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Black Experience Not Taken Seriously: Steven Friedman and Xolela Mangcu at the Launch of Race, Class and Power

Steven Friedman

The launch of Steven Friedman’s most recent book, Race, Class and Power: Harold Wolpe and the Radical Critique of Apartheid, took place at the Book Lounge in Cape Town recently.

The political scientist, public intellectual and head of the Centre for the Study of Democracy was joined in a discussion by City Press columnist, Xolela Mangcu, who described the book as a “major accomplishment”.

Well known for his provocative ideas, Mangcu is the author of The Arrogance of Power: South Africa’s Leadership Meltdown and an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Cape Town. The late Harold Wolpe’s wife, Annemarie, was in the audience and shared an amusing anecdote about a camping trip with the Slovo family that was rained out.

Xolela Mangcu and Steven FriedmanRace, Class and PowerFriedman highlighted the contribution of Wolpe’s work. His essential argument was that Wolpe was celebrated for the 1972 article, “Capitalism and cheap labour-power in South Africa: From segregation to apartheid”, wherein he argued that apartheid was simply the form that capitalism took in SA, not merely an ideology but a form of exploitation. Although Wolpe himself shifted his view, and later wrote articles which spoke to South Africa’s current situation, he was not particularly well known for these articles.

Mangcu reflected on reading Race, Class and Power as being akin to travelling down a time warp, where many of the characters in the book were the white sociology professors who taught him in 1983, his first year as a sociology student at Wits. While this may have been interesting from a Marxist perspective, it didn’t speak to the experience of the black people he knew. “Nobody I knew involved in student politics saw apartheid as a product of capitalism,” he said.

Friedman conceded Mangcu’s position. While Wolpe’s argument turned out, for a variety of reasons, not to be an accurate assessment, “the part that was accurate attracted attention because it looked beyond the explanation that Afrikaners alone were responsible for apartheid”. Friedman explained: “It added a theoretical explanation that young white radicals in suburbs found attractive – that the English had a hand in it too. This is relevant for today because the analysis looks at private power as well as that of the state. In the current situation we need to take seriously the power wielded by private interests, the media, academics and those in the professions.”

It was Wolpe’s later work which provided important insights into South Africa’s present, Friedman said. For a variety of reasons he backtracked on his earlier position on race, and argued that it could take on a form of its own, something not reliant on the economy, but a factor in its own right. In Wolpe’s time the Left said that racism didn’t matter, whereas now, it is the Centre and the Right claiming this to be the truth.

“Why are we still talking about race if we solved it in 1994?” asked Friedman. “The point is that it remains an issue. After what’s been happening at UCT, we don’t even have to elaborate on this. Race matters.”

The third focus of Friedman’s talk was that Wolpe changed his view. “He started with a traditional Marxist view that the State is the executive of the bourgeoisie. In classical Marxism, the State represents property owners. If you want a free democratic society, you have to overthrow the State, then the problems go away. In Wolpe’s last article on the RDP White Paper he began to warn against that. First of all, under apartheid it was possible (despite the system’s nature) to win concessions and to engage in politics at that particular period. After 94, he wrote his last article warning that the new government seemed to think that just because they’d won an election that everybody agreed with it and they could now change society as they pleased.”

In the question and answer session, Mike Morris made the point that Wolpe was the first South African Marxist theorist. There’d been a Communist Party for decades that simply said what the liberals said in a louder voice. Wolpe came along and produced the first seriously Marxist analysis of apartheid.

“Yet many interests in society don’t want change. You have to get involved in political process or nothing will change. What’s happened over 20 years is that the ANC has not come up with a plan to negotiate getting the economy on a new path. Whoever is in power must negotiate with interest groups if you want to change society. These are all the important lessons that Wolpe attempted to address.”

Another question caught Friedman’s attention: “Why don’t we teach social theory in schools?” He said: “This would be an excellent idea as it is really important, but we’re not teaching it enough at university!”

Friedman concluded, corroborating what Mangcu had expressed earlier by saying, “The black experience has not yet been taken seriously enough.”

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Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted from the launch using #livebooks:



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Posted by UKZN Press on Wednesday, 15 April 2015



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