leave the country tomorrow, the Gini coefficient (the measure social scientists use to quantify the inequalities of a country) would remain exactly the same. Over the last two decades, millions of black South Africans have escaped poverty and moved into the middle class; some studies estimate that this group is now close to 5 million people, larger than the total white population. And yes, whites have prospered too, despite their complaining and moaning about everything from BEE to racial quotas in the Springbok team. None of this hurt them (on aggregate), and the only things that do hurt – violent crime, corruption, blackouts – hurt black South Africans even more.
But the post-1994 South Africa is not a narrative about a minority group that represents less than 10% of South Africans. Instead, it is a story of a people rising up from the depths of economic and social deprivation. It is a remarkable story of courage, determination, and perseverance and triumph-against-all-odds. Black South Africans have claimed their birth right and begun to overturn centuries of injustice. They have had to skill up, build up collateral, educate the next generation, all with relatively little support from a government that first had to steer a sinking ship through shallow waters. And more: they have had to reconcile with racists, so magnanimous a step that we forget it is called a miracle.
And yet, when Jacob Zuma blamed apartheid for Eskom’s blackouts and when he branded Jan van Riebeeck the scapegoat for the country’s high levels of inequality, he changed the narrative again. Suddenly, South Africa was not a country where black South Africans had the agency to affect their own destiny, but one where whites had (again) the starring role. This tiny minority, Zuma implied, was the lead actor in the South African story; his statements suggest that black South Africans are, at best, supporting characters, much like in the days before 1994. While whites are up in arms at being blamed for everything, they are happy to be part of the conversation again, happy to be listened to, happy to have their say. (For, really, why should South Africans otherwise care about the opinions of a former presidential secretary?)
Zuma does this, I would argue, because it gives him legitimacy (much like Bob Mugabe gets legitimacy by blaming the whites in Zimbabwe, now less than 1% of the population). But Zuma is wrong. While this may still be a country home to millions of whites, it is certainly not a country about them. By blaming whites, Zuma is denying black South Africans the right to take ownership of their own future.