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Does national oppression persist in South Africa today?

Professor Raymond Suttner
Professor Raymond Suttner

5th November 2014

By: Raymond Suttner


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The impact of the past in the present preoccupies many people trying to understand conditions in contemporary South Africa.     During the national liberation struggle, especially that led by the ANC, structural oppression experienced by black South Africans came to be described as national oppression and class exploitation.   While I am aware of the historical and contemporary importance of gender, sexuality, culture and other areas where oppressive conditions prevailed, these are not the present focus.

The argument advanced by the ANC and its allies was that South Africa could not be understood purely through the prism of race nor adequately explained in class terms.  It had taken many decades to arrive at an understanding that linked these two forms of oppression and exploitation, but eventually a concept evolved known as colonialism of a special type (CST) or internal colonialism.  It was embraced in the struggle against apartheid, which was being pursued by an alliance embracing all classes and strata that were suffering under apartheid and all, including whites, who sought to establish a democratic state.


While class exploitation could explain what capitalism in South Africa shared with other countries, the interlinkage with national oppression sought to highlight the distinct character of apartheid domination. 

Race was not simply prejudice used to divide the working class; it was built into the structure of the apartheid state.  The analysis sought to explain not only why there was super-exploitation of black, especially African workers but also why the condition and advancement of all classes of black people was impeded by national oppression. 


Super-exploitation arose because the black working class entered the workplace under specific conditions that were not found in “normal” capitalist states, namely an array of apartheid laws and systems ensuring insecurity and providing special advantages to the employer. 

Systemic oppression against all black people, especially Africans, meant that wealth was concentrated primarily amongst white people, albeit to an extreme degree amongst the super-rich, associated with big monopolies.  This system of class and national oppression also created conditions where the white middle and working classes had an interest in the continuation of CST, through their lifestyle and earnings being related to or dependent on the subordination of underclasses of black people.

It also meant that black people - but again, especially Africans - were highly represented amongst the unemployed and low paid workers, people eking out a living on the margins of the land, falling under the thrall of Bantustan chiefs, people without housing or healthcare, without decent education or systems of welfare.

Twenty years into democracy apartheid has gone but its patterns of oppression live on in many ways.  This is not to suggest that nothing has changed, or to deny that there have been significant changes in the lives of many people. It is precisely because of the deeply embedded structural inequality that it is not possible to reverse this in 20 years.   Beyond inequality, it is clear that many of the patterns of oppression experienced under apartheid continue to be part of the experience of black people.

All South Africans have the vote now and important as this is, it has not been able, on its own, to deliver a “better life for all”.

There has been substantial provision of social grants and access to water, housing, electricity, healthcare, and education.  But these advances have not been universal and they are often marred by inadequate planning and maintenance.  There has also been extensive fraud and violence used to deny some their access and allow others to benefit because of their political affiliations. This is manifested particularly in the simultaneous allocation of RDP housing to ANC members, irrespective of where they stand on “RDP lists” and the mowing down of makeshift shelters that people have erected for themselves, notably in the illegal, violent and deadly attacks on Abahlali baseMjondolo in KZN, and also, amongst other places, under a DA-led administration in the Western Cape.

This persistence of past experience includes a process of re-bantustanisation in the allocation of powers to traditional leaders.

The past persists throughout social life: who is profiled as a likely criminal, who inhabits the country’s jails, who lies dead from police bullets, who is in fact prosecuted and who not, and who experiences repression in a range of other forms.

Under apartheid the oppressed people confronted a ruling bloc comprising white capitalists, the middle class and workers, located differently but united in deriving benefits from the oppression of black people.  All black people, whether aspiring capitalists, part of the middle class, workers or unemployed, experienced national oppression that set limits on what they could achieve and the comfort they could enjoy in their lives.

The onset of democracy has seen the rise of a small black bourgeoisie who have in some cases come to enjoy access to considerable wealth.  Their entry into a recast ruling bloc has not altered the patterns of exploitation of the black working class, notably in the mining sector where contract labour, slave wages and lack of basic amenities persists.

Others have entered the capitalist class as a bureaucratic bourgeoisie, using their access to state resources to enrich themselves or to enable their associates to be enriched.  At various levels state resources have not been used by bureaucrats to advance emancipatory goals; instead they have been diverted from legally prescribed goals through multiple acts of corruption.

In almost all cases those denied access to basic needs remain black people and primarily Africans, as under apartheid.  While there is no law saying that black people cannot access various opportunities and while all are now enfranchised, the practical effects of 20 years of democracy have seen the reproduction of inequalities existing at the onset of democratic rule. 

While these cannot be directly related to apartheid's national oppression, certainly the practical effect in people’s lives is substantially the same.  This has been a broad overview. More thorough analysis is needed to understand what it means to eliminate what remains of national oppression. Only then will we be able to embrace a truly emancipatory path.

Professor Raymond Suttner, attached to Rhodes University and UNISA, is an analyst on current political questions and leadership issues. He writes a regular column and is interviewed weekly on Creamer Media’s Suttner is a former political prisoner and was in the leadership of the ANC-led alliance in the 1990s. He blogs at His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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