Class, “Race” and State in Post-Apartheid Education Enver Motala and Salim Vally



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Class, “Race” and State in Post-Apartheid Education

Enver Motala and Salim Vally
Over the last few years a number of important texts have been written about the post apartheid education system in South Africa. These have dealt with a wide variety of topics, relating mainly to the progress of the reform policies and the initiatives of the post-apartheid state. They have included writings on educational management, school governance, curriculum, language, assessment, equity, teacher education, early childhood development, adult basic education and many other issues involving the process of educational reform in post-apartheid South Africa. These texts have also dealt with external influences on the education system and system change, arising from the wider remit of state policies such as the financing of education and the democratic state’s orientation to educational investment, labor markets and globalization (Sayed and Jansen, 2001; Motala and Pampallis, 2002; Chisholm, 2004; Fiske and Ladd, 2004).
Questions about social and historical disadvantage, marginalization, exclusion, poverty and inequality and other such abiding social phenomena are invariably referred to in the texts about education in South Africa, and without exception, nearly every critical commentary or analytical writing on educational reform refers explicitly to the implications of these characteristics of the educational system. These writings are at pains to point out, quite rightly, that the educational system is characterized by deep inequalities, especially noticeable in relation to poor communities, even more so in rural communities, and that there are considerable backlogs arising from the discriminatory and racist history of South African education and the deliberately distorted distribution of educational expenditures to favor white people. They emphasize, often convincingly, that the interests of the “poor and marginalized” must be the foundation on which the post-apartheid educational system has to be built and that there are constitutional and other imperatives to achieve a just, fair, equitable and humane social order. Even the mélange of official policy texts look impressive at face value.
Yet few of these texts and policies have dealt specifically with the existence of social classes for the unfolding reform process in the aftermath of the pre-1994 negotiations. Where class is referred to, as in the case of Chisholm (2004),1 the discussion is essentially about the effects of educational reform on social class formation in the post-apartheid period. Class formation is understood in its complexity as “having both a social and economic phenomenon and class is understood as having both cultural and material dimensions” (Chisholm and Sujee, 2006, p. 144). Soudien, (SADTU, 2006) in a chapter titled “Thwarted access: ‘race’ and class,” comprehensively shows how working class communities because of their vulnerable economic and cultural situations feel alienated from the state’s education reform process and how the provision of education continues to be structured on racial and class lines. This is of course very important; especially to show that despite the best intentions of the reform process there is evidence of the growth of social bifurcation through education.
Our concern here is not only about the effects of the reform initiatives, nor is it about issues that are endogenous to educational systems important as these might be in themselves. An analysis of the social class effects or of how social class gets “done” is necessarily limited for our purposes even though it is of great importance otherwise, since it is concerned with issues of policy and practice, with how the resources of the state are socially distributed and who is privileged by this and also how social class divisions are related to educational practices. These approaches to class do not - because that is not their intention - draw attention to the question of why such effects or processes of social reproduction are visited on some social classes more than on others in the first place and whether this is related in any way to the even more fundamental structural and relational attributes of capitalist societies.
These points of departure in the framing of educational analysis are significant but do not explain these differentiations as inherent to the forms of capitalist development in South Africa and their a priori implications for social systems including education. In our view the recognition of class as an analytical category inherent in South African capitalism would provide greater clarity to social analysis and to strategic interventions. It can reveal the relationship between social class and reform and show how reform processes are constrained by the existence of particular structural conditions in society. Even if better policy choices are made, their effects are likely to be muted by the underlying characteristics of such societies where material and objective conditions define questions of access in a pre-emptive way. Analyses that do not recognize the intrinsic nature of these characteristics and the constraints they impose on reform processes will remain limited.
The absence of rigorous and complex social analysis has profound implications at another level. If the condition of poverty is not analyzed and understood as an enduring and inherent characteristic of societies at a particular stage of their historical development, in this case, as a phenomenon of capitalist development in South Africa, then the necessary interventions of social reform will be weak. This is so because such interventions are likely to be regarded as the interventions made by a “caring” welfarist state, out of a benevolent concern for the “most disadvantaged” and as a “helping hand” to such communities within the framework of “their” disadvantage. Such an approach to social policy is both patronizing and ineffectual over the long term since it does not provide any basis for mobilization against the causal basis of poverty and the deeply entrenched structures of social differentiation, nor does it address the question of social agency and the ability of such communities to use their historical experience, knowledge and traditions to deal with social disadvantage in an empowering way. This failure results largely from a “deficit” view of such communities, regarding them as being struck by the inescapable conditions of lacking the basic resources for their survival. The role of the state in such a case is inevitably conceived of not as a facilitative democratic state, in which the primacy of social agency for change is recognized, but merely as a “charitable” and social welfare state. Worse still is the fact that these deficit descriptions about the abiding characteristics of poverty are damaging because they re-enforce conceptions of social change from above. In this approach, social interventions of a charitable nature are the solution to the “problem”, since the “poor will always be with us”.
Class analysis would enhance our knowledge of specific local school communities better both in themselves and in relation to the society as a whole. Class analysis also implies the ability to listen to the voices of the most oppressed social classes because through these voices greater clarity might be achieved about the challenges of development. The praxis of some initiatives in the education field is beginning to do this in recent times in South Africa. This is an important development and must be extended methodologically and theoretically. It has also broader implications about the discourse of “development” which also invites greater clarity through class analysis. It implies that our analysis of its possibilities takes account of the social pathologies, divergent interests and inherent contradictions of capitalism in South Africa. Development as an idea is an area of considerable ideological contestation and unless the concepts of development (including how it is related to different class interests) are openly acknowledged, more is hidden than revealed in the use of the concept of development (Motala and Chaka, 2004).

The absence of class analysis or in relation to other deeply inured social structures of differentiation such as gender leads to a debilitating failure in our understanding of the deeper characteristics of society and disables policy actors from seeking more penetrative social interventions in education and social policy in general. The failure to provide such analysis in education could be attributed to several factors.


Firstly, it could be argued that the limitations of extant educational analysis result from the pre-occupation with a range of education policy related matters. Analysts have concentrated largely on the state’s educational reform processes and more recently on the vexed question of “implementation”, sometimes de-linked from policy matters because policy itself is often regarded as unproblematic. This in turn is related to the issue of the “capacity” of government to implement policies. In our view it is not possible to view the reform of education in post-apartheid education without reference to the unfolding dynamic of the negotiation process that took place before 1994. An analysis of this process would have revealed for educational analysts the conditioned nature of reform especially in regard to its implications for working class children. We will return to this area later.
Secondly, where social class has been referred to, this is done tangentially, mostly to recognize the social location of students as “poor”, or “disadvantaged”, to provide descriptions of the conditions under which children (and even communities) are found, to evoke characterizations of the conditions prevalent in “poor” and ‘disadvantaged’ communities, and to provide testimony for the rigors of school life, the intractability of the problems of access, the grinding incapacities and effects on the lives and potential opportunities for the children of the “poor”. These descriptions have meaning because they evoke for policy-makers, administrators, the general public and even academic commentators, a sense of urgency about the challenges of achieving educational equity, fairness and social justice in and through education. They make graphically evident the educational symptoms that typify the conditions under which “poor” communities learn since they deal not only with issues of infrastructure or the lack of it, the lack of teachers in critical subjects, poor or non-existent learning materials, indefensible approaches to teaching and learning, but also provide rich evidentiary material about the social cleavages predetermining the life chances and opportunities available to the children of the “poor” and the intractability of these conditions.
Thirdly, while there is a wide range of references to “race” and “gender” and a great deal of statistical information of value relating to these social characterizations, they remain de-linked from any conscious appreciation of the impact of social class and its deeper structural implications on the very communities of the “poor” and “disadvantaged” which is the subject of educational theory, policy and practice. For instance, the report produced by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Emerging Voices (2006), contains rich and evocative testimonies of the social conditions affecting learning in poor rural communities in South Africa. It speaks about the desolate and inhospitable conditions for children in rural schools and from communities that are severely impoverished by the circumstances of their past history in which “race” was the defining characteristic of state provision, and indeed of the trials visited upon the daily lives of young women and girl learners in communities where gendered roles are definitive. It speaks about the lack of the fundamental resources for a meaningful social life and of the difficult conditions under which learning is expected to take place. These descriptions of the conditions of “disadvantage” do not however set out to explain the socially relational nature of “race” and gender to class in the context of rurality, that is, their existence as expressions of much deeper, more profound and obdurate attributes of societies in which social divisions (amongst other divisions) are both inherent and egregious.
Fourthly, and this is understandable, greater emphasis has been placed on analyzing the state’s reform initiatives within the classroom and there is quite a large body of work relating to issues of the financing of education, global influences and the privatization of public education. But as we have argued there is a paucity of analysis regarding the non educational “externalities” that affect classroom practice.
The project here is a modest one; it is to “restore” the value of class analysis in the traditions of South African social theory even if that is done by abandoning some of the more reductionist approaches to class analysis. It does not pretend to resolve all the historical debates about class based analysis. It sets out only to argue why in South Africa at this time any social analysis that does not pay attention to questions of class will be impoverished by that failure.
We accept that that there is much other causality for explaining social fragmentation. These give rise to social differentiation, incoherence, prejudice, religious and other divisions, marginalization and even violent conflicts. Ideological and political issues too play a huge role in defining historical conjunctures and these must be seen in a complex interplay with issues of class, “race” and gender. We therefore do not accept class reductionist approaches as adequate explanations about these conflicts although we have no doubt that these conflicts are likely to be exacerbated by the underlying contradictions of capitalism either within nation states or globally. Nor do we, on the other hand, deny that even such conflicts might well be an expression of conflicts over social resources and wealth, conflicts germane to much class analysis. Other research is necessary to understand the nature of these conflicts which express themselves in factionalist, sectarian, religious, territorial, ethnic and other forms of division and we make no claim to examining all these contingent and conjunctural factors here.
The Importance of “Class” in Social Analyses
The main argument of this paper is that while many educational analyses about South African education have great merit, they have largely ignored any direct reference or analysis of the social pathologies and structures created by racial capitalism in South Africa and have consequently not provided any theoretical (or practical) basis for understanding the continuing and pervasive phenomena of class and its relevance to analysis of school reform in South Africa. These social pathologies are an expression of the more fundamental social cleavages that exist in society and unless understood and analyzed more fully, interventions in the schooling system alone (which are necessary and critically important) will have only a limited effect. The idea of “class” represents much more than a gradational approach to material inequality and speaks rather to the inherent consequence of a particular form of production as constitutive of class in political economy. This means that the social category of “class” represents an important expression of the historical, structural, ideological and largely refractory barriers to social mobility which characterizes class ridden societies.
The best hopes of educationists to address these impediments through policy interventions are constrained by their very intractability and their effects on large parts of society. Our view is that no amount of educational policy or practice can, by itself, overcome these deeply entrenched and fundamental attributes of capitalist societies, and that unless they are properly understood and analyzed, policy interventions can become no more than the capricious hopes of politicians, bureaucrats and social reformers. The latter, despite their good intentions, face for instance the dilemma that “legally and politically sanctioned demands and guarantees remain unreconciled to exigencies and capacities of the budgetary, financial and labor market policy of the capitalist economy” (Offe, 1994, p. 37).
The analysis here will also show how the category of “class” is significant not only in itself but relationally in its connectedness to questions about “race” and gender, and that educational analysis in South Africa about these categories is rarely connected with questions of class. “Race” in particular is examined largely in relation to the achievement of greater “race” equity and the quantification of improvements in relation to it. Where “race” is used for analytical purposes, moreover, its use is explained as historically necessary given the policies and practice of the apartheid state in the allocation of resources and the continuing existence of racially defined school cohorts. Its justification is therefore largely about questions of output and measurement, for evaluating the progress of reform and the achievement of the goals of equity.
Very little, if any attention is paid to the social construction of racial identities (more especially in relation to their differing social class locations), and their pervasive effects on the lives of learners, on the curriculum, on the struggles of learners and their communities in regard to education and in relation to educational policy and practice2. These socially relevant categories of analysis (class, “race” and gender) must be used in an integrative way to produce a more diverse and complex yet more illuminating picture about the combination of forces that shape educational policies and practice. This is because their combination as social and historical factors has had particularly devastating effects on working class communities.
Already in 1999 it was argued that the shadow of apartheid ideology continued to cast its Stygian gloom not any longer through racially explicit policies, but by proxy and exclusions on the basis of social class (Vally and Dalamba, 1999). It was understood that a study of post apartheid racial integration in schools had first to acknowledge racism as linked to capitalism in South Africa and to understand it in its historical context. Racism is woven deeply into the warp and woof of South African society and nothing short of transformation of the social totality can overcome it. The writers of the South African Human Rights Commission report supported the view that racial inequality in schools was not merely an aberration or an excrescence, but structurally linked to wider social relations and the economic, political and social fabric of society. The apartheid education system engineered “race”, class, gender and other categories to serve and reinforce the political economy of the racial capitalist system. Present-day racism in education in South Africa has to be understood with reference to this history and to contemporary political and economic disadvantage and patterns of inequality in society. Racism in education does not constitute an autonomous form of oppression, but rather is inextricably linked to power relations and reproduced in conjunction with class, gender and other inequalities.
In this article we will therefore concentrate on both an explanation of the analytical importance of “class” and on its relationship to “race” since this has largely been left out of the analytical taxonomies in post-apartheid South Africa. The clarification of how the concept of class and its relation to “race” is understood in educational theory will shed light, even if indirectly, on the question of social cohesion and in particular, on whether such cohesion is possible or achievable in post-apartheid society.
Social class as an analytical and conceptual category has been a casualty of the post-apartheid period. Initially, the post-1994 period signaled a pre-occupation with the immediacy of the reform process in which “consensus”, “mediation” and “social compact” were given primacy, and because of the relationship between these reform processes and the ideological ascendancy of particular globally hegemonic capitalist approaches to “modernization” and “development”. Post-modern theory, in vogue during this period, was used as a justification for the retreat from class, made even more seductive by its coincidence with the negotiated settlement and the illusionary “miracle of the New South Africa”. It could be argued that intellectuals in South Africa have themselves been complicit in the elision of class as an analytical category, quite often consciously and disparagingly. There is also the possibility of timidity in the face of the avalanche of academic and public voices representing capital, which have made any reference to class, seem both archaic and “ideological” as though these voices are themselves not ideological. The epic histories of class struggles and the associated political, social and economic analyses representing the viewpoint of Marxism appears to be transcended in this period by other “free-from-class” analytical paradigms both in South Africa and elsewhere. In our view, this is consistent with the decline of the scholarship which represented the strength of such analyses, itself a victim of the self-censorship imposed by scholars on any work that overtly recognized the importance of social class.
We support the assertion of Saul (2006, p. 88) in a chapter titled, “Identifying Class, Classifying Difference” that class analysis and class struggle imply

…a crucial demand to transcend the structural and cultural limits of capitalism that is too easily lost to view, not only by post-modernists but also within the commonsensical hegemonies and glib universalisms that currently haunt us. It is a discourse that is both central to human emancipation and essentially non-co-optable either by liberalism or reformism.


Class and “Race” in South Africa
The events of the last two decades of apartheid, and especially the importance of working class mobilization around specifically class issues (in conjunction with more general issues of political and social rights) and the vigorous contestation around the relationship between such forms of mobilization and the “national question” could hardly have been irrelevant to an understanding of the apartheid state and its demise, nor indeed of the particular form of post-apartheid compromise and social compact. Analysis which does not pay careful attention to the interaction between class and the “national question” in the last decades of apartheid is likely to represent a truncated version of South African history and could not be taken seriously.
In South Africa itself, debate about class analysis is found in a vast array of writings which characterized historical studies, sociology, political science and economic analysis in particular, throughout the period of the 1970s and 80s (Lipton, 1986; Legassick, 1973; Wolpe, 1988; Fine, 1990). There is evidence of similar analysis in earlier writings too (Roux, 1964; Simons and Simons, 1969). A number of these analyses attempted to explain the relationship between “race” and class in South Africa and how this relationship is conceptualized as critical to an understanding of the struggle against Apartheid.
For instance in an interview with Callinicos (1992, pp. 115-6), Alexander talks about how “pre-existing social relations” were transformed by the development of mining capitalists at the end of the nineteenth century, drawing a necessary connection between the development of capitalism and racism. The consequence for him was that it was not possible to get rid of racism without dealing with its “capitalist underpinnings in South Africa”. He refers to Wolpe’s (1989) writing on the subject approvingly as clarifying the “contingent” relationship between racism and capitalism

At certain times racial ideology was and is functional for the accumulation of capital, whereas at other times it could be dysfunctional. So there is no necessary connection, it is a contingent one …This is of course a different thesis from the liberal thesis, which is that racism is allegedly dysfunctional in regard to capital accumulation.


In a more recent article on the subject Alexander (2004, p. 1) deals specifically with the question of how “race” is understood outside the domain of human biology where its “invalidity” is acknowledged but where “inherited perceptions” remain.

The articulation of race science and stereotypes deriving from perceptions of racial difference is a manifestation of the social constraints on the integrity of academic and professional practices. Nonetheless, as a social construct, race is real and has obvious pertinent material effects. On these matters, there is more than sufficient consensus in the social sciences today.


He relates these perceptions to colonial conquest and particularly to the second British occupation of the Cape. For him, “race theory in South Africa is not the excrescence of Afrikaner nationalism in the first instance. The prime suspects are in fact British soldier-administrators, missionaries and other organic intellectuals of British imperialism (Ibid, p. 3).”
Alexander questions both “idealist and economic reductionist” theorizations of racism, and argues for a “historical materialist” analysis of the causal factors explaining racism. In regard to the relationship between “race” and “class” he argues that it could be reasonably generalized (Ibid, p. 5)

that conservative and liberal-pluralist approaches have tended to attribute to the category of “race” an independent causal value, however different the levels of sophistication of individual analysts might be. On the other hand, radical approaches have tended to veer in the direction of broadly economic reductionist or, more narrowly, class reductionist, explanations. Political developments in the world and in South Africa during the last 15 years of the 20th century left their influence in the form of a kind of paradigm drift that affected all these schools of thought. On all sides, there has been a shift to a much more pragmatic stance in social science scholarship. In the case of some formerly avowed Marxist approaches, one is tempted even to speak of a return to empiricism.


Du Toit (1981, p, 461)) too sees apartheid as an integral part of capitalism in South Africa. He too regards the struggle against apartheid as inseparable from that against capitalism in South Africa and refers to Legassick’s view that “National oppression is simply a form of social oppression, but a form which calls forth its own anti-thesis: ‘national liberation’.” In his introduction to Race, Class and the Apartheid State, Wolpe (1998) complains about the “undeveloped” nature of South African analyses about the state and politics. For Wolpe, the preoccupation with racial concepts in the definition of the “society” in South Africa results in a perspective on the state which treats that state “as the instrument of oppression of Whites over Blacks but (precisely because class relationships are not normally included in the analysis) as neutral in the relationship between classes” (Ibid, p. 7). He makes this complaint in the context of the increasing political conflict of the 1980s in South Africa in which the apartheid state was confronted by militant organization intent on its overthrow. These challenges threw up a number of important theoretical questions. They raised questions about how the relationship between “race and class” was conceived and how the relationship between the “political structure” and the “capitalist economy” was understood. This clarification was important not only for theoretical purposes but also to inform political perspectives and objectives.
Wolpe argued that where “race” is given primacy in the analysis of apartheid, the state would be regarded as “exclusively a racial order”. As against this he ascribes to the African National Congress and South African Communist Party (SACP) the view that is informed by the theory of South Africa as a colony “of a special type”, a theory based “on a conception of linkages between race and class, …which accords to the black working class a leading role in the overthrow of the apartheid system” (Ibid, p. 1).
For Wolpe, “race” and class stand in a “contingent relationship” to the South African capitalist economy and “white domination” and the idea that racism was functional, and necessary to capitalist development, forecloses any analyses of the “uneven, asymmetrical, contradictory and unstable” nature of the relationship between capitalism and “race” noting that it is on the same theoretical terrain as “liberal modernization theory” (Ibid, p. 8).
He uses the concept of “class” in a Marxist sense, while “race” ‘is used strictly to refer to social categorizations. He argued in respect of “race” that

However much biological notions are employed to justify the definition of racial groups in South Africa, those groups are actually constituted by a process of social definition which employs biological terms to define social not biological groups. The social definition of these groups in South Africa is imposed and maintained in all the spheres of the social formation and is embedded in the legal, political, ideological and economic institutional order.


In his critique of Wolpe’s Race, Class and the Apartheid State, Fine (1988, pp. 1-118) argues that Wolpe regards class, in the South African context, as an “abstraction”, while regarding race as a “concrete social reality”. Fine (1990, p. 92) attributes this analysis to Wolpe’s “economistic” conception of class, which, “Reduces the relation between capital and labour to a merely economic relation removed from all juridic, cultural, sexual and political dimensions … and leads directly to a reification of race despite all warnings against ‘race reductionism’”.
Indeed Fine argues that this approach to “race” and class prepares the ground for Marxists to endorse nationalism. For Fine, the very idea of race in South Africa is the “critical ideological glue” which underwrites the social order and power relations. The idea of “race” confronts the population as though it is real while in fact it is “the ideological expression” of the particular form of exploitation. He argues that “the state demands that people behave as if race is, whatever they actually believe in their heart of hearts”. The consequence of this is that “people reproduce the lie as reality” and by so doing they are not only oppressed by apartheid but reproduce its lies and “hypocrisy” in their daily lives (Ibid, p. 93). For Fine “race” is not “real”. It is, in his words “the illusion of those who exercise power and seek profit at the expense of life. It is the triumph of abstraction over reality, the lie over truth.(Ibid, p.94).
Fine’s orientation to these issues is derived in his joint writing with Dennis Davis (1990). They are concerned with the “conceptual foundations” of the arguments made by the liberation movement. In exploring the relationship between capitalism, socialism and democracy in the struggle against the apartheid state, they, “challenge prevailing views on the subordination of socialism to nationalism and draw out the implications of our case for understanding the forms of organization, strategies and visions of the liberation movement.”(Fine and Davis, 1009, p. x)
Without examining the arguments about the erstwhile liberation movements’ conceptual foundations, we are not persuaded about Fine’s perspective about the “unreal” and “hypocritical” nature of the concept of “race” because it oversimplifies the complex relation between “race” and class. The view of the Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James quoted in Walter Rodney’s seminal work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, is apposite here,

The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental. (Rodney, 1972, p. 100).


While “race” is not an adequate explanation for exploitative processes or for the structural attributes of capitalist political and economic systems that does not automatically imply that it has no explanatory value in relation to “class” and the process of exploitation. Indeed it is precisely because racist policies and strategies have come to be used in societies, both for capitalist accumulation and for engendering social conflict, and by the ruling class of global hegemonic states like the US to advance their global exploitative interests, that ideas about “race” (and other such discursive categories such as “civilization”, and “culture”) have such powerful meanings in the public consciousness, in global politics and ultimately in the control over resources. Although the US does not use explicitly racial language in its ideological discourses it has been cogently argued that its discourse and practice is racist nonetheless. This is because it is premised on false conceptions about “modernity” and “pre-modernity”, the “clash of civilizations” and “culture talk” and such ideas which mask its underlying imperialist intentions (Ali, 2002; Mamdani, 2004).
The last two decades have shown how pervasive the impact of racist stereotyping has been in the orientation of western institutions and states towards the people of the Middle East3 in this phase of “accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey, 2003). It means that despite the seeming “modernity” and “rationality” of western governments and their ideologues together with international agencies like the World Bank, IMF and WTO, they continue to define societies, whole continents and civilizations in racialized terms. These realities can hardly be explained away as signifying nothing more than “hypocrisy” even though it is true that the idea of “race” is not sustainable from any scientific perspective and has limited explanatory value for the purpose of understanding political economy and capitalist forms of exploitation4.
This is exemplified particularly in the history of post-colonial Africa where deep divisions based on constructions of “race”, “ethnicity”, religion and other affinities have wreaked havoc over many societies. While these conflicts may sometimes be attributable to conflicts over resources, they are not easily explained away by that alone. Simply rejecting these deeply embedded social norms, practices and histories, often developed over many centuries preceding the advent of capitalist accumulation, as “hypocrisy” is disarming and does not provide a basis for understanding them. In other words, the idea that “race” (or other such conceptions and practices) is a social construct does not automatically imply that it has no explanatory value especially about how power is constituted through racist categories and/or gender to reinforce the structural attributes and impediments of working class lives. The explanatory value of “race” and gender lie in the power to reveal the relationship between these social constructs and class without suggesting that they provide a better explanation of “exploitation”.
The fact that “race” is less able to explain the objective and material basis of exploitation in relation to the law of value is therefore not simply a reflection of the underlying material basis of exploitation. It is in fact a concrete expression of and inseparable from the racist forms of control over the labour process in capital accumulation in South Africa. It is not simply imagined. Far from it, “race”, in certain historical conjunctures, provides the particular form, defines the content of exploitative relations by giving it such a form (historically, especially outside Europe), and defines the modalities for the extraction of surplus value. The entire edifice of legal norms and repressive legislation predicated on racial forms has no meaning unless it is understood as the developed expression of capitalist exploitative practices and controls over the working class.
This issue also goes to the root of how knowledge is accessed – epistemic questions. An unintended consequence of reductionist conceptions of class is the effacing of the concrete and lived experiences of the working class and of women in racialized societies. This also explains the failure to pay attention to the impact of racism within advanced Western capitalist societies themselves, and the view that it has a limited impact in such societies. In reality deeply racist practices continue to abide in these societies because of the nature of their predatory relationship with countries of the Majority World whose resources they largely control. The necessity for these controls are no less an objective basis for, and an expression of, racist and globally hegemonic, even if contradictory relations that pertain between advanced capitalism and the rest of the world.5.
Regrettably even many left leaning scholars and activists, especially those who are schooled in Marxism in the West, continue to be dismissive of racism as intrinsic to global capital’s agenda and therefore do not fully understand the relationship between “race” and exploitation on a world scale. As a consequence they do not understand the specificities of accumulation in developing societies as these are affected by globally organized structures in which forms of difference - “cultural”, “racial”, “religious,” etc. - are fundamental to capitalist accumulation.
How the relationship between “race” and class is conceptualized is therefore of great epistemological value because it speaks to the privileging or the denial of particular experiences. In South Africa, the struggles against apartheid are also testimony to the developed consciousness of working class organizations in their understanding of “race” and other forms of division. A great deal of emphasis was placed by these organizations on policies and campaigns about how racism must be dealt with in practice in the struggles against apartheid capitalism. Without these experiences, the ideas and values of intellectuals, unschooled in the context of racialized working class struggles, their histories and their lives, become increasingly dominant.
While “race” is not adequate to explain relations of production and the process of exploitation, it has huge explanatory value in the analysis of the particular forms of power - state, legal systems and dominant ideologies - which class analysis alone does not do. Marxist approaches to theorization are considerably more enriching and explanatory of the complex relationship of the forms of capital accumulation and power in developing societies. To wit, the experiences of racialized and gendered workers are important as a source of knowledge of the processes of exploitation and the state and cultural practices that reproduce an inequitable hierarchy of racialized and gendered workers and these experiences need to be understood in the framework of the social relations of production.
The argument here can be exemplified by reference to the debates between Critical Legal Theorists and Critical Race Theorists in the US where issues of “race” and class have a similar resonance in social analysis. There the adherents of a school of thinking described as “new left” activists at the Conference on Critical Legal Studies had argued that liberal and conservative approaches to the law regarded the law as separate from politics. This untenable distinction between law and politics was based on the idea that legal institutions are based on “rational, apolitical and neutral discourse with which to mediate the exercise of social power” (Crenshaw, et al, 1995, p. xviii). Politics though, they argued, was embedded in legal categories with the very “doctrinal categories with which law organized6 and represented social reality” This meant that the political character of judicial decision-making was obscured by technical discussions about “standing, jurisdiction and procedure” based on such concepts as “rules, standards and policies”.

This critical tradition was a precursor of what came to be known as Critical Race Theory. It drew on Critical Legal Theory and the civil rights movement and was intent on developing and enriching the former by adding a “race intervention into left discourse” and a “left intervention into race discourse” (Ibid, p xviii.). Its perspective that law was not neutral was useful and “formed the basic building blocks of any serious attempt to understand the relationship between law and white supremacy” (Ibid, p. xxii). For it “race and racism functioned as central pillars of hegemonic power” in the US and it saw the “rights” discourse as legitimating “the social world by representing it as rationally mediated by the rule of law” (Ibid, p. xxiii).

Critical race theory speaks to the “embeddedness” of the practices and values of racism, despite these not being formally manifested. It argues that the forms of power which existed prior to the formal and legal recognition of discriminatory policies, continue to exist through the distribution of resources and power and that concepts of merit continue to obfuscate the reality of privilege and power in favour of those who determine the very meaning of “merit”. The ostensibly neutral “baseline” is in reality heavily laden with particular distributions of power and privilege. Critical race theory would therefore “neither apologize for affirmative action nor assume it to be a fully adequate political response to the persistence of white supremacy.” (Ibid, p. xxx). It also argues that the failure of liberal (and even left) efforts at understanding questions of racial ideology and power truncates its approach to global politics - and, what Claude Ake called, the “heirarchization of the world” (Ibid, xxviii).

Matsuda (Ibid, pp. 64) too is critical of the “unsophisticated rights-thinking that can be a seductive trap for those on the bottom.” For Matsuda it is important that the oppressed themselves are sceptical of the claim that the law is free from value, politics, or historical conditions and the skills of interpreting social questions are enhanced by the direct experience of oppression. Matsuda suggests that,

Those who have experienced discrimination speak with a special voice to which we should listen…the perspective of those who have seen and felt the falsity of the liberal promise …can assist critical scholars in the task of fathoming the phenomenology of law and defining the elements of justice. (Ibid, p. 63)

We might add that the experience of racism can enhance an understanding of class and the particular forms of capitalist power in those parts of the world subjected to the most brutal and racialized forms of exploitation and oppression and that such experience and reflecting upon it would augment the power of class based analysis.

According to Ruccio, Resnick and Wolff (1991), “class” also has great relevance in the context of global capitalism. The changes now characteristic of global capitalism through the activities of multinational corporations, the rapid changes in national stock and capital markets and the existence of rapid transmission information networks were preceded by similar sea-changes in the production system at the turn of the last century. Does the rapid development of capitalism beyond the confining limits of the nation state “mean that we are also beyond class, as proclaimed in so many quarters”, they ask. Their unequivocal answer is that they do not think so,

We argue that the tendency of class to be de-emphasized (or forgotten altogether) in analyses of global capitalism loses something very important for understanding critical issues in the world today – from calls for protecting national markets or, alternatively, for “belt-tightening” in the face of international competition to debates about the contours of postmodernism. (Ibid, p. 26).


After reviewing competing orientations to the problem of how class is situated in this nexus of national and international dimensions of capitalist development7, they conclude that there are serious limitations in these approaches to understanding the import of class analysis against the background of such international development. Although in the approaches they review, class is recognized, “a problem from our perspective arises when class is made secondary to those other processes and therefore is displaced from the centre of analysis or from analysis altogether” (Ibid, p. 28). Against this their proclaimed purpose is to address “some of the important space (and time) dimensions of class processes” in understanding the relationship between nation states and international relations and to examine “international value flows” from a class perspective defined in terms of “surplus labor”(Ibid, p. 29). In their view the increasing role of international economic activities require that analyses should be fore grounded in the class dimensions of society if change is to be achieved. This is especially important for conceptions of social justice and democracy that include the notion of collective public participation in the “production, appropriation, and distribution of the surplus labours they perform” (Ibid, p. 37).
This approach to globalization would be enriched by also focusing (together with class) on the particular “non-class” strategies adopted by imperial powers for instance, the manipulation by them of “political Islam” and other social fractures to advance the interests of global capitalism8.
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