Ticking time bomb in post-apartheid South Africa, by Prof. Abubakar Liman

Professor Abubakar Aliyu Liman
Professor Abubakar Aliyu Liman

So far, I have travelled to post-apartheid South Africa four or five times in the last eight years. I always visit the country purposely for academic engagements. In one instance, I spent three months doing a postdoctoral residency at the Center for Humanities Research (CHR), University of Western Cape. I could vividly recall in one of the rigorous weekly seminar presentations on the contemporary history of South Africa at the Center, there was this attempt to gloss over the simmering question of social justice in post-apartheid South Africa. There is indeed the need to redistribute the wealth of the nation on the basis of some equitable formula if freedom from the inhuman shackles of the system of apartheid is to have any meaning to ordinary folks suffering from its trauma. This was 2011. The time coincided with growing expectations, hopes and dreams nurtured by both black and coloured communities. In the seminar, both the presenter and a more senior professor serving as the discussant of the presentation were, to my mind, a bit economical with the truth.

For whatever reason, almost everybody in attendance has attempted to deploy rhetoric and some degree of sophistry as they used, what I considered as academic jargon, to conceal the stark and brutal realities of post-apartheid South Africa. In that seminar, I also observed with keen interests in how questions and comments, even from critical minded scholars, were carefully and measuredly crafted. They were doing all that with deliberate intents not to offend some invisible presence hovering in the room. In my reckoning as an outsider, it was quite amusing to see how academics of all theoretical and ideological hues, and apparently some graduate students who were learning the ropes, were struggling with themselves to avoid stirring the hornets’ nest. As for me, typical of my own critical orientation and brashness learnt from the radical atmosphere of old FASS, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, I felt that since there was nobody willing to call a spade a spade, I should take the bull by the horns no matter how every other person in that seminar room would feel about my cocky comments.

First, I registered my consternation with the way those whose vocation was to spill the truth under all circumstances could not summon enough courage to do so on an issue that was as clear as daylight. Then, in an undiplomatic fashion, I asked why everybody was conveniently avoiding the question of equity, justice and wealth redistribution in a post-apartheid South Africa that was supposed to get rid of the social snares of apartheid. I told them that South Africa would eventually turn into another Zimbabwe where President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF alliance were compelled to come up with the policy of seizing lands from white farmers for onward redistribution to dispossessed original owners of the lands. That is, if nothing is done about pestering economic injustice in a post-apartheid South Africa. I also told them about my first impression of South Africa as a Nigerian. The South Africa I saw then was of a country that was sitting on a keg of dynamite, and it was a matter of time for it to explode due mainly to some semblance of affirmative action to change the oppressive social conditions of the Blacks and Coloreds.

In the process, I did not only meant what I said, but I enjoyed every word that I deliberately selected and uttered in that seminar room. I was sincere about my comments looking at the hovels, shacks and shanties in which Black South Africans were concentrated, eked out their day-to-day existences. And those are still their narrow dwelling spaces in a post-apartheid South Africa that is supposed to open opportunities for Blacks, just coming out of the inhumanities and indignities of the brutal system of apartheid. I noticed from the day that I made those comments even those professors that I was on talking terms with started avoiding me like plague. They no longer greeted me; I also no longer greeted them. We squared up in that manner. Anyway, I could not give a hoot about it. I minded my own business from thence to the time that I completed my postdoctoral Fellowship and left the country. Since then, I made it a point of duty to closely monitor developments in South Africa from my comfort zone here in Nigeria. As you and I know, right now cataclysmic storm is gathering, and only God knows how issues bordering on social justice are going to get resolved.

In my recent visit to the country, just last week, I assure you not much has changed between 2011 and now. Rather, I’m seeing my doomsday prediction coming to fruition. The issues cross-sections of South African academics were unwilling to rise back then are today forcing themselves to the political front burner in the country. Matters at stake that would ultimately decide the fate of a post-apartheid society constructed on the ashes, or rather shaky foundations of social inequities, of the apartheid system, have now transformed into the political conventions of the day. The South Africa that wants to pride itself as the so-called rainbow nation, a melting pot of identities – Black, Colored and White – living harmoniously on the ideals of unity in diversity, justice, truth and reconciliation is now chequered by those fundamental issues that ANC politicians find very hard to address.

However, the stark realities of the post-apartheid system are anything but just. The idea is to conceal the inequities of the system through a hard to digest logic of global capitalism, which seeks to accommodate the pretentious co-existence fostered by a system of free-market economy that promotes no value whatsoever other than the blind pursuit of a profit motive. Global capitalism indeed wanted to showcase South Africa as the most viable economic model to be imbibed by other emerging economies of Africa only if all things go well with the experiment. The capitalist economic system in South Africa is more complex, and complicated as well, in comparison to the situation in Zimbabwe. In South Africa, you are dealing with an industrialized country that was all alone integrated to the major capitalist economies of Western Europe and the United States. On that score, there is no transnational company that does not own chains of well-established tributaries and outlets in South Africa. All you need to do to understand this level of capital integration is to look at products and brand names churned out on daily basis by markets all over South Africa.

Recently, these commodities and services are also extended to markets across the rest of emerging economies in other parts of Africa. Similarly, factory production in South Africa is uniquely and inextricably linked to land deeds, which were completely ceded to white farmers right from the apartheid days. That is why Black folks have been totally disempowered and excluded from all forms of economic activities in the area of agro-allied production, distribution and exchange of goods and services, except of course where they served as farm hands and labour providers. How can there be peace, stability and good neighbourliness in such a context? How can anybody interested in peace and justice expect that by merely granting political freedom and cultural independence at the expense of more fundamental economic rights and opportunities, which were for centuries denied to the indigenous people of South Africa, the situation would remain peaceful? If there were shortcomings in the deal that late President Nelson Mandela and his ANC colleagues negotiated to end apartheid system, it was precisely over the control of the South African economy in the post-apartheid era, which they were pressured to concede to those that were in control of the levers of the economy under apartheid.


With such a catch-22 situation, South Africa cannot make much inroads on either the global scene or even play the role of leadership in Africa as forces of global capitalism want it to without social justice, which in to be guaranteed through equitable redistribution of wealth. This is the mantra resonating loud and clear with a large number of dispossessed South Africans, which is currently being exploited by political upstarts like Julius Sello Malema and his cohorts that parted ways with the ANC for its refusal to fight for economic freedom of Black South Africans.