Quiet Revolution

By Andrew Clark

The flaming television images of township revolt that rocked South Africa and shocked the rest of the world four years ago have by now almost completely subsided from the vivid screen. But while the white minority government can claim to have broken the period of "unrest" and settled down to business as usual, a newer, quieter, and ultimately far deeper revolution is taking place in the cities and the black townships of this conflict-torn nation. As the rest of the world contemplates sanctions, trade embargoes, and disinvestment campaigns, South Africans from across the country's numerous divides are struggling to build an economy unhindered by the state's all-pervasive restrictions.

The potential has always been there, but recent cracks in the edifice of apartheid have unleashed an entrepreneurial energy that is forcing the 40-year-old National Party government to successively abandon its racial policies and rethink its options regarding the future. It is against this background that "black economic empowerment," a phrase on the tips of so many South African tongues these days, can be seen for what it is: a truly revolutionary force that could finally push South Africa into the developed and civilized world, eroding the laws that deprive its people, black and white, of prosperity and freedom.

Within the past year or so, black economic power has forced major changes in the way the South African government and business establishment act and think: Through consumer boycotts that brought to a standstill towns controlled by the right-wing Conservative Party, blacks have crushed the neo-apartheid group's attempt to vigorously reenforce lapsed ordinances calling for segregation of public facilities such as libraries, parks, swimming pools, and civic centers.

  • The buying power of blacks (referring collectively to all people of color-Africans, "Indians," and "coloreds") has begun to exceed that of whites. The economy is already thoroughly intermingled, and producers can no longer treat the "black market" as a mere appendage to the "white market." Black buying power has not only made boycotts a potent political tool, it has also created a solid financial basis for the black press, as optimistic advertisements fill the pages of such periodicals as Tribute, Black Enterprise, Drum, Thandi, and Africa Now. The Sowetan, a tabloid representing the huge and sprawling township that is in fact South Africa's biggest city, is now the country's fastest-growing newspaper.
  • By putting thousands to work, the "informal sector" of hawkers, traders, money lenders, and minibus taxi owners has boosted South Africa's employment and rescued an otherwise abysmal rate of growth. In particular, the booming taxi business has grown in five years from almost nothing to a respected nationwide industry that annually mobilizes more than $1 billion in capital. It has put the government-subsidized buses to shame, forcing them to cut back by almost half.
  • In the aftermath of the 1984-86 riots in the African townships, the government has rapidly retreated from those areas-and black economic muscle has risen to meet new demands. Black residents have bought up and refurbished their formerly government-owned houses. Black developers are starting to construct low-cost new units to meet a huge pent-up demand. And black real estate agents are presiding over a bustling market in the upscale properties being purchased by the emerging African middle and upper classes.
  • In defiance of apartheid's cornerstone law, the Group Areas kW, hundreds of thousands of Africans, "coloreds," and "Indians" have moved into urban neighborhoods legally reserved exclusively for whites, creating numerous "gray areas." Farts of Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban are now as integrated (or segregated) as New York, Chicago, or Washington, D.C. In an attempt to save face, the government is now proposing to declare many of these neighborhoods "free settlement areas" for all races.

Slowly but surely, urbanization, economic growth, and black buying power have put steady pressure on the government, leading to exactly the kind of economic and social integration that apartheid was designed to prevent. Blacks in South Africa have been moving to the cities for the same reason that people everywhere turn to migration and immigration: to leave the static situation of their impoverished past and strike out for a new place with greater freedom and opportunity. The government's attempts to restrict this movement, first through influx controls designed to keep rural blacks out of the cities and then through pass laws, have utterly failed. Since the white labor surplus dried up in the early '70s, the government has had to lift, one by one, the provisions barring the training and employment of blacks doing skilled work in white-designated areas.

"Economic growth," says John Kane-Berman, executive director of the South African Institute for Race Relations, "is simply undermining the archaic segregationist structures that were imposed on the economy in the pursuit of the Verwoerdian utopia," a reference to former Prime Minister Henrik Verwoerd, the primary architect of apartheid. The central business districts of more than 60 cities throughout the nation have become free trading areas where anyone who has the money can set up shop. And the laws governing who may own or lease industrial property on the fringes of town have also been relaxed to allow blacks a foothold.

But the Group Areas Act still imposes major restrictions on what a person can own and where he or she can live. "Indian" businessmen operating small shops near Johannesburg's Indian market, for instance, cannot legally live above their stores. And negotiating the maze of regulations required to set up shop in the racially zoned townships is almost enough to make a small entrepreneur give up entirely. But focusing on politics and the actions of political leaders-whether they be government officials, right-wing militants, or left-wing militants-obscures the real "revolution" happening in South Africa: the growth of black socioeconomic power and the building of a new nation that will follow.

Laurence Mavundla will be one of the leaders of this new nation. A ninth-grade dropout from Empande High School in Natal province, Mavundla was first employed underground at the East Driefontein mine, where he rose to the position of shift controller and became a shop steward for the National Union of Mineworkers, the country's largest union. After organizing a strike in 1985, he was arrested, denied bail, and spent a short time in jail.

Over the years, Mavundla held variety of other positions in the trade union movement-as a farm worker, a railway laborer, and a sorter in the Johannesburg post office. Traveling to work one morning in 1986, he noticed several street hawkers being chased by a group of policemen. Most scattered in different directions, but one 101-year-old woman, Granny Harriet Moyo, couldn't run fast enough to escape the police. Her produce was crushed under the wheels of a police van, and she was badly injured when police threw her into their metal-backed truck.

Mavundla pleaded with the officers to show mercy, but to no avail. Disturbed by the experience, he began to investigate the regular police harassment experienced by street vendors- part of a government effort to keep them out of white areas. To provide a political voice for these small entrepreneurs, he founded the organization that became the African Council of Hawkers and Informal Businesses (ACHIB).

Last year during its second anniversary, ACHIB held a commemoration day for Harriet Moyo, who died shortly after the last of the many encounters she had with police during her 58 years hawking fruits and vegetables. "How much money did she spend on fines for earning an honest living?" Mavundla asked at the memorial service. "How many days did she spend in jail? We honor her braveness for not giving up and hawking until her last day on earth. Granny Moyo, your spirit lives on and that is why we can sell freely today."

One only needs to walk down Jeppe Street, the heart of the hawkers' community in Johannesburg, to sense the vibrancy of the hawker trade. Just blocks from the third-class (formerly "black") railway terminal and one of the world's largest taxi stands, the casual shopper can find products ranging from peanuts, fruit, and lambs' heads to jewelry, handbags, and hair conditioners. Despite liquor regulations, beer is freely available. This is the thriving center of small-scale black enterprise that thousands of township dwellers pass through every day before and after work.

There are an estimated 150,000 hawkers in South Africa (900,000 if you count all "informal businesses," such as illegal shops in the townships and backyard woodworking businesses). The hawkers' spending power, by some estimates, totals R1.8 billion. Most importantly in a country racked by joblessness, Mavundla estimates that it takes only R135 for a hawker to start up a business. (Although R100 has an exchange value of $40, it is worth about $100 in South African buying power.)

In a labor market still largely segregated by race-blacks constitute 60 percent of the work force and make up only 4 percent of management-hawking provides a vehicle for self-starting individuals to be their own bosses. Two years ago, Monica Mtatyulwe was a computer-company secretary making R4,000 a year-higher than many of her roommates who work as domestic servants for no more than R2,000 a year, but only a third of what a similarly qualified white secretary would make. Her boss put her in charge of the office when he went on a three-month business trip, says Mtatyulwe, but "when he came back, he thanked me with words only."

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  • Tak Kak||

    Just look at South Africa now!

    Eh, I lived in Durban for several months and it wasn't as bad as I had anticipated.

  • WTF||

    What, you mean the communist ANC hasn't created a paradise on earth?
    Shocked, I am.

  • Tak Kak||

    It's still no Zimbabwe, so they're obviously doing something right... er, less horrible.

  • Drake||

    They are on the right track. Just give them time.

  • Hawk Spitui||

    I really have to wonder about the priorities of a political movement that wants to take credit for turning a nation that was once the epitome of a prosparity, a nuclear power complete with space program, and turning it into a giant version of Detroit. Not exactly the best campaign strategy, IMHO.

  • Drake||

    But RACE!

  • Calidissident||

    Yeah, apartheid South Africa was a regular paradise on Earth

    (Note: This is not a defense of the ANC's governing of the country)

  • Gladstone||

    So any articles on the Bush War (BOOOOOSH!!!) in Rhodesia?

  • Ray||

    And it's about food trucks. Who could have guessed?

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