Revolution #278, August 19, 2012
Being Black... In the USA and South Africa
The following interview was conducted with a young African American man (X) who spent a number of months working in South Africa in a technical job. The description of conditions of life for the masses in South Africa provides a searing exposure of the lopsidedness of the world. The same point was driven home in the interview when X pointed out that in the U.S., as a Black youth, he’s never been able to get a full time job or afford to go to college. But in South Africa, as a foreigner working for a major corporation, he could live a life of comparative privilege. All these contradictions caused him to search deeper for answers to why is this so and he was eager to share his observations and his thinking about South Africa and about the impact of imperialism and capitalism and on the relationship between what's going on within this country and what's going on the rest of the world.
Expectations and The Reality
Revolution: What were your expectations and what did you encounter. What struck you.
X: It was a very interesting trip. I didn’t know what to expect. I was slightly nervous. I lived in a regular neighborhood with regular South African people and I had a chance to mix. Even though I didn’t live around foreigners, I didn’t get a full picture of how most SA’s live because by South African standards I was living quite rich.
Before I went I read online a joke somebody made about Johannesburg that you’ll go home saying how many times you got killed there—like you could die more than once. Nothing bad happened to me, but it is a very dangerous place, you have to be vigilant. What it means to have a secure home in Johannesburg means having barbed wire, electric fences, walls, private security. Every house in the area I lived in had a threatening sign “armed household,” “Armed response.” You don’t see cars parked on the street, there is reserved parking for cars. There is 24-hour private security on just about every corner, I’m not sure who hires them. The hut has a barrel where the security guards burn whatever they can find to keep warm. You wonder why do they need so much security?
I got to travel in the country but one of the problems is it’s not developed like the U.S. Not very far outside of Johannesburg, there are no businesses. The businesses are all concentrated where the wealth is. [Otherwise] you can’t find anything anywhere. It’s a country where the average person is making about $4 day. A high percentage of the population (maybe 40-50%) is making $1 day, I can’t remember exactly. It's an astonishing number.
Revolution: Are there still shantytowns?
X: Tons of them. If you drive down the highway, they are everywhere. That’s how a large percentage of the country lives. People are living with no electricity, essentially living off the land almost. An area might have one store with food or really basic necessities for every 5 or 10 miles maybe. What makes it bad is people have to walk so far to those stores, people walk along the highway just to get where they want to go.
The infrastructure is strange, it’s designed so that the people can’t go very far. A guy I talked to said it had something to do with apartheid when they just didn’t want non‑white people to travel at all. They were doing everything they could to keep people from traveling, so the infrastructure was designed so that it’s really difficult to get around without a car in SA. There are almost no black people in SA who have cars. Most white people have cars.
Work is Hard to Find
Revolution: Michael Slate wrote a whole series in the 80's about South Africa, Soweto and the youth and the uprisings, and one thing I remember is that people came from the countryside to work in the mines far away. They lived in dorms and they never got to see their families.
X: It’s still like that, I don’t know about the mines, but I did talk to some South Africans and they live so far—or it might not even be that far, but it is far for them because they have no way to get back and forth easily so they have to live where they work. So then maybe they only get home on the weekends. To commute, one person was 2 hours from his job and it cost him $20 U.S. to get there and he is making $4/day. They don’t have a choice, unemployment is so high, people are doing anything to get work. Their life is truly hard.
A lot of college graduates can’t find work. I got a chance to know some—two whites and two blacks. One of the whites received a job offer before graduating and one got an offer a month after graduating. The blacks had received no offers. It’s amazing with the unemployment so high, it was like the opportunity was just handed down to the white guy. I knew the two unemployed black guys personally and it was not an issue of them not being qualified or not willing to work hard or not having the ability or their personal attributes. There was something else that distinguished them and how they got or didn’t get work. If I owned the company and had the choice to hire from those people I wouldn’t be able to distinguish the black candidates from white. They were good people, but that didn’t seem to matter.
Foreign Companies Hiring Foreigners
Revolution: Why did they hire you to come all the way from the U.S. given the high unemployment in SA.
X: A lot of people ask me that question and to be honest I don’t have an answer. I didn’t question why I was picked. I was very lucky to get this opportunity, but I didn’t want to ask anybody why specifically because I didn’t want them to reconsider what they were doing. They could have used one of the black SA graduates to do the job, unless they were looking specifically for an American. Do you realize how many Americans are working there? A lot of them have moved there. One Black guy thought it’s great there. The others were white folk. I got into a lot of conversations shopping or at restaurants. You draw a lot of attention if you have a foreign accent, if you run into someone from your home country it almost always results in a conversation. They have opportunities there for foreigners. You’d be surprised—it wasn’t just Americans I met, there were a lot of foreigners for whatever reason. The company I worked for was an American company. That’s probably why Americans took precedence in the selection process, that’s what I think.
Revolution: I’m wondering it’s kind of a classical colonial, imperialist thing where they bring the people from their country to work in the white collar jobs. Were most of the people you worked with mostly Americans?
X: People I worked with were from all different countries. It was shocking because I guess to be honest, I almost have the impression that the black South Africans have such high unemployment because they lose all the jobs to the white SA’s and all the foreigners. There are so many foreigners maybe that’s why there’s such high unemployment. It doesn’t make sense to me. Then again, it’s nothing but foreign companies. South Africans don’t have any of their own companies, they are all foreign companies over there.
It was interesting for me to see. You never really pay attention here in the U.S. to when you go to stores to buy stuff, I don’t normally think about who owns those companies and what is the country of origin. In America you find that a high percentage of the stores you actually shop at or have services provided by are American owned. In SA it’s the other way around. About 90% are foreign companies, and 10% are SA. The UK has such a big stake in SA. If not British owned, then they are European like German or Dutch. And lots of American companies.
It works like this: you have these companies in SA and the profit that’s made there, where is it going? Back to the nations that establish those companies. It becomes problematic, the way capitalism works, this whole ownership thing... well, I’ll describe slavery as a situation, where a person works only for sustainability because the whole point of slavery is to have a worker that works for maximum profit. You want a worker where he works and the only thing the owner has to do is provide enough to keep that worker working. How you enforce that on a person can be done by force, or done more incognito with a political/economic system. It takes us to a system of ownership where that can lead to ultimate oppression where you have a group of people who own everything. And the other people have to depend on you for everything because you own everything. Those people are completely oppressed by you because they have to work for you, and then they have to turn around and get the products they need to survive from you. You can deny entire groups of people those resources. It’s a big problem in SA because you have a nation with a certain amount of land and resources and then you roll all these foreign countries in, dominate all the resources and take up all the desirable land, put all the native people over here in places where nobody wants to live. Then make a profit off of all that labor you control. The catch to it is all that labor you control because capitalism creates its own poverty. You have to deny some people basic necessities to maintain the system. It happens in the U.S. But oppression abroad is worse, definitely worse.
Revolution: When you were describing whole areas where there are no stores and people have to go miles. I was thinking about a large African American area in [home city], an area where there are all these vacant lots and no jobs or hardly any stores, no supermarkets. A bleak landscape. Do you see any parallels?
X: I think there are some parallels between the blacks in SA and Blacks in the U.S. Sometimes I drive through a neighborhood and it looks like a lot of people are living very hard. Sometimes I question whether I’m in SA or in U.S. Unemployment statistics often are bad statistics because they exclude a vast number of people that would normally be considered unemployed—people who are not working. And also I think you should include people who work part time but can’t find full time work, because you just can’t make it on a part-time job. There are tons of people not working, I don’t know how they are living. There’s high unemployment and there’s a whole section of people who are totally displaced. There’s no money flowing into those areas. Why not, that’s a whole other story. The conditions, the discrimination when it comes to opportunities, is similar to SA.
I can say personally that discrimination is alive and well in this country. It’s a lot harder for a Black male to find work. I have Black friends from top universities who can’t find work. Someone I know just got a job and got it quickly. I mentioned this to a couple friends, the first thing they asked “is he Black or white.” I said, “Are you asking me is he white or is he Black because you are saying if he was Black it would not be possible for him to find work so easily? Is that what you are saying? ” And that’s what it boiled down to. It’s getting to this whole system that oppresses groups of people. The very same thing could be said for Hispanics in the U.S., or for other third world countries, but the reason I mention this to you, is because that’s my experience. I get a chance to experience that first hand, that is my race, and I can tell you what that experience is like, in much the same way an Hispanic person could explain the burdens they have under an oppressive system. To be honest, they are going to have to do something soon, because I don’t know how they are going to sustain this. There are a lot of people, my generation, if you are a Black male and you are not the top 1% of something, you are not going to find a job. That’s just how difficult it is.
Revolution: Before you had this job in SA, this temporary job....
X: (laughs): I’ve always had temporary jobs. I’ve never had a real job. Well, they’ve been real jobs, but not a stable job.
Revolution: So when you said you went to SA to work, it seems there’s an irony there.
X: Like I couldn’t work here, I went there to get work. [Laughs] There’s a lot of inequality here. Where is that wealth going to, it’s going to 1%, another part to the irony. I was reading on the news, the wealth gap in the U.S. has intensified in the last five years between the top 1-2% and the rest of the population. The majority of people are losing money and a tiny percentage are gaining.
We have to get rid of that. It’s not working. People are deprived of the basic necessities of life. Those towns are in SA, they are completely separated from political decisions, or normal commerce. Capitalists don’t open businesses in shantytowns. The people have their own courts, grow their own food. They are on their own.
Being American you expect to live a certain way, to a small extent I participate in the economy and I go out and buy stuff. In SA even people who work can’t buy anything, only enough to barely sustain themselves. The stores are NOT for those people. It gets you to question the system as a whole. You thought you were in this economy, you are a consumer, but you also produce, and then you consume and businesses profit from that from a vast number of people. You’re brought up in America with those expectations that’s supposed to be the way things are, how it works. But that’s not how the system works. There is no interest in YOUR role in it. You’re taught in this system you are supposed to play a role in the economy, but if you end up poor then they end up blaming you, it’s your fault, you bought the wrong stuff, you made bad decisions as a consumer, you didn’t work hard enough, you didn’t save enough.
Capitalism has no concern about making everybody a consumer, its primary concern is just to profit when possible. It’s a monopoly for a small percentage of people. It boils down to the money—who controls the capital and resources, and who has access and where it gets used. It’s a constant transfer between those people, and a little bit trickles down to the ordinary person in the process of them competing with each other in the 1%, only in the process of competition do the 90% ever get a chance to participate in the economy. It’s not concerned with making opportunity for the people, it’s only concerned with making more money for the tiny percentage, done in a competition way with each other.
Any news media exists as long as it’s serving that group of people because it’s outright propaganda. Bill O’Reilly says this is a prosperous country because we’re a noble and righteous people, not that it’s because the U.S. is exploiting billions all over the world.
Effect of the End of Apartheid
Revolution: I want to ask you about the effect of the end of apartheid in SA, yet the oppression of the vast majority of people is the same or maybe worse. The form of apartheid was righteously defeated and done away with—so the system of apartheid changed, but the system of imperialist domination and exploitation did not change.
X: There’s a real direct parallel to the situation in the U.S. and the end of slavery. Apartheid is over and in a textbook I would say “great!” I would expect to see a SA where there is some kind of equality. The SA I went to now has a black African-run government, but one has to question what was accomplished when apartheid was ended. I can tell you a few things I learned. I said before that the infrastructure makes it very difficult to travel. Well apartheid made it illegal for black people to travel outside of where you were placed. So Johannesburg, the city, was strictly off limits.
When apartheid ended, money flowed into the city of Johannesburg. The blacks wanted opportunity so they moved to the city. Then the whites started to move out of the city, they moved up north of the city and then eventually to the north suburbs. I’ve been to both of those areas. So when the blacks moved into downtown the businesses moved out, and now the city center is poor, with tons of unemployment. Under apartheid there was no crime in the city center. The black South Africans come there not to bring crime but for opportunities, but they found there are no jobs, all the businesses abandoned it, and now it’s dangerous. People had traveled so far to get there, so you literally have people sleeping on the streets. You have homelessness here in the U.S., but downtown Johannesburg is full of people in the street with nothing but maybe some blankets, that’s it. Tons of people like that. Everything is shut down. What used to be malls... it’s gone. When the blacks came, the whites packed up and the whites didn’t leave them anything to work with.
It’s almost like an illusion of black control. One of the main things that was done when apartheid ended was that blacks can go to certain schools now, or travel to certain areas. But people go to school and then come out unemployed. They gave them a few things, but they gave them no economic opportunity whatsoever.
So the whites kept their wealth and they moved up north to suburban areas. Whites are riding around in BMWs, and Mercedes, with Aston Martin dealerships around the corner. But look at the rest of the country. Hardly any black people own cars at all, even professionals and highly educated blacks don’t have cars. People get around by taxi, which is a small bus, I call it an ice cream truck, that size with about 25 people packed in. No subway, some buses, but a huge number of people have to take the bus because they don’t have cars. A bus stop will have a whole block-long line of people waiting to get on. And whole sections of the city don’t even have busses, so people take the “taxis.”
Revolution: To get back to the “black African-run” government. Apartheid was ended, but the capitalist-imperialist domination was not. There was no revolution to uproot the system, the state, no transformation in the economic base of imperialist domination. But there was a section of the black bourgeoisie that got rewarded. In their class view, the change that happened was the change that was needed. They were not looking to transform the whole society toward ending exploitation and oppression, including the national oppression of the South African people, and putting the economy and relations between people on the basis that it’s not about profit and commodity relations, and not about imperialism dominating all that. They saw the goal as getting rid of apartheid and becoming part of the ruling class. One of the things BA talks about is that when there is a mass uprising by the people, but there is no genuine revolution, then often when the people are still left with nothing, that gets channeled into demoralization and crime that reflects the values of the dominant society. Did you have a sense of how people view all this?
X: That’s very interesting. It’s kind of backwards what’s happening. The whites always complain about the corruption of the government, and they list a thousand things that could be done about it. But among the black people I talked to, I encountered some difficult moments. In terms of their views on the political system, the people I talked to were in support of the government even though they think it could use some improvement, they were strongly in favor of it. They think things will progress. A lot of people have become content with their conditions. I was trying to tell them...I couldn’t fire up anything. They were like “this is how things are.”
Revolution: What kinds of people did you talk to about this, were these mainly people who had gained something through this? Were some of them the people you were describing who are living by the side of the road?
X: I talked to people from various backgrounds. I tried to throw at them: what apartheid does is one thing, but look at other nations, there’s so much unemployment. Why do I as an American get the privilege of working in SA? It was very easy for me to get permits. An American can go anywhere. But a black South African trying to come to the U.S. is going to be very difficult, why is that? I gave some lectures. I tried to bring people’s attention that there’s a huge wealth inequality. I’m a broke American, but there’s a huge gap. Just because I was born in U.S., and just because those white SA’s were born white, we get all this entitlement.
I met a hardcore capitalist from Zimbabwe, I never met anyone like him before. He outright said, “if you say you’re trying to benefit humanity you’re nothing more than a hypocrite. I’m concerned about me. It’s bullshit to be for the common good.” His philosophy was to tip over the imperialist power to Africans, so “we can get the wealth we’re entitled to.” He was a banker, he worked for Morgan Stanley. I had never talked to someone like that in the U.S. I know they exist, but they would not be having a conversation with someone like me. He just made it outright clear, I’m out to make hardcore money.
Many black South Africans were so happy to get rid of apartheid, that they have blind faith in the government. But people would also say conditions are not so good. In certain ways the Africans are being dragged back into apartheid. The government keeps track of every criminal and tragic event. They are twisting it around to go back. Their ideology overlaps with fascism, and it has genocidal implications. That’s what they are brewing up.
Revolution: What did you lecture on?
X: I was talking about the system, I said you guys work so hard, you are not guaranteed anything. It’s so hard to do anything. It’s just not fair.
Revolution: Have you studied communist political economy? Read Bob Avakian?
X: I have read some of that in the past.
Revolution: Were you thinking about this when you went there or did it hit you when you witnessed all this?
X: I was kind of prepared, but being able to experience it helped. You get a chance to see how the system really works on a global scale. It can be explained to you, but to actually see it and outright know. I’m not that old, but the further I get in my life, I’m breaking away from this stuff that’s bad.
Revolution: When you look at literally billions of people around the world who are superexploited by the imperialists...
X: That’s a word I use: Superexploitation. Labor rate is so much lower, but the product cost remains the same.
Revolution: Marx in Capital talks about wages being based on buying labor power as a commodity and the commodity is the minimum needed to keep the worker alive to come back to work the next day. If you can eat on $1/day and live in a cardboard box on the side of the highway and keep working, that’s what they will pay, because if you don’t want to take it, there will be somebody else who will, that’s part of the competition.
X: It’s kind of crazy that a capitalist can sit back while other people do all the work and don’t have to worry about providing them with anything. It’s insane.
Revolution: So I was wondering about your thoughts on fundamental transformation, the need for revolution and how your experience impacted your thinking.
X: It is essential that there be revolution, and it will have to occur on a global scale, not just in one country. Capitalism is always digging it’s own grave, causing it’s own problem. You gotta be there when that problem arises and be ready to get revolution out to people, create an awareness among the people. If people are feeling kind of revolutionary, you have to let them know what their efforts are going to lead up to, and from an historical perspective. We need a massive expansion of the movement for revolution. To get a movement like this going, you need to get as much exposure as possible. If there is a way to get out to different groups of people, do it. Consistency. Being there when those gravedigging issues arise. Eventually leadership rises up, but it might not be leadership that’s going to put an end to those problems. Have to be there as leaders when those issues arise, so people have a full perspective on what’s going on and can be assured that their efforts are going to go toward curing the ailment and not taking that nice aspirin.
I want to tie the end of apartheid into the end of slavery in the U.S. How it parallels slavery—slavery is over but the condition of Black people in this country is pretty bad—why that is, how this group has been disadvantaged even 150 years after slavery is over. One analogy I thought of is it’s like there’s a race—one person has a Mustang, he floors it, and the other person is supposed to race them on a bicycle. Never will there be complete equality under capitalism.
The Revolution Interview: A special feature of Revolution to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports, and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our paper.
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