Nelson Mandela’s passing was only a few days ago and already the left-wing press and counter-press have managed to come up with a wide range of criticisms of someone who should, ostensibly, be their hero. Slavoj Zizek, that staunch opponent of anything modern in the left, is recycling the old claim that Mandela simply changed the skin colour of the overlords; Counterpunch is leading the charge to claim that he was just a neo-liberal friend of the rich, and black people didn’t benefit from the ANC at all; the Guardian managed to give a thoroughly negative review of his funeral, with the cherry on the icing being their focus on Obama rather than, you know, the South Africans who Mandela led; and they even managed to give Simon Jenkins a go at criticizing the coverage of Mandela’s death. I can’t decide which part of Simon Jenkins’s article is worst – the fact that he paraphrases the title of a profoundly important book about the holocaust in order to criticize coverage of a hugely liberating figure; or the fact that he is writing it at all, given that he is a confirmed HIV denialist and was directly involved in promoting HIV denialist science, which cost South African blacks so many lost lives and chances.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no fan of hagiography and I’m happy to criticize my heroes, but I would have thought that in this case someone as profoundly important as Mandela could be given a week or two before the critical analysis of his legacy began. I mean, he only just died and the left – which historically was most broadly supportive of him – have been really quick to start pissing all over his legacy. I guess it’s largely the British left I’m quoting here, but over at Crooked Timber’s comment thread on Mandela a wide range of commenters seem to have joined in with this “he didn’t immediately undo all the economic wrongs of apartheid so he was bad” chorus, and a lot of the commenters there must be American. It makes me a bit uncomfortable, especially since those on the right who were famously opposed to Mandela at the time (people like Bush, the entire Israeli government, etc) have largely refrained from resurrecting their criticisms of the time. Surely if his opponents of the time don’t feel it’s right to say anything bad about him for a week or so, it might be worth one’s while to stow it for a bit?
One of the main threads of left-wing criticism of Mandela appears to be that he didn’t do much to reduce inequality, and we see various strengths of this argument ranging from “he blew a chance” through “he let down his communist allies” to the extreme “he just swapped racial oppression for economic oppression” or “swapped one set of overlords for another” type arguments. I think there are two huge flaws in these opinions (aside from their obviously terrible timing): the first is that the data from within South Africa is not so clearly supportive of the conclusion that Mandela (and more broadly the ANC) have failed to do anything about inequality; and the second is that progress on inequality and the related left-wing complaint of a failure to rein in neo-liberalism’s negative effects needs to be judged against the context of progress in the rest of the world over the same period, and against the backdrop of HIV in South Africa.
What does the data say on inequality in South Africa?
My first complaint with criticisms of these claims is that the data on inequality in South Africa is not being well assessed, and that the broader development issues South Africa faced are not being considered. Let’s consider that second complaint first. In the Counterpunch article I linked to above, for example, Patrick Bond writes critically:
the sustained overaccumulation problem in highly-monopolised sectors continued, as manufacturing capacity utilization continued to fall from levels around 85 percent in the early 1970s to 82 percent in 1994 to below 80 percent by the early 2000s
This seems hugely unfair to me. I don’t know a great deal about South Africa, but I’m guessing that “manufacturing capacity utilization” in the 1970s was highly dominated by the use of cheap, exploitable labour who had no rights and no capacity to control the extent to which they were “utilized.” Furthermore, the sanctions of the 1980s would have further restricted the ability of South African industry to modernize in a way that would improve capacity utilization, and by the time their investments were up and running in the early 2000s they faced … China. This capacity utilization also looks pretty favourable when compared to the USA, where in 2009 it was 64%. It doesn’t seem to me that this claim is fair.
We’ll come back to this problem of context and comparison with the USA later, but for now let’s look at the data. It’s true that South Africa has a terrible level of inequality, with a Gini index of between 0.6 and 0.7 depending on how you measure it. The world bank suggests that there has been an increase in inequality (measured using the Gini), with Gini values in 1995 of 57 and in 2010 of 63. That’s not a big change, though – this UNU working paper shows that World Bank estimates of the Gini coefficient in 1995 showed a wider range of values than the entire change recorded by the World Bank between 1995 and 2010. There is no clear method for calculating variance in Gini coefficients, and not enough data generally to establish what that variance might be, so whether or not the change from 1995 to 2010 is significant is hard to know.
The story becomes even more complicated than that when you consider the data challenges in nations like South Africa, and look at more nuanced research into inequality in South Africa. It’s difficult to believe that data on black South Africans collected before 1995 was really very good or complete, so the true depth of inequality in apartheid South Africa is hard to be confident about. Furthermore, assessment of wealth in low income countries is not so simple as simply calculating income – it is typically done through assessment of consumption expenditure. This is done because poor people in low income countries tend to underestimate or misreport their income, and much of their wealth can be tied up in informal markets and means of exchange (e.g. they have land and pigs but little money). Measures of Gini in South Africa based on consumption expenditure tend to be different to those based on income, and measures of wealth based on consumption are not readily available in earlier years. Furthermore, the Gini is a very poor measure of inequality – not only is uncertainty usually not calculated, but it doesn’t give any meaningful distinction between different types of inequality, and I seriously doubt it’s linear. For example, a change in Gini index from 0.35 to 0.40 may have a very different meaning to a change from 0.57 to 0.63. I don’t think any realistic work has been done on how useful the Gini index is for either within- or between-nation comparisons.
However, there is some recent research available on inequality in South Africa that paints a more nuanced picture. This research, from the University of Stellenbosch, suggests that poverty – measured in absolute and relative terms – has declined in South Africa, and that inequality within racial groups has increased while inequality between racial groups has decreased. In fact, according to this report:
- The proportion of households with children reporting any form of hunger has declined by 15% in the past 6 years
- The share of black people in the middle class has increased from 11% in 1994 to 22% in 2004
- Poverty headcount rates have declined from a peak of 53% in 1996 to 44% now, a record low
- Income growth over the period 1994-2010 has been approximately similar amongst whites and blacks
- The proportion of total income earned by black people has grown from 33% to 39%, while amongst whites it has declined from 55% to 48%
- Within-race inequality contributed only 39% to inequality in 1993 and now constitutes 60%
The report also points out that World Bank Gini coefficients don’t properly adjust for household size, and household-weighted Gini coefficients were 0.67 in 1993 and are 0.69 now. They write:
A decomposition of the Theil index shows that the decline in income inequality between race groups throughout the period offset the rising inequality within groups. This trend of falling inter-racial inequality coupled with rising intra-racial inequality is also a continuation of a phenomenon first observed in the 1970s (Whiteford & Van Seventer 2000). Note that these estimates of the population Gini are near the upper end of South African Gini estimates, although they remain smaller than those calculated by Ardington et al. (2005) using the 2001 census. The trends in inequality derived from the AMPS data are likely to be more reliable than the estimated levels, as the levels may be more affected by the nature of the data (household income estimates in income bands based on a single question).The Gini coefficients shown here are higher than those often reported. The reason for that is that many Gini calculations use the weighting for the household, without multiplying that by the household size, as should be done: Larger households have more members, and this should be considered in calculating inequality. The Gini coefficients here are thus the correct ones, and much higher than those reported by among others the World Bank, which are based on inappropriate weights. The Gini coefficient of 0.685 reported for 2006 would have been only 0.638 if the more common, but incorrect, weights were used.