India’s liberation experience shows us the importance of differentiating between elites and subordinates, rather than just looking at race, says Martin Plaut, senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

After a quarter century under the rule of the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa is far from fulfilling it promise. Corruption is thriving. Living standards are declining. Unemployment is climbing.

Speaking about the level of corruption at the FT Africa Summit last month, President Cyril Ramaphosa himself admitted: “It was much bigger than I think most people could ever have imagined.” He estimated that the cost of graft under his predecessor Jacob Zuma exceeded R500 billion ($34 billion), about a tenth of South Africa’s GDP. A 2019 World Bank report suggests that South Africans’ incomes have fallen every year since 2015 with no sign of this being reversed soon. Young men and women are turning to the drug trade in the hope of escape. Gang violence in Cape Town has escalated to the point that the army had to be deployed there earlier this year to contain it.

In 1994, the ANC inherited a deeply unequal society after decades of apartheid, but its two key policies on taking office have done little to address the country’s underlying economic problems.

The first, Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), has had some successes in producing a black middle class, estimated to be between 13.5% and 43.2% of the population depending on the definition. This has been accompanied, however, by rising inequality and a growing impoverished underclass. Moreover, most of the benefits of black majority rule have been seized by a narrow politically-connected minority. Government tenders been used to divert resources into the pockets of a few elites in what is now termed “state capture”. This is being investigated by the Zondo commission, but there are serious doubts about whether anyone will be held to account. Those implicated are simply too powerfully connected to the ANC.

To understand why one has to turn to the second policy the ANC has used to transform the country: cadre deployment. This has seen party members appointed to key public positions, irrespective of their ability to do the job. This practice, which leads officials to answer first to the party and second to the public, was ruled unlawful by a court in 2009 but with seemingly little effect.

Re-imagining South Africa

To break free from the current state of affairs, it will require an intellectual as well as political re-alignment. South Africa must re-imagine its past to free up its present.

In doing this, we can learn from the Indian experience and school of thought known as Subaltern Studies. This approach, which came out of debates in the 1970s and 1980s, focuses on what historian Ranajit Guha called “the politics of the people”. It differentiates between the study of the Indian elite and their subordinates. “Subaltern Studies sought to trace the history of subordinated groups in South Asia in all their fullness, and in this respect went beyond merely the study of Indian nationalism,” writes David Hardiman in his new book The non-violent struggle for Indian freedom, 1905 – 1919.

In Hardiman’s view, the elite and subordinate classes have different objectives. He writes of India: “The elite sought above all to win constitutional power, and deployed agitation to this end. Elite nationalists were not committed to giving the subaltern any real power, often withdrawing protests when they were seen to pose a challenge to Indian elite groups, such as landlords, the business classes, industrialist and other vested interests. The elites wanted only limited transformation.”

This approach clearly has relevance to South Africa. The ANC was similarly founded, in 1912, by relatively elite groups such as lawyers, teachers and chiefs. Its leaders have come from these same strata and include lawyers such as Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela and multimillionaire businessman Ramaphosa. Since 1994, the country’s new ruling class has focused on consolidating rather than challenging power.

Both during the fight against apartheid and since it came to power, the ANC has attempted to present itself as the sole legitimate representative of the South African people. Leaders like Zuma have promised that the ANC will rule until the second coming of Christ and the party has tried to de-legitimise all alternatives – from the Pan Africanist Congress that broke away from the ANC in the 1950s, to the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) today. The basis of the ANC’s claim to authority is that it is the only party that rules in the interests of the black majority. Subaltern Studies, however, encourages us to view this claim more sceptically and examine whether a group’s actions are genuinely geared towards popular transformation or whether they primarily benefit a narrow elite. In these assessments, South Africa’s deep racial inequalities will often be an important factor – and one that will be emphasised by the ANC – but race alone cannot be a substitute for understanding.

A more empirical look at the effects of the ANC’s policies shows how the party has repeated sided with elites over the poor, regardless of race. Consider the Aurora Mine scandal in which the nephew of President Zuma and a grandson of Nelson Mandela stripped the assets of the mining poor (both black and white). Where was the ANC outrage? Where is the challenge to the power of the Zulu king, who controls vast swathes of land, depriving local people of their rights? Take state capture, which has enriched a few at the cost of the vast majority. Time and again the ANC has sided with the country’s elites despite its populist discourse that reduces everything to “them and us”.

The recent convulsions in the DA should be examined similarly. The resignation of Mmusi Maimane, the party’s first black leader, has been portrayed as a power-grab by whites in the party. However, this ignores his shortcomings as a leader in the May general election and his move towards ANC-like racially-defined policies, which the DA’s head of policy Gwen Ngwenya said had failed the country.

What South Africa requires is a re-examination of local and national politics on a case-by-case basis. What does government, at every level, actually do for the people? What do parties actually offer the poor? Do they provide a means of escaping poverty or merely enhance it? In making this assessment, it is vital to look at the realities on the ground. Race will often be a key factor, but a simplistic black-white analysis – of the type that has been pushed by the ANC and allowed it to claim, rather than earn, legitimacy – has been barren for South Africa.

Martin Plaut was previously Africa editor at the BBC World Service. He is the co-author of Who Rules South Africa? (with Paul Holden) and Understanding South Africa (with Carien du Plessis).

This article was first published on African Arguments.