Every time you criticize Mandela a fairy puppy dies

Every time you criticize Mandela a fairy puppy dies

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.
This report overall paints a picture of small but noticable reductions in inter-racial inequality, and reductions in the levels of absolute poverty seen before the end of Apartheid. It’s pretty modest, but overall it seems safe to say that South Africa may reduce inequality slightly and cannot be said to have significantly increased it. This claim may seem weak, but when we compare it to the rest of the world and consider it in its proper context, it’s important.
Considering South Africa’s economic changes in the global and regional context
In economics there is a simple method for assessing the effect of an intervention called the Difference-in-Difference model. In this model you compare the actual change in the group that received an intervention with the counter-factual that would be expected if they haven’t; you estimate the counter-factual from a control group measured before and after the intervention. In this case the intervention is the end of apartheid, and the control group is other countries. Consider, for example, how income inequality has changed in South Africa and the USA since the 1970s. According to the World Bank, the top decile of income earners in South Africa control 58% of all income in 2010. Research from Stanford University puts the equivalent number in the USA at 50%, but look at the curve: since the 1970s the share of income held by the top decile of US income earners has increased from about 35% to 50%. Income inequality has increased rapidly in many high income countries under the influence of various forms of neo-liberalism and/or trade liberalization. For example in the UK the Gini coefficient has increased from 0.35 to 0.41 since 1990, a much larger (proportionate) increase than observed in South Africa. Seen against the backdrop of international changes brought about by major international movements, it appears that Mandela and the ANC have managed to resist many of the worst changes that have swept through the industrialized west. It is this international context that is missing from the Counterpunch article linked above, where they provide critical statistics about South Africa’s industrial and economic performance without any comparison to overseas, where equal or far worse changes have occurred in the same time frame. The industrial economies of much of the rich west have been hollowed out by a mixture of ponzi economics and the rapid growth of Asia; South Africa seems to have escaped the worst of some of these changes, and though things clearly aren’t pretty in the economic statistics that South Africa presents, it is also clear that they have got vaguely better and certainly not much worse, against a backdrop of really challenging international and domestic changes.
The domestic changes also need to he emphasized when assessing Mandela’s legacy. He inherited a corrupt one party state with a political system built on state violence against a powerless minority, crippled by years of sanctions and sitting on the silent time bomb of HIV. While the ANC’s response to HIV was terrible, it’s worth noting that the first 10-20 years of growth of HIV happened under apartheid, and it’s really hard to believe that since HIV was identified in 1984 the white regime was doing much to prevent its spread. Against a backdrop of revolution, poverty, discrimination and chaos, what kinds of interventions did de Klerk have in place? And even after Mandela took the reins, most of Africa was still unaware of how to deal with HIV and just how terrible it was going to become; much of the context of the epidemic that unfolded subsequently had already been set and although the response could have been better handled since 1994, and certainly since 1997, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that even a really pro-active intervention would have failed under the circumstances. As a result of this epidemic, life expectancy in South Africa has collapsed, and South Africa is one of the countries facing serious economic challenges because of the epidemic. I have written before about how terrible this epidemic can be for societies suffering it, and challenged readers to consider alternative futures where it arose as a generalized epidemic in the USA or Europe. Does anyone think that the USA would have experienced the same economic growth and changes since 1994 if it had suffered the epidemic the way South Africa is? This needs to be considered when criticizing health spending and economic growth in South Africa.
Given this context, I can only summarize by saying that Mandela and the ANC did okay in handling inequality. Obviously not as well as anyone would have liked but also much better than, say, the US under (lefty) Clinton or the UK under (lefty) Blair. So I think leftists should perhaps be a little more circumspect in their criticisms of Mandela and the ANC’s legacy. Perhaps it would be good if they took a week to laud his obvious achievements, and to read the literature.
A final note about iconoclasm in coverage of Mandela’s death
In case you thought the mainstream left was alone in being a little too quick to criticize Mandela, spare a thought for the lunatic right. The National Review Online editors’ piece on Mandela was remarkable, managing to wrap a vicious and angry rant inside a thin shell of flattery; and its commenters still complained that the NRO has become too left wing in its coverage, and that Mandela committed genocide. But perhaps best is the efforts of the white power losers from the OSR blogosphere, who hate-bombed a thread about Mandela on Dragonsfoot with complaints about his terrorism and white genocide. Remember that next time an OSR blogger drifts over here to complain about my criticisms of Tolkien … still, the OSR being caught up in 1986 I guess they haven’t worked out that apartheid is over.
Anyway, I don’t feel like this has been a great week for the mainstream left media, such as it is, and I hope that some of Mandela’s critics on the left will find this piece and consider a slightly more nuanced understanding of what he did in power. I also hope that people will start using slightly better measures of inequality than Gini indices … but that’s a post for another day!
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