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Tales from Dystopia XXI: Capitalism and alcoholism

1 May 2017

One of the notable features of life in post-apartheid South Africa is the way the Christian churches seemed to drop the ball after 1994. Before 1994 many Christian groups were quite vocal in their critique of apartheid, and in analysing the ills of society. Once the first democratic elections were over, however, they seemed (with a few exceptions) to breathe a collective sigh of relief, sit back and take the attitude that the government should get on with fixing things. After all, the government was now a democratically-elected one.

Perhaps this contributed to the government’s losing its moral compass, and the government seemed to become aware of it before most of the Christian bodies, and the Moral Regeneration movement was a government initiative, though even that has now been forgotten.

Now there is talk of “white monopoly capitalism” and “radical economic transformation”, which I think is more smoke and mirrors, but perhaps that, and some aspects of Christian blindness, can be illustrated by some more tales from the apartheid dystopia.

If I name names, it is not to blame particular people (I think the people named are probably dead by now, and anyway they are no more to blame than many others) but rather to show that this took place in concrete history.

In 1980 I attended a consultation called by the South African Council of Churches (SACC) at Hammanskraal. It was ostensibly called to evaluate the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) Programme to Combat Racism, but it didn’t do that at all.

I was in a group that was discussing racism in the church, and one member of the group, Ben Ngidi, of the Congregational Church, called for a Black Confessing Church. He said it was necessary because blacks responded to the gospel from a position of poverty and oppression, while whites did so from a position of power and privilege. I thought that this was something of an oversimplification, because here we were, a bunch of mainly middle-class mainly clergy, and that black middle-class church leaders were probably not in a better position to respond from a position of poverty and oppression than white middle-class leaders. I was trying to point out that we needed to look at class as well as race.

I gave an example of a black Christian business man whose behaviour could be seen to be oppressive, and everyone in the group sought to justify it. One member of the group, Maredi Choeu, himself a businessman, said, “Perhaps he gives bursaries.”

The example I gave had to do with Nondweni, a resettlement area in Zululand.

In South Africa white people built towns and established businesses, but complained about the shortage of labour. They induced black people to settle close to the towns (but not in them) in places called “locations” or “townships” to provide the labour needed. So there was established a pattern of a white bourgeoisie and a black working class.

When apartheid came in 1948, however, the Nationalist government thought the “locations” were too close to the towns, so they established a different pattern. They built large rural “towns” further away from the white towns, so that the “labour” would commute long distances by bus, train or taxi. But these “towns” where people settled were unnatural. They were urban residential areas in rural areas. There was no industry, no employment. When they were established, and people were forcibly moved to them there were no public buildings at all. There were no shops, no schools, no churches, no clinics. Such places were the product of ethnic cleansing, and most of the people who lived there were unemployed, because there was no work nearby, and as it was an urban area, people could not keep cattle, sheep or goats, which normally fed people in rural areas.

Nondweni was such a place.

And the first public building in Nondweni was a bottle store (liquor store). It was owned by a Christian businessman, Gideon Mdlalose.

The Mthonjaneni Deanery of the Anglican Diocese of Zululand, of which I was then a member, was aware of this, and it was discussed at a deanery conference. In many of the resettlement areas where black people were forced to move the first public building that was erected was a bottle store, so that the unemployed could squander what little money they had on booze, and the businessmen who owned the bottle stores, whether they were black or white, were making private profit out of public misery.

The Deanery Conference, after discussing this, proposed a very cautious and diplomatically-worded motion on this to be presented to the Diocesan Synod, to the effect that the synod requested the KwaZulu government to be very careful about granting liquor licences in places of high unemployment. The resolution named no names, pointed no fingers at anyone. It did not mention Nondweni specifically, because there were many such places.

The problem, of course, was that the liquor trade was lucrative. KwaZulu was then a “homeland” controlled by an army of (white) civil servants from the central (Nationalist controlled) government in Pretoria, many of whom taught everything they knew about corruption to their black underlings (yes, blaming corruption on apartheid is not entirely wide of the mark).

We debated all this in the Deanery Conference. We could propose blustery resolutions condemning such abuses “in the strongest possible terms” (without, of course, actually using such terms), but we felt that that might make us feel good and self-righteous, but would not actually change anything. So we sent the diplomatically-worded motion to the diocesan office to be included in the synod agenda.

The people at the diocesan office, when they received the motion, decided that it was marvellous, and decided they were going to make it the central focus of the whole synod. The only trouble was, they got it spectacularly wrong.

They hired a film on alcoholism, and were going to get some social worker or someone to speak about alcoholism. And when it came up for discussion at the synod, the clergy, in particular, got up one after another to speak and denounce drinking as a sin. Only one (who was one of the very few white clergy) got up to point out that it was not drinking, but drunkenness that was a sin.

But the sin that the motion was aimed at was not drinking, or even drunkenness, but the sin of economic
exploitation, and one of the chief sinners actually got up and confessed his sin — Gideon Mdlalose himself got up and confessed that the first public building in Nondweni was a bottle store, and that he was the owner of that bottle store, and that terrible things happen there, but if it wasn’t there people would just go to buy their liquor at Nqutu, or if that was closed, they would go to Dundee. But the point of the motion was that hardened drinkers might well do that, but the young children would not. I read Nehemiah 5:7-13 to the synod. Does that not have something to say to all of us, black and white, about “radical economic transformation”?

And it was that example that I put before Maredi Choeu and others at Hammanskraal.

Yes, there is a problem with white monopoly capital. But there is also a problem with Indian monopoly capital, represented by the Guptas. The problem is not with the colour of the capital, but with monopoly capital itself. The ones who are concerned about the colour of the capital are themselves the bourgeoisie. So talking about “white” monopoly capital is something of a smokescreen.

But it is the other problem concerns me more — that a motion to a church synod about capitalism should be transformed into one about alcoholism. By doing so, the church was essentially blaming the victim. Yes, if people did not drink, there would be no business opportunity for a bottle store. But the business opportunity arose because of an unjust political system which removed people from their homes and dumped them in the veld where there were no churches, schools, clinics, sports clubs and above all no work — what else was there to do but drink?

And yes, if a Christian businessman had had scruples about establishing a bottle store in a place like Nondweni, a non-Christian businessman would have even fewer scruples about doing so. Gideon Mdlalose was not a bad man, and I’m not trying to get at him. In fact he was one of the most perceptive people at the synod, because he was one of the few, outside the Mthonjaneni Deanery, who could see what the motion before the synod was really about. It was about capitalism, not alcoholism. It was not about the failings of the flesh of flesh and blood alcoholics, but about the world powers (kosmokratores) of this present darkness (Ephesians 6:10-12).

And the problem persists in our day. We still fail to see the wood for the trees. It is not the racial epithets we put in front of monopoly capitalism, it is monopoly capitalism itself, and the value system that serves it, that we need to be aware of.

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This is part of a series of blog posts on Tales from Dystopia — memories of the apartheid years in South Africa

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Irulan permalink
    2 May 2017 12:00 pm

    “black middle-class church leaders were probably not in a better position to respond from a position of poverty and oppression than white middle-class leaders”

    I experienced the wrath of a young (in her 30s) black academic who voiced her ‘tiredness’ with whites of good will who tried to drive the process of parity in South Africa. It struck me as incongruous for this person to speak on behalf of the disenfranchised, coming as she did from relative privilege.

    Who then can speak with any credibility? Perhaps in working for change, Bonhoeffer’s ‘qualified silence’ is indeed a place of strength.

    • Photini permalink
      2 May 2017 3:42 pm

      The debate on who’s more privileged than whom is neverending, and doesn’t take into account basic human sin.

    • 2 May 2017 6:53 pm

      I see nothing wrong with people speaking about their own oppression, or the general situation of oppression in the country. But in a gathering like that, were most of those present were clergy, and all were middle class, I thing we needed to be aware of that, and recognise that that was where we were speaking from. That did not mean that we could not speak, but that if we were speaking on behalf of the poor and dispossessed, we were speaking at second hand.

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