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The 'Missing Middle' Between Rich And Poor Is The ANC

22/11/2016 05:59 SAST | Updated 22/11/2016 10:21 SAST
Thapelo Maphakela/Gallo Images
Red Ants evict shack dwellers from an illegal informal settlement near Hoerskool Wagpos on August 15, 2016 in Brits, South Africa.

The fees must fall discourse introduced me to the phrase "missing middle". When I first heard the term I thought it was a reference to the sometimes overlooked middle child. Then I thought that the missing middle is without a doubt the inability of South Africans to find each other or reach a middle ground.

In the end, I discovered that the missing middle is a reference to those who are "too rich" to qualify for tertiary state funding but are in reality too poor to afford university fees. The term is somewhat misleading, given its economic origin and the SA versions' slight suggestion that the missing middle is not the poor.

Nonetheless, allow me to apply this already abused term to our inability to find a middle ground based on common interest - national common interest in South Africa will never be able to be extracted from its material conditions.

Our disunity is less about our lack of Madibaness or inability to achieve rainbowism and more about our grossly fractured socio-economic dispensation. It is in this context that duelling, wealthy forces sound the cacophony of a divided nation on the bridge of collapse.

This historical incapacity to bridge divides goes beyond whether or not the various sections of our population can watch rugby together. The divide is a product of an asymmetrical economic system that was designed for the benefit of a few. An economy designed for the ruling white elite and requiring rudimentary labour inputs from the masses was never going to create a society with an equal sense of responsibility to preserve it.

The employer believes itself to be benevolent for offering the employee palliative poverty, while the employee is not blind to the stark contrast in living conditions.

Naturally, in the broader areas of our economic activity, the employer and employee cannot meet at the table of compromise and both walk away satisfied. In most cases the compromise means more palliative poverty for the employee. For the employer it means transferring the cost of increased wages through retrenchment or any other means than less profit. To be fair, the employer, in the South African context, is accustomed to low skill sectors and cheap labour. This is how we were made to resemble a nation bearing both prosperity and poverty.

A major component part of the issue of reconciliation and nation-building is defined by and derives from the material conditions in our society which have divided our country into two nations, the one black and the other white.Former president Thabo Mbeki

Our nation has never had a great core middle to be the holding centre of society. As former President Thabo Mbeki put it: "A major component part of the issue of reconciliation and nation-building is defined by and derives from the material conditions in our society which have divided our country into two nations, the one black and the other white."

The ANC had styled itself as the bridge between these two divided South Africas, with some arguing that at every opportunity many in its ranks are ascending to be lesser diners at the table with the tenants of the old economy.

Whether they (we) admit it or not, this may be interpreted as the beginning of the dilution of the ANC's political will to restructure the South African economy and society. To abuse Mbeki's two nations analogy, in one nation it got votes and in the other it got dividends.

The old economic model was never going to be able to accommodate all black South Africans, let alone those among the new ruling elite. Put plainly, even if you replaced all white faces with black faces, you still have the problem of a wealthy black elite and the poor black masses.

What is still common interest for most South Africans is the restructuring of our economy, the need to migrate towards an economy that is labour intensive, capable of creating jobs and has better paying productive sectors.

Our public discourse in South Africa, however, tends to focus on peripheral matters and not on how leadership, in both private and public sectors, must be praised or defamed based on its will to achieve the task of restructuring our economy.

Among the key points in the current discourse is the question of who the saints and sinners in our economy are. Our "saints" are presented to us as those who advocate for a cut in public spending, privatising state companies and fighting corruption. Our saints by many measures are the anchors or servants of the old economy.

Our "sinners" are presented as those who are using their political connections to enrich themselves and advocate for a certain type of transformation. Our sinners style themselves as the entrants into the white exclusive economy and adorn their sinner label as their sacrifice for the poor. Our sinners are those who missed the shareholder transformation wave.

Truthfully speaking I don't think either group has prioritised the poor to the point of even slightly disrupting their wealth.

I believe this theatrical play being exhibited to be the greatest farce witnessed by the poor masses. I believe both groupings, those who are tenants to the old economy and the politically connected new entrants, to be truly no different from each other. They are both competing to be the king of the mountain top of that prosperous part of SA.

Both groups seek to extend their comforts on the back of fundamentally flawed economic models. There are no saints or sinners in this regard, just a clash of greed veiled in virtue.

So when the tenants of the old economy fret about the "looting" of the new entrants, they are blind to the looting of policy that has ensured that their wealth is not interrupted with silly matters like localisation, transformative procurement, investment into the real economy and illicit outflows of capital.

On the other hand, when the new entrants speak of a white ruling elite, they are blind to their ambition to be the new elite, different in pigmentation but similar in crass enrichment and economic, colonial ambition.

I am not buying this play of self-proclaimed virtuous antagonists. It gives very little substance on the question of true economic restructuring of South Africa. For instance there is greater debate about the rands fluctuation, assigned to whichever villain of the moment happens to sneeze, than there is about government's procurement policies. There is plenty of debate on the plight of the weaker rand and less on the positive impact it has had on the manufacturing and tourism sector.

Most of our discussions, at least around what media calls "public discourse" revolves around displeasures of those amongst the elite. While the agenda has been mischievously crafted to resemble a critical turning point between two wealthy groups, the truth is that these groups are both opposed to the masses.

While the new entrants have posed some discontent among the elites, the lingering Apartheid economic system of a wealthy elite hovering above the poor, still exists.

The missing middle in this matter is the ANC. Rather than dictating to these conflicting groups on the means to truly restructure our economy, it has become a divided proxy on both sides and compromised its electoral power.

The ANC can not allow itself to be torn apart by capital. It must rather dictate to capital how best to keep this country together. What can keep this country together is an economy for all, one with free education for the poor, localisation, manufacturing and greater investment from our private sector.

The difference between countries that have developed and those that haven't is in many instances the ability of the state to define a broader common interest and to direct all stakeholders to hold their weight in achieving collective targets. The state must neither be fearful of capital nor abusive of it.

I do not believe this is impossible. South Korea, though through harsh means, took a divided nation and created prosperity by focusing on substantive matters of common interest. One can only hope that we can move from the theatrics that fill the appetite of populism and rather look at the substantive matters of broader economic development.

We must all be components in the creation of a truly prosperous, transformed and unified nation.