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Boos of a disenchanted black middle class

Date Released: Tue, 17 December 2013 16:00 +0200

BEFORE we go any further, let us be clear about the booing of Jacob Zuma. It was loud and unambiguous. It was taken up with enthusiasm by the crowd at the Nelson Mandela memorial at FNB Stadium on Tuesday.

The spin doctors have worked hard to puncture the boo balloon, saying it was “disrespectful” and that only a small section orchestrated the protest. The “disrespectful” argument may stand up, but I have heard the line about a “small group of agitators” who “orchestrate” protests before and I am not buying it.

The truth the ANC must face is that the boos came from the mouths of ANC supporters. That is what I witnessed and that is what others seated in the crowd have told me. There were loud cheers for Thabo Mbeki and FW de Klerk and even louder cheers for Barack Obama, which had the effect, perhaps intentionally, of throwing the boos into sharp contrast. The only other boos occurred when Julius Malema’s supporters were shown on the big screens and when George W Bush arrived.

Zuma, Malema and Bush. What do they have in common? Let us leave Bush aside. He was booed because he invaded Iraq and became the bête noire of the global left, of which the ANC remains a somewhat ambiguous part.

That leaves Zuma and Malema. They share a number of traits. They are populists. Their connections have a reputation for tenderpreneurship. But there is something else that unites them, something that takes us closer to the essence of what took place at the stadium on Tuesday.

To properly understand this, you have to dig a little deeper into the demography and economy of Gauteng, and Soweto in particular.

Soweto is the epicentre of one of the standout phenomena of the past 20 years — the rise of the new black middle class. It is all there in the recent Goldman Sachs report on 20 years of democracy.

The report observed that “in absolute terms, Africans now dominate the middle-class consumer segment”. Using the living standards measure — a standard based on consumer goods, houses and cars that have been purchased — the report said some 10 million people had “graduated into the middle to upper band” in the 10 years between 2001 and 2010.

Not surprisingly, the ANC enthusiastically embraced these parts of the Goldman Sachs report, saying they showed that people’s lives had improved owing to “the decisive interventions made in certain areas, including inflation, social security”. There were, it added, areas “where together we can do more”.

What it has studiously ignored are the report’s warnings that the new middle class may be built on a perilously shallow foundation of rising debt. Unsecured lending had skyrocketed to R165-billion by the first quarter of this year, more than double what it was two years previously.

A household-debt-to-disposable-income ratio of 76% suggested that financial pressure was ratcheting upwards at an uncomfortable rate.

National Credit Bureau statistics for the first quarter of this year paint a picture of just how bad it has become. Some 9.5 million of the 20.1 million “credit-active consumers” have what are described as “impaired credit records”, limiting their ability to borrow further. Think about it. Some 48% of credit users are one step away from bankruptcy and a dismal slide out of the middle classes. You have to wonder how many more credit cards these consumers can burn up before they hit the wall and fall back into a lower-income profile and a diminished standard of living.

On Tuesday, members of this new middle class were among those booing Zuma and Malema, whom they see as the architects of their growing financial pressure. And they were cheering Mbeki, under whose rule they had left a life of poverty a decade earlier.

They have a disdain for Zuma’s grotesque expenditure on Nkandla, but it is the newly introduced e-tolling tax that has hit them in the guts. Soweto’s geography makes its people more dependent than most on the network of national highways that the gantries straddle.

The ANC imagines that by exempting taxis from the e-tolls, it has let these consumers off the hook. It is wrong. Many of these people have their first car or a micro-business that depends on a bakkie.

The fragility of entrepreneurship in Soweto has been highlighted in a report by the University of South Africa’s Bureau for Market Research, which showed that 60% of businesses started there in 2007 were no longer operating by 2010.

There are other dynamics at play. Many of these new entrants to the middle class have sacrificed income to educate their children, sometimes bussing them to model C schools in the old white suburbs because of the collapse of schooling where they live.

These children, who would normally improve the family’s foothold in the middle class by obtaining skilled work, are struggling to find jobs in an economy in which job creation has been discouraged. The International Monetary Fund recently cited this as an “insider-outsider” cleavage.

To boil this analysis down to its essence: conglomerates and trade unions are happy to reach an accommodation in which existing jobs are secured with pay that outstrips productivity. Profitability is high because of the absence of competition from start-ups; the cost of entering the market is simply too high. The result has been mass youth unemployment.

And where were Soweto’s unemployed on Tuesday? Those who could tolerate the steady rain were at FNB Stadium, toyi-toying like it was 1984.

What is emerging is a growing gulf between the rising urban elite and the party they depend on to sustain their new quality of life. It is not a stretch to compare South Africa with Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe does not have a majority in the capital city of Harare, but makes up for it with votes in the rural areas.

The problem for the ANC is that this populist model will not fly in South Africa. For one thing, the demographic balance has shifted decisively from rural to urban areas, where most people now live. For another, it has a robust public discourse, a free press and strong, independent institutions in the judiciary, which make populism difficult. Attempts to close these freedoms down — from the row over “disrespectful” art to tighter media legislation and assaults on the constitution as an agent of the “counterrevolution”— have fizzled.

Which brings me to the adulation with which Obama was greeted. Raul Castro’s speech was greeted with polite indifference, but the reception for the US leader was thunderous. The cheers were loud and sustained as he said: “There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”

Here was someone who finally spoke in favour of the economic and political freedom which Mandela had inaugurated — and which the populism of Zuma and Malema diminish with every passing day.

By Ray Hartley

Picture: SIZWE NDINGANE WHEN MANDELA GOES: The populism of Jacob Zuma does not strike a chord with those who, materially, have a lot to lose

Source: Sunday Times 

Source:Sunday Times