South Africa’s One State Solution

In a recent New Left Review piece, Perry Anderson considers what a unified Israeli-Palestinian state might actually be like:

What is to happen to this property and these people in the political system of a single state? In tip-toeing past the issue that is at the root of the conflict between the two communities in the former Mandate, the one-state — a fortiori parallel-state — literature signals tacit acceptance that reparations and return will be no more than symbolic, at best. In so doing, it rejoins the two-state solution in blindness to the improbability that the staggering inequality between Palestinians and Jews, founded on ruthless dispossession of one party by the other, would not be a continual, burning source of anger — held at bay, at gun-point, along the border between two states; haunting the streets and cities of a single state, every monument of wealth and privilege a daily reminder of original theft.

When South Africa comes up in the context of Israeli-Palestinian politics, it’s usually in Apartheid-era form, as a historical parallel for the contemporary conditions of the Israeli Occupation (or as a reminder of Israeli-SA military collaboration). Reading this description, however, it’s striking how well it might apply to post-democratic SA.

Indeed, South Africa granted its dispossessed majority formal political rights, but very little came in the way of significant material reparations. Land reform is long-promised but largely un-implemented, reliant on an unsurprisingly unsuccessful ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ market system and bogged down by bureaucratic opacity and obfuscation. In 2003, the rather neoliberal President Mbeki rejected recommendations for a wealth tax (and lawsuits brought against businesses who cooperated with the previous regime) in favour of one-off payments to the relatively minuscule number of apartheid ‘victims’ who testified in the 1996–98 Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The most energetic effort to address the enormity of South Africa’s past wrongs was the establishment of affirmative action policies, intended to incentivize employment by and ownership of businesses by ‘previously-disadvantaged’ citizens — it’s fairly uncontroversial now to say that these programs were largely captured by elites in order to foster favourable political connections, and largely ineffective in genuinely transforming SA’s economy into one that generates broadly-beneficial growth (betraying the first two B’s in the program’s name).

Unlike any currently-imaginable situation that might accompany the establishment of a single Israeli-Palestinian state, democratic SA did enjoy an initial optimistic period (in retrospect, perhaps more forced than free-willed) national unity, with widely-accepted government legitimacy. There was hope, that true transformation in the lives of the many would occur, and general belief from the ANC in promises from the IMF and World Bank that pragmatic abandonment of the previous liberation movement’s socialist ideals of nationalisation in favour of a ‘growth now, redistribution later’ policy fueled by foreign investment was the speediest path to national economic recovery.

For reasons more complex and contested than I want to go into here, that hasn’t happened. Something much closer to Anderson’s imagined state of perpetual tension mirrors the current mood in simmering South Africa. The monuments of wealth and privilege have indeed emerged as painful reminders of the past and unaddressed inequalities of the present. Eruptions of popular anger and frustration are increasingly common — sometimes resulting violence, often in protest, and (with the emergence of the stridently leftist EFF, and the decline of the ANC) perhaps feeding a new politics and polity. Our original theft has been tip-toed around for decades — how we come to terms with it remains to be seen.