At the limits of inequality discourse

Race reductionism is stunting the possibility for radical change in an ever unequal South Africa.

Khayelitsha, South Africa. Image credit Frerieke via Flickr CC.

That South Africa is one of the most unequal nations in the world is a given. This is a reality one need not consult reports of the World Bank or Stats SA (South Africa’s official statistical service), to determine. A simple glance at any city or town in the republic lays bare the material and social divisions that typify the nation. Yet, for a country often defined by its inequality, our conversation around the topic remains facile. As my colleague, Jeff Rudin, points out much of this has to do with how inequality discourse in South Africa almost always reduces the phenomena to its racial dimensions.

A consequence of this race reductionism is that the potential to explore a politics of radical change is stunted at its roots. This stunting is of particular significance in a society that so desperately needs to re-build itself after centuries of rampant exploitation and oppression.

Although the tendency to reduce inequality to its “racial” factors is both limited and limiting, it does not mean that wealth, income, and social status are completely “deracialized.” What it means is that a wide array of people are reduced to their racial category, their wealth and income is measured and then compared to those of other “racial” groupings. In doing so, we are supposed to have a clearer understanding of the nature of inequality. Despite the obvious drawbacks of this Verwoerdian lens of analysis, South Africa seems to suffer from material disparities between these so-called racial groupings.

Whites, the data tells us, earn three times more than their black counterparts. Households consisting primarily of black descendants make up 93 percent of all poor South Africans. A whole host of other economic disparities exist between the population groups as they would have been divided under apartheid.

These observations, and their underlying assumptions about the world, offer us little insight into what produces and reproduces South Africa’s rampant inequality. The greatest challenge to the conventional wisdom around inequality is the glaring reality that “intra-racial” inequality has for the past few years contributed more significantly to total inequality. As the 2018 World Inequality Report states: “Rising black per capita incomes over the past three decades have narrowed the interracial income gap, although increasing inequality within the black and Asian/Indian population seems to have prevented any decline in total inequality.”

In racialized language this means that the economic gap between Sipho and Vukosi contributes more to generalized inequality than the gap between Sipho and Johan. And not only that, this gap has widened while the gap between “races” continues to contract. This reality is both enlightening and challenging to the current policy paradigm and the dominant discourse. Yet these basic facts rarely, if ever, make the headlines. The dominant approach merely paints a picture of the complexion of inequality, while running away from the actual complexities of inequality. This crucial limitation inevitably interacts with the material forces at play. As Michael Nassen Smith, the editor of Confronting Inequality: the South African Crisis points out,  “… discrimination, systemic or individual, is only one—and a limited one at that—way of understanding […] inequality in post-apartheid South Africa.”

To demonstrate the limitations of reducing inequality to its racial dimensions, let us imagine an anti-racist capitalism. Under such a system, South Africa’s distribution of income and wealth would look slightly different. But it would simply be a matter of appearance, an economy embedded in an extractive and parasitic road to accumulation. The problem with inequality in South Africa is not that it is racialized, but that South Africa remains a society built on the extraction of surplus value from both paid and unpaid labor performed by the majority. A discourse meant to highlight material and social inequalities should move away from the narrow particularism that currently defines it; it should transform into a universal approach that takes issue with the existence of material and social inequalities, and not just one form of inequality.

The discursive limits surrounding inequality move us from a question of data analysis to a political one. This shift moves us towards a discourse that is sensitive to the legacy of racialism in South Africa, while cognizant of the need to build a just society. That the Motsepes and Ramaphosas of the nation do not hold the same level of wealth, or power as their paler counterparts the Ruperts and the Openheimers is of little significance for the 30 million South Africans who live below the poverty line. To argue otherwise is to engage in a shallow racialist version of trickle-down economics. And if there’s one thing the past 30 years have shown it’s that wealth doesn’t trickle down.

The ways in which we understand a problem determine the ways in which we approach the problem. The status quo serves to worsen an already terrible level of inequality. It is for this reason that South Africans need to revisit their understandings of race and inequality lest we keep repeating the same mistakes.

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