Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Farm (R)aid: The collective memory of the Boer

In Africa, Media and Politics on March 31, 2010 at 9:51 am

You take my pride and throw it up against the wall…You take my name and you scandalize it on the street. Oh anything you want to do, I say its alright by me.

John Cougar Mellencamp

There are few better examples of conflict resolution than South Africa. When I was young this was the last remaining symbol of old school racist colonization, and the struggle for freedom, symbolized by Nelson Mandela’s long incarceration, was among the most celebrated of progressive causes. I remember watching Mandela’s release from prison as many from earlier generations remember Kennedy’s assassination. I was sick in bed with the flu and stuck watching TV all day. The euphoria attending the event was well justified because Mandela seems to have been one of those incomparable leaders who can forgive in pursuit of their vision. That is the transformative potential of conflict resolution. The inspiring part of this story is that it happened and could happen again. The worrying part is that it may depend integrally on the quality and character of the leadership of particular individuals. There is a fear that Nixon was right: politics is not a science.

Here we are, just over twenty years from Mandela’s release and the signs from South Africa are positive with clear signs of strain. You see, the core of the claims in recognition struggles, like those against racism, is usually not recognition itself but something more foundational to liberalism like formal liberty or the equalization of life chances–i.e. class. What is troubling about most successful resolutions is that they move forward in baby steps by moving toward equalization of life chances, but not by achieving it outright. As Machiavelli taught us:

Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women. But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.

If he is right, then the implication for conflict resolution is that resolutions will be most successful, when they target the formal marginalization of the outgroup, and deal quite directly with their sense of humiliation and historical alienation, but in a way that preserves existing class relations, while opening up future opportunities for random access to privileged locations withing the class structure. There are many examples of this. Think about the progressive income tax. This form of redistribution preserves the gains that exploiters may have garnered in the past, while limiting future advantages to those ahead in the remunerative race. You don’t lose your mansion, but it may be difficult to get another as quickly as you got the first. Even more particularistic solutions like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, did not force anyone to fire anyone, but only to agree not to discriminate against minorities in the future. Based on research in economic psychology this is smart. People are loss averse and resent losing something they have more than being denied something that they could get.

The problem is that in South Africa, the resolution took this form. The whites who stayed in country are much better off on average than the blacks who won their freedom. The solution was quite moderate against the Machiavelli test. This means that times are ripe there for class resentment. However, when you have a history of ethnic oppression mixed in with invidious resource allocation, people naturally gravitate back to the more simple us/them kind of framework. We see this in the States with the Tea Party who want their country back, and we see it recently in South Africa, with the popularity of the song “Kill the Boer,” which was just declared to be hate speech in South Africa. The song has become a firestorm for race relations there now that ANC Youth League President Julius Malema has taken it as his own, where he lead students in singing the song on several occasions recently. Why people would gravitate toward revolutionary slogans is obvious, but how these change in collective memory after a transition in power is critical.

One interesting wrinkle in this story is that it appears that the word Boer and farmer are largely interchangeable in the context. One can then express class resentment in South Africa very cleanly as racial confrontation. The ongoing challenges that many blacks face in their daily lives makes it “hurt so good” in the words of an old John Cougar Mellencamp song to attack the other with symbolic red meat from the revolutionary period. Mass denigration of the historical memory of the enemy is intoxicating and breeds solidarity in unique ways, while escalating conflict with the risk of sending economic development into reverse to borrow a phrase from Paul Collier. Of course, the problems that South Africans now face have less to do with recognition (President Zuma is reported to have said that South Africans have not dealt effectively with issues of history and heritage) and more to do with economic opportunity.

South Africa needs a different kind of class sensitive Farm Aid that addresses the valid concerns of the blacks. Quoting Machiavelli again, we have to hope that President Zuma will “proceed in a temperate manner with prudence and humanity” to approach these class issues so that too much resentment does not render him intolerable. Perhaps he should lead a few rallies where he sings Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata.”

  1. […] is more and more troubling news coming out of South Africa. I wrote last week about a set of early warning signs in South Africa in which the ANC’s youth league leader, […]

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