In South Africa–The Politics of an Inquiry for Change

In South Africa–The Politics of an Inquiry for Change

By Francis Wilson

Vol. 10, No. 1, 1988, pp. 4, 6-8

It is very difficult to be balanced when one talks about South Africa On the one hand one can make it too horrendous for words. On the other hand one can oversimplify and say, ‘Well, you know it’s not so bad.’ The difficult thing to convey about South Africa is that it is both realities are true. South Africa is horrible beyond belief in terms of the destruction of the rule of law, yet it remains an extraordinarily vibrant society, a beautiful place to live, with a lot of laughter and humor.

I find I can communicate something about the ambiguities of living in South Africa to people from Eastern Europe very easily. They understand. I suspect that Americans who have lived in the South and have been through the exhilarating and scary days of the civil rights movement also will understand, in a way that the rest of the United States does not.

Our problem is simple to frame, but incredibly difficult to answer. It is this: What can one do to contribute effectively to meaningful change in South Africa?

Coming of age in the sixties as I did, when we compared the African South with the American South we shared a shameful history of slavery and racism. But by 1964 you were on the move. The Brown decision of 1954 had put the law firmly on your side. Membership in the wider Union usually put the federal government on your side, resulting in the Civil Rights Act and voter registration drives. You also had press freedom and the power of television.

I have been fascinated reading in a new biography of Martin Luther King of the strategies that were being used–the enormous importance of using television, using the federal government. In South Africa we do not have that. It is a very different ball game.

In South Africa at the same time there was the massive crackdown of 1960 and the Rivonia trial of 1964 which effectively closed down moat political activity for a decade. African leaders were all jailed or exiled. Govan Mbeki emerged recently–twenty-three years later–an old man. Nelson Mandela and the other political leaders of the ANC, the PAC and other organizations are still incarcerated. The rule of law has been systematically abrogated–detention without trial, literally dozens of people killed in jail, widespread reports of torture, television and radio under the total control of the state, press freedom systematically eroded.

So many people feel that the only thing to do is to leave the country and join the liberation army. That strategy is certainly pursued by many South Africans, particularly black South Africans. I make no judgment about that; I am simply reporting it. I live in South Africa and I am simply telling you what I perceive. We also need to note as we struggle with strategies that no strategy of the last twenty-five years has been effective; change has not taken place. We have to live with this. We are all wrestling–those in exile and those who live inside the country–with ‘What do we do? How does change come about?’

It is in that context that I want to look at the Carnegie Inquiry. I don’t see it as the answer–far from it–to change in South Africa, but it does contribute.

As we started thinking about this inquiry into poverty in South Africa the realities of state power hit us immediately–the state could bar all access to information.

They could simply say, ‘Look nobody is going to move around and get that information. ‘They could have cut off all funds from the United States. They could have banned the organizers, and banning is a very effective weapon; there simply is a decree by the Minister, who signs a little piece of paper that says for the next five years you may not meet more than one other person at any time of the day or night; nothing that you say may be published; you may attend no meetings; and you may not move outside a certain rigid geographical boundary. That has happened to lots of friends of mine. Research workers can be harassed. Informants, those who talk, can be harassed by the state. Of course, the state can refuse all radio and television dissemination of the inquiry’s results. Those are the realities of state power when one starts talking about a research program.

At the same time, the integrity of the inquiry required that those who were poor and their leaders, and that means primarily black South Africans, did not perceive this inquiry to be by a bunch of strange, hostile outsiders. We needed an inquiry that was independent, yes, but not an inquiry that was on the side of the rich. So we had a lot of hard questions to answer. How will this inquiry actually benefit the poor? Why all this American money? What are the motives behind that? What are the political credentials of the inquiry? On whose authority is it being conducted?

With these two sets of pressures

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you can see that the inquiry was going to have a tough time. That process took us something like two years. It all began with a conversation which happened to take place in my office in January 1980 when the International Director of the Carnegie Corporation of New York breezed in and we started talking about research in South Africa, that maybe the time was ripe for another inquiry into poverty. Why another inquiry? When old Andrew Carnegie died he decreed in his will that 10 percent of the income of the Carnegie Corporation of New York should be spent in what was, when he died, the British Empire because, as you know, he was a Scot. Lawyers studied this will and decided that no matter what had happened subsequently to South Africa it was still part of the British Empire as far as the Carnegie Corporation or the will was concerned. So Carnegie down the years has spent money in South Africa on libraries and other philanthropies, including the Carnegie Commission, a study on poverty in 1928-32. Being South Africa and being in 1930, this commission managed an inquiry into poverty that focused entirely and exclusively on whites. Poverty among whites was, of course, a major problem. Large numbers of white, primarily Afrikaans-speaking South Africans had been pushed off the land by drought and–a picture you’re familiar with–and were coming into the cities. The Carnegie Corporation put up the money and there was a famous inquiry which is still a model of social inquiry into poverty.

That inquiry made a major impact. But the very fact of excluding the blacks, quite apart from immorality, had distorted the consequences of that inquiry. The commission thought about anything that could be done to raise whites out of poverty. There was never any thought that the steps being proposed might be at the expense of people who were even poorer but who happened to be black. One aspect of apartheid that you must understand is that there is a strong working-class component–white South Africans just emerging out of poverty, using the state to protect and get themselves out of poverty, at the expense of black South Africans.

However, we could use the fact of the first Carnegie inquiry because that name had cachet with the government. As an Afrikaaner, you could not bash a Carnegie inquiry into poverty. It was like bashing motherhood. That inquiry had been very important in the emergence of white South Africans from poverty with the vehicle of the National party.

While looking at the possibility of an inquiry, I started talking to people in the highways and byways of South Africa. By and large white South Africans responded that an inquiry into poverty was a great idea, and they patted me on the head and sent me on my way. When I tried this out on black South Africans, they looked at me very sadly and said, ‘Listen chum, if you are going to spend one single dollar discovering that there is poverty in South Africa, forget it. Well tell you now for free. There is poverty. It’s bad. What we are interested in is action. Unless there is going to be action out of this thing it’s a waste of time.’ That is tough thinking for academics, that we are not just doing research to write nice books, that the poor are going to say, ‘That is worthwhile. We are prepared that you spend all those dollars if this is going to be helpful to us.’

Then there came this subtle political process of insuring that the inquiry–and I am not saying we succeeded–was not a bunch of rich, white, urban-based liberals looking at a problem, saying how serious and sad it is, and writing analytical reports about it. The inquiry had to be scientific and objective, but it needed empathy with the poor themselves and they with it. That is a more subtle process. The poverty is essentially experienced by blacks. It was important to create an inquiry that had a black center of gravity.

That is a tough and tall order in the South African context of the 1980s.

It took us a long time. I am summarizing two years in an instant. The model we used was not a commission. We were going to involve as many people as we possibily [sic] could. We based it at one of the open universities–open in the sense of nonracial. The Univeraity of Cape Town is such. Twenty percent of our student body is black. It should be eighty percent but twenty percent is a lot better than naught which is what it used to be. We also tried to involve all the other universities, however, the university communities also tend to be a bunch of urban white liberals.

To try and get around that problem we established working groups of professional people. We invited people like Fikile Bam, a lawyer in the eastern cape who was on Robben Island for ten years. We asked him to head a working group of lawyers to think as lawyers about the problem of poverty. Take the facts as given: we know there is poverty; start thinking about strategies and what you as lawyers need to do about it. We also asked educationists; John Samuel, one of the senior black educationists in South Africa, chaired that working committee. And Allan Boesak chaired the working party on church and poverty.

To those small working groups, we said, ‘Spend these two years wrestling with strategies. How do we do something about the issue of poverty in the South Africa in which we live?’

It was also important to go beyond the boundaries of South Africa. The first commission drew the boundary around the white skin, as it were. There is a danger in South Africa in drawing the boundary around the nation-state. It is a great temptatation [sic] , of course. It makes a lot of sense. The way in which the South African economy has developed is that when the gold mines emerged in the 1880s labor was recruited from all over southern Africa. By the 1890s three-fifths of the labor for the gold mines on the Witswatersrand came from Mozambique. In the 1970s a third of a much bigger labor force still came from Mozambique. Those workers come a year or two years at a time and then go back. They are not allowed to bring their wives and children. In the course of a hundred years of developing the society on that basis, Mozambique moved from the production of food

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to the production of gold. They then imported their food. The difficulty is that Mozambicans are producing that gold outside the borders of Mozambique. They were building up the wealth of the southern African economy in which they participated but to which they did not have the right of access. There was a great danger that if we focused on poverty only inside South Africa itself we would make proposals that would be good for black South Africans but bad for Mozembicans.

The politics of this was incredibly delicate but important to get hold of. Over the last three years in southern Africa when Frelimo took Mozambique to independence, the South Africans unilaterally cut the number of migrant workers from 100,000 down to 45,000. Overnight those 55,000 jobs went to Transkeians. That was good strategy in terms of poverty inside South Africa but at the expense of people who are even poorer. It is enormously important as we think about poverty that we think about all the poor and not simply a chauvinistic version of ‘our’ poor, which could be poor whites although we laugh at that now. It is just as wrong to think about ‘our’ poor as just within our political boundary, particularly if the wealth within that boundary has been built up by people outside it.

We did not define poverty in advance. We wanted to find what poverty means for the poor themselves. We found things that I had never thought about.

For example, women in the rural areas will spend seven hours at a time two or three times a week carrying a hundred-pound bundle of wood five miles. On the way home they will walk under a power line. There you have poverty in a nutshell in South Africa–an old lady carrying a hundred-pound bundle of wood beneath a power line. South Africa produces sixty percent of the electricity in Africa. We have no shortage of energy. But over half of South Africa households have no access to electricity. If you are rural and have no money you must look for wood. As population grows the dead wood is cut down, then live trees are harvested, then the bushes. You walk further and further. The ecological consequences are devastating. Thus one of the things that poverty means in South Africa is that nobody has thought of energy distribution. We spend millions on unnecessary nuclear power plants and do nothing in terms of reforestation, solar energy and appropriate energy for those who really need it.

Poverty has many faces, and it is a great mistake to reduce poverty to a single number.

The second aspect of the inquiry was analysis, because you need understanding if you are to develop strategies. Also, the politics was important. People have different perceptions as to why there is poverty. Some blame apartheid, some capitalism, some socialism. Some will say it is because the poor have too many babies, some that the poor are too lazy. Some will say it is all of the above. People have their own favorite headline reasons for poverty.

We wanted to make people argue their case. Is population growth a problem? If so, how? People say, ‘Oh yes if only the poor people just wouldn’t have so many babies.’ That is a victim-blaming approach which the rich use because it removes them from responsibility. But the facts show that South African population growth is not terrible.

We felt that to have a big, open debate on the causes of poverty would ensure that nobody could accuse us of not listening to what the government thought were the reasons of poverty.

After that two-year process of thinking through and discussing with everybody how this should come together, we launched the inquiry in April 1982. We launched it very publicly because the moment we tried to do anything clandestine the state would have known instantly and would have shut us down. We made it an open thing in which everybody must be involved. We went to all the Sunday newspapers and even had a thirty-second appearance on the television news just after a snake bite in some small town. One of us was allowed to say something about the inquiry. This was the one and only time we were allowed near the television screen.

There were two years of research and writing, filming and photography, working groups and discussions. It was brought together in a conference in April of 1984 where we had far more participation than we ever expected. Three hundred papers were presented from all around southern Africa on poverty. Some were microstudies on what poverty wee in a little town in the middle of the Karoo. We had macrostudies about housing. We had political studies about many things. It was an astonishing range of papers. All those who had written papers came. We allowed no one else. We said, ‘no gawkers.’

We had a conference including a photographic exhibition. One of the nice things that had happened as a result of the public launching was that an old friend, Omar Badsha, read about it and phoned up from Durban. He said, ‘Listen man you can’t just do all of this stuff with words. Who ever reads words? What we need is some photographers.’ He took a little bit of money and got the beat photographers in South Africa and told them to come back with photographic essays about what poverty means. The striking thing wee that there was not one starving baby, not because we do not have starving babies in South Africa, but because the photographers were saying that the essence of poverty in South Africa is human dignity. That is the kind of thing I never would have thought about in advance. It came out of listening to people as to what they wanted to say.

We also produced twelve video films for the total of forty thousand rend, that is twenty thousand dollars. I think that is a world record when you know how much films cost to produce. We gave tiny sums of money to people who were interested in filming and said, ‘If you can make us a movie, that’s great but we can’t give you more than this amount of money.’ they went off end they did it.

Part of the politics of that was that in South Africa you may not produce movies without the permission of the censors. The way we were able to work through that was to bring all these videos to a workshop as unfinished productions, in order to have feedback so that the video producers could go and make their films better before they were finalized, so they could then go to the censors. I do not think they have ever been finalized.

We had a film festival from around the world on signs of hope including one on the TVA, “The Electric Valley.” [Southern Changes, August-September 1984] We looked at

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experiments and ideas in different parts of the world. This was important.

There was massive press coverage including the Afrikaans papers but not a second on television. Although we had a reporter from the broadcasting corporation who got very excited about the whole business and wrote up a long report and did interviews, she was spiked. Nothing appeared on the radio or television except one little controversy where somebody had said that they thought actually blacks in the homelands and reserves had been doing very well over the last ten years. That went on but nothing else.

We had a number of post-conference papers to fill gape and think about strategies. A book of photographs, The Cordoned Heart, was published. A couple of us wrote a report for Unicef on children in South Africa. We have four books coming out with edited papers and an overview book. And there are two films.

Is that adequate? Where do we go from there? The real question concerns strategies. We learned that in South Africa we must think about strategies in a short-run and in a long-run way.

In the long run we assume political change. What do we then do in terms of poverty? Once we assume that there is a democratic non-racial society in South Africa we then say, ‘and then?’ Do you want to nationalize the gold mines? What kind of land reform do you want? Do you want Israeli kibbutzim? How do we go on insuring that food is produced and yet maximize employment? How do we generate employment for everybody? How do we humanize the workplace? How do we democratize the economy? Those are the long range questions.

The short range questions are what can we do in the present that will make a difference right now, but is consistent with the long range? I am not so naive as to think that our strategies will bring change. I am talking about anticipating change and helping to prepare for change.

We find ourselves really talking about non-governmental organizations like the trade union movement and education bodies. We need to think through the whole process of structure building, which includes a good deal of luck (let us not underestimate the importance of luck in a society like South Africa–luck that you survive). We need strategic thinking where you say, ‘There does seem to be some space here that we can quietly can get together. It’s a gray area in terms of the law but we think we can move.’ In this way non-governmental bodies do begin to grow.

The trade unions are a superb example. Until 1973 the trade union movement had been smashed in South Africa by eighty years of state repression. In the last fourteen years the trade unions, playing superb politics, have been able to negotiate and work their way into a position where I do not think they can now be destroyed. That is part of the significance of this last strike of the mineworkers. It was, if you like, a dry run just to test the limits. The fact that the National Union of Mine Workers is alive–has not been smashed and is able to exist–is a major advance and a major shift in the political balance of power in South Africa.

We have to recognize the strategic importance of the trade unions and find out what can be done to support them. One simply cannot leave Cyril Ramaphosa standing alone. It is necessary to ask whether there is a second or a third level of leadership with the technical education and training to run a huge trade union under the political pressures that exist in South Africa.

At a personal level this is all very challenging. At first one might regret having been born in this generation of South Africana. “If only I had been born some years later after the political change, then I could get on with creative work,” a person might say. But then one may suddenly recognize that the foundations of the future have to be laid now. This is a very good time to be working. Although there is not a great deal of apace, the apace that exists is crucially important and one can use it. There is less apace now than there was two years ago but there is more space now than there was in 1965. It comes and goes.

We find ourselves at the end of an inquiry like this seeing that it is very important for South Africans to consider the long view. We need to think about the antipoverty strategies that will work once politics is not the problem that it now is. How do we overcome the legacy of three hundred years of conquest, a hundred years of this appallingly biased industrialization with the migrant labor system, and fifty years of apartheid? Those are tough questions in a society that does not have untold wealth. How do we bring about economic equality in what is the most unequal society in the world?

So we think about the long run, but also about the short run. We see that we could get this organization going, or that this organization needs strengthening. What about a children’s institute? That is the approach.

To conclude, Ed Elson in his introduction of John Lewis and Ray Marshall today made two points I think are important. First, he quoted Robert Kennedy, that when an individual stands up he may send forth ripples which will join with a million other ripples which ultimately will change everything. That famous statement by Kennedy was first made at the University of Cape Town. We all share the same dream. It is a common struggle in different ways. The second point that Ed Elson made when he was talking about Ray Marshall was that he plants trees. I thought that was a wonderful analogy. I can remember visiting Germany a year or two ago and standing in the forests where only a generation previously the Nazi bullets had been flying. To see this marvelous forest standing there and hear a friend of mine saying that, ‘Yea, we can cut these down now but we are going to need to replant because in Germany we think in terms of 150-year cycles. We plant for 150 years in Germany.’ That took me a little bit beyond planting wheat for next year.

Is that not exactly what we are doing? We may not live to harvest our trees but we certainly need to plant them now, to provide fruit and shelter for our children and our children’s children all over the world, but certainly in the two Souths.

Dr. Francis Wilson was the banquet speaker at the 1987 SRC annual meeting. A South African economist, Dr. Wilson is currently directing the Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in Southern Africa, a study involving scores of participants. The Inquiry aims to give voice and leverage to South Africa’s “unheard voices,” the dispossessed black majority. Dr. Wilson’s edited and condensed remarks follow.