There's a distressing story on the BBC website today about the condition of state schools in South Africa and how they're failing their pupils. It's an appalling situation. The story goes on to say that many parents, even those who are not wealthy, are now migrating their children to the 'private' sector in order to get them a decent education. Why is this happening, and can it be changed?
I remember only too well the conditions in the state schools I visited a few years ago on my one and only trip to South Africa - rotten floorboards everywhere, smashed windows and leaking roofs. In many cases there were earth floors, pitifully few books or other resources, and overcrowded classes. But the kids were amazing - so smart in their uniforms, and very eager to learn. It was distressing to see.
Does it have to be this way? Is South Africa such a poor country that it can't afford to repair the broken windows and the holes in the floors in its schools? Apparently so.
But wait a moment - which South Africa are we talking about here? Is it the one where all the pupils are black, and where the schools are situated in blacks-only areas? Too right we are. Because you can be certain that there are plenty of classrooms elsewhere, in a different South Africa, where conditions are very different indeed.
In short, what we're talking about is a multi-cultural country where the real issues are to do with social class, wealth and economics - i.e. the distribution of incomes and the economic policies of the country, which are not dissimilar to those we see in the rich countries that long ago bought into the 'Washington consensus': 'globalisation', Chicago-school neo-liberal economic thinking, privatisation of public utilities, and the notion of trickle-down economic development. But the money doesn't quite trickle down to the townships and the rural areas - any more than it trickles down to the council estates, the 'housing projects', and the poor rural areas in countries like Britain and the USA.
Naomi Klein explains it all in her brilliant book, The Shock Doctrine.
The really annoying thing about the BBC report itself is its stupid assumption that the problem simply lies with 'mismanagement' and corruption within the school system (though that may well exist), as well as with "a highly unionised teaching profession and low morale":
Nonkqubela Secondary, is struggling with outdoor pit latrines which have fallen into disrepair, while a third of all teaching posts remain vacant.
"We used to have good results, but we are short of maths teachers, science teachers and when staff look at our facilities they decide not to come here," head teacher Khumzi Madikane laments.
He says he cannot blame parents who can afford it, migrating to the private sector. But most of his pupils are dirt poor.
Education in the Eastern Cape is in crisis, and the central government has taken over the running of the department after allegations of corruption and mismanagement.[An old mate of mine who was working on an EU funded education development project was gently eased out of his post when he took exception to the corruption and mismanagement of petty bureaucrats and middle managers who were more interested in grabbing funds for themselves than passing them along to the schools.]
It is a sad indictment of a rural slice of South Africa which in the past century gave birth to some of the greatest minds in history, including Nelson Mandela and the late freedom fighter Walter Sisulu.
The crisis no longer a dirty little secret, with the government itself admitting that 80% of state schools are failing.
In a recent speech, Basic Education Minister Angie Motsheka revealed that 1,700 schools are still without a water supply and 15,000 schools are without libraries.
But more than 17 years after the end of white minority rule, observers argue that South Africa is struggling with more recent phenomena: Poor teacher training, corruption and maladministration, a highly unionised teaching profession and low morale.
Back in the township, opting for a private school has come with huge sacrifices for Simanye's aunt, Nokwezi.
"I've really had to squeeze myself but it is worth it - in state schools, if they have a disagreement the teachers go on strike," she says.[Obviously in the private sector the teachers never have any issues they need to address.]
The surge of low-cost private schools shows no sign of slowing down. Thousands of other grandmothers, brothers and sisters are scraping together the funds to send a child to school.
Yet the vast majority of South African children have little choice but to opt for the local state school................................................
The real story here is that in post-apartheid South Africa there is as much inequality as there was during the apartheid era, and probably even more, according to Naomi Klein's researches. Nothing really changed because the economic system runs in exactly the same way as it ran before democracy arrived there. The wealth generated within the country stays predominately within the middle and upper classes, and middle class blacks seem no more willing to pay more taxes in order to improve public services than their white counterparts ever did. Needless to say there's been no such thing as a wealth tax, a mansion tax or any steps taken to ensure that the rich elite don't offshore their wealth to avoid paying taxes. The government's income from taxes has also fallen due to rising unemployment.
What's more, the country is still servicing massive debts that were accumulated by the apartheid regime and which were partly the reason why the National Party decided to do a deal with the ANC and Nelson Mandela - on the grounds that it was better to hang on to their private wealth (even at the cost of giving the vote to non-whites) and hand over the country's debts to a new government, rather than lose their private wealth by going down with a ship that was sinking under the weight of apartheid debt, at the same time as losing the war with the ANC.
Some quotes from Naomi Klein might help to make this clearer - pages 194 - 217 - Chapter 10 - Democracy Born In Chains - The Shock Doctrine
" . . . to be able to send your children to school and to have accessible health care. I mean, what's the point of having made this transition if the quality of life of these people is not enhanced and improved? If not, the vote is useless."
- Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chair of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, 2001
"Before transferring power, the Nationalist Party . . . negotiated a kind of swap where it gave up the right to run the country its way in exchange for the right to stop blacks from running it their own way."[Naturally the 'blacks' referred to by Sparks were people like Nelson Mandela - who had declared an intention to nationalise industries and banks - and not the black politicians who subsequently emerged and were interested mainly in doing well out of the system themselves, not changing the system in order to promote greater fairness and equality. Many of the ANC's current politicians are as right wing and neo-liberal in their economic views as New Labour or George Osborne and his chums They have, after all, in many cases been to the same universities and had the same economics and MBA tutors.]
- Allister Sparks, South African journalist
In January 1990 Nelson Mandela sat down in his prison compound to write a note. The note was only two sentences long -
"The nationalisation of the mines, banks and monopoly industries is the policy of the ANC, and the modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable. Black economic empowerment is a goal we fully support and encourage, and in our situation state control of certain sectors of the economy is unavoidable."
[The ANC's Freedom Charter] enshrined the right to work, to decent housing, to freedom of thought, and most radically, to a share of the wealth in the richest country in Africa, containing, among other treasures, the largest goldfield in the world.
"The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people; the mineral wealth beneath the soil; the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole; all other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the well-being of the people," the Charter states.
What the Freedom Charter asserted was the baseline consensus in the liberation movement that freedom would not come merely when blacks took control of the state but when the wealth of the land that had been illegitimately confiscated was reclaimed and redistributed to society as a whole.
If Mandela led the ANC to power and nationalised the banks and the mines, [then] the precedent would make it far more difficult for Chicago School economists to dismiss such proposals in other countries as relics of the past and insist that only unfettered free markets and free trade had the ability to redress deep inequalities.
On February 11, 1990, two weeks after writing that note, Mandela walked out of prison a free man, as close to a living saint as existed anywhere in the world.
The ANC had a unique opportunity to reject the free-market orthodoxy of the day. Since there was already widespread agreement that corporations shared responsibility for the crimes of apartheid, the stage was set for Mandela to explain why key sectors of South Africa's economy needed to be nationalised just as the freedom charter demanded.
In the years that passed between Mandela writing his note from prison and the ANC's 1994 election sweep in which he was elected president, something happened to convince the party hierarchy that it could not use its grassroots prestige to reclaim and redistribute the country's stolen wealth. So, rather than meeting in the middle between California and the Congo, the ANC adopted policies that exploded both inequality and crime to such a degree that South Africa's divide is now closer to Beverly Hills and Baghdad. Today, the country stands as a living testament to what happens when economic reform is severed from political transformation. Politically, its people have the right to vote, civil liberties and majority rule. Yet economically, South Africa has surpassed Brazil as the most unequal society in the world.
The talks that hashed out the terms of apartheid's end took place on two parallel tracks that often intersected: one was political, the other economic. Most of the attention, naturally, focused on the high-profile political summits between Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, leader of the National Party.
The much lower profile economic negotiations were primarily managed on the ANC side by Thabo Mbeki, then a rising star in the party.[Later on he would become South Africa's president, and a man who refused to accept that HIV causes AIDS. "A group of Harvard scientists led by Zimbabwean physician Pride Chigwedere each independently estimated that Thabo Mbeki's denialist policies led to the early deaths of more than 330,000 South Africans. Barbara Hogan, the health minister appointed by Mbeki's successor, voiced shame over the studies' findings and stated: "The era of denialism is over completely in South Africa." - Wikipedia]
In these talks the de Klerk government had a twofold strategy. First, drawing on the ascendant Washington Consensus that there was now only one way to run an economy, it portrayed key sectors of economic decision making . . . as [merely] "technical" and "administrative". [i.e. set in stone and unalterable.]
Then it [set out] to hand control of power centres to supposedly impartial experts - economists and officials of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and the National Party - anyone except the liberation fighters of the African National Council. [Each of these 'world' bodies was essentially run by right-wing economists, many of whom had been tutored by Milton Freedman and his associates in Chicago.]
This plan was successfully executed under the noses of the ANC leaders, who were naturally preoccupied with winning the battle to control Parliament. In the process, the ANC failed to protect itself against a far more insidious strategy - in essence, an elaborate insurance plan against the economic clauses in the Freedom Charter ever becoming law in South Africa. "The people shall govern!" would soon become a reality, but the sphere over which they would govern was shrinking fast.
"We were caught completely off guard," recalled economist Vishnu Padayachee. When he learned that the central bank and the treasury would be run by their old apartheid bosses, it meant that "everything would be lost in terms of economic transformation".
From Padayachee's point of view, none of this happened because of some grand betrayal on the part of ANC leaders, but simply because they were out-maneuvered [tricked!] on a series of issues that seemed less than crucial at the time.
What happened in these negotiations is that the ANC found itself to be caught in a new kind of web, one made of arcane rules and regulations, [how many of us actually have a clue about GATT and IMF rules, regulations and stipulations?] all designed to confine and constrain the powers of elected leaders. As the web descended on the country, only a few people even noticed it was there. As the new government attempted to make tangible the dreams of the Freedom Charter, it discovered that the power was elsewhere.
Want to redistribute land? Impossible - at the last minute the negotiators had agreed to add a clause to the new constitution that made land reform virtually impossible.
Want to create jobs for millions of unemployed workers? Can't - the ANC had signed on to the GATT (the precursor of the World Trade Organisation) which made it illegal to subsidise the auto plants and textile factories.
Want to get free AIDS drugs to the townships, where the disease is spreading with terrifying speed? That violates an intellectual property rights commitment under the WTO, which the ANC joined with no public debate.
Need money to build more and larger houses for the poor and to bring free electricity to the townships? Sorry - the budget is being eaten up servicing the massive debt, passed on quietly by the apartheid government.
Print more money? Tell that to the apartheid-era head of the central bank.
Free water for all? Not likely. The World Bank, with its large contingent of South Africa based economists, researchers and trainers, is making private-sector partnerships the service norm.
Want to impose currency controls to guard against wild speculation? That would violate the $850 million IMF deal, signed, conveniently enough, right before the elections.
Raise the minimum wage to close the apartheid income gap? Nope. The IMF deal promised "wage restraint".
And don't even think about ignoring these commitments - any change will be regarded as evidence of dangerous national untrustworthiness, a lack of commitment to "reform", an absence of a "rules-based system". All of which will lead to currency crashes, aid cuts and capital flight.
The bottom line was that South Africa was free but simultaneously captured: each one of these arcane acronyms represented a different thread in the web that pinned down the limbs of the new government.[Just as they are now pinning down Greece, and elsewhere.]
A longtime antiapartheid activist, Rassool Snyman, described the trap in stark terms. "They never freed us. They only took the chain from around our neck and put it on our ankles."
Part of what I want to understand is how, after such an epic struggle for freedom, any of this could have been allowed to happen . . . Why didn't the grassroots movement demand that the ANC keep the promises of the Freedom Charter and rebel against the concessions as they were being made?
I put this question to William Gumede, a leader of the student movement during the transition. "Everyone was watching the political negotiations. When the economic negotiators would report back, people thought that it was technical; no-one was interested." This perception, he said, was encouraged by Mbeki, who portrayed the talks as "administrative" and of no popular concern. As a result, he told me, "We missed it! We missed the real story! And I am so disappointed in myself for being so naive."
If Padayachee is right and the ANC's own negotiators failed to grasp the enormity of what they were bargaining away, what chance was there for the movement's street fighters?
Gumede points out that most people simply assumed that no matter what compromises had to be made to get into power, they could be unmade once the ANC was firmly in charge. "We were going to be the government - we could fix it later."
What ANC activists didn't understand at the time was that it was the nature of democracy itself that was being altered in those negotiations, changed so that - once the web of constraints had descended on their country - there would effectively be no later.
After a decade of ANC rule, millions of people had been cut off from the newly connected water and electricity because they couldn't pay the bills.
As for the "banks, mines and monopoly industry" that Mandela had pledged to nationalise, they remained firmly in the hands of the same four white-owned megaconglomerates that also control 80% of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. In 2005, only 4% of the companies listed on the exchange were owned or controlled by blacks. 70% of South Africa's land, in 2006, was still monopolised by whites, who are just 10% of the population.
The ANC, once it became the government, accepted the dominant logic that its only hope was to pursue new foreign investors who would create new wealth, the benefits of which would trickle down to the poor. Once countries have opened themselves up to global market's temperamental moods, any departure from Chicago School orthodoxy is instantly punished by traders in New York and London who bet against the offending country's currency, [we're talking casino capitalism here], causing a deeper crisis and the need for more loans, with more conditions attached [and which, needless to say, are loans only offered at very much higher rates of interest].
Thabo Mbeki had spent many of his years of exile studying at the University of Sussex, and while the townships of his country were filled with tear gas, he was breathing in the fumes of Thatcherism.
According to Gumede, Mbeki took on the role of free-market tutor within the ANC. The beast of the market had been unleashed, Mbeki would explain; there was no taming it, just feeding it what it craved: growth and more growth. [i.e. profits]
So, rather than calling for the nationalisation of the mines, Mandela and Mbeki began meeting regularly with Harry Oppenheimer, former chairman of the mining giants Anglo-American and De Beers, the economic symbols of apartheid rule.
The financial press offered steady encouragement for this conversion: "Though the ANC still has a powerful leftist wing," the Wall Street Journal observed, "Mr Mandela has in recent days sounded more like Margaret Thatcher than the socialist revolutionary he was once thought to be."
Mbeki convinced Mandela that what was needed was a definative break with the past. The ANC needed a completely new economic plan - something bold, something shocking, something that would communicate that the ANC was ready to embrace the Washington Consensus.
Only a handful of Mbeki's closest colleagues even knew that a new economic program was in the works. "All were sworn to secrecy and the entire process was shrouded in deepest confidentiality lest the left wing get wind of Mbeki's plan."
In June 1996 Mbeki unveiled the results: it was a neoliberal shock therapy program for South Africa, calling for more privatisation, cutbacks to government spending, labour "flexibility", freer trade and even looser controls on money flows. According to economist Stephen Gelb, its overriding aim "was to signal to potential investors the government's (and specifically the ANC's) commitment to the prevailing orthodoxy." To make sure the message was loud and clear to traders in New York and London, at the public launch of the plan, Mbeki quipped, "Just call me a Thatcherite."
[As things turned out] Mbeki's plan failed to attract long-term investment; it resulted only in speculative betting that ended up devaluing the currency even further. [These markets and currency traders are not complete fools: they're smart enough to understand that Chicago School economics are pure right-wing fantasy and bullshit, which will only send their adherents and the policy makers up shit creek.]
Nelson Mandela has cited the [apartheid] debt burden as the single greatest obstacle to keeping the promises of the Freedom Charter. "That is 30 billion rand we did not have to build houses as we planned, to make sure that our children go to the best schools, that unemployment is properly addressed and that everybody has the dignity of having a job, a decent income, of being able to provide food and shelter . . . We are limited by the debt that we inherited."
Despite Mandela's acknowledgement that paying the apartheid bills has become a disfiguring burden, the party has opposed all suggestions that it default.
What makes the ANC's decision to keep paying the debt so infuriating to activists is the tangible sacrifice made to meet each payment. For instance, between 1997 and 2004 the government sold 18 state-owned firms, raising $4 billion, but almost half the money went to servicing the debt. In other words . . . instead of nationalising the "mines, banks and monopoly industry" . . . it was doing the opposite - selling off national assets to make good the debts of its oppressors.
In the end, South Africa has wound up with a twisted case of reparations in reverse, with the white businesses and industries that reaped enormous profits from black labour during the apartheid years paying not a cent in reparations, but the victims of apartheid continuing to send large paychecks [and white pension-fund payouts] to their former victimisers. And how do they raise money for this generosity? By stripping the state of its assets through privatisation. The dismantling of the state and the pillaging of its coffers continue to this day.
More than a decade since South Africa made its decisive turn towards Thatcherism, the results of its experiment in trickle-down justice are scandalous:
* Since 1994 the number of people living on less than $1 a day has more than doubled, from 2 million to 4 million plus.
* Between 1991 and 2002 the unemployment rate for black South Africans more than doubled, from 23% to 48%.
As leaders like Mandela traveled the globalisation circuit it was pounded into them that even the most left-wing governments were embracing the Washington Consensus: the communists in Vietnam and China were doing it. Even Russians had seen the neoliberal light - at the time the ANC was in its heaviest negotiations Moscow was in the midst of a corporatist feeding frenzy, selling off its state assets to apparatchiks-turned-entrepreneurs as fast as it could. If Moscow had given in, how could a raggedy band of freedom fighters in South Africa resist such a forceful global tide?...............................................
And those, ladies and gentlemen, are the real reasons why a great many of South Africa's schools have broken windows, rotten termite-ridden floorboards, leaking roofs and a shortage of teachers. Nothing fundamentally to do with truculent teachers' trade unions or even bad management and local authority corruption. Not really. It goes much deeper than that. It's the economy, stupid. Plus stupidity, cupidity, naivety, rapacity and inequality. Thatcherite indeed! Trickle down!