The 13th Annual Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture placed French intellectual and international cause célèbre, Thomas Piketty, in the heart of Soweto. Among those preceding him to the venue, were the usual suspects, acolytes and apostles, mostly middle class, some extremely wealthy, a substantial number of them not South African.
Piketty did not disappoint. His lecture, steeped in comparative economic history scholarship, focused on the diagnosis of inequality by specific economic indicators. He also gestured at the absolute necessity for a conversation about the troubles engendered by such inequality which his audience would have to have to tackle the structural causes directly. Some of these measures included a specific wealth tax, transparency in economic governance, locally and internationally, and stemming the contemporary legal and illegal out-flow of financial resources which hampers the economies of the global South. He also outlined the moral duty of the global North in this process, given its historical implication in and complicity with the exploitation of the global South.
The occasion of the lecture was itself burdened by multiple layers of irony, not all of them deliberate. The event was markedly (and remarkably) sponsored by several multinational corporations and organisation, some of which many in the audience must have known have less than exemplary records in relation to the people of the global South. The location, the Soweto campus of the University of Johannesburg, is situated within sight of the very effects of the massive inequality of resource allocation and opportunity distribution in contemporary South Africa.
Piketty was not required to remind his audience that they lived in the most unequal society in the world. Perhaps it was the force of his habits as an intellectual, to notice things, which prompted him to do so; though it hardly took much to see what was obvious. The gap between the lives of the majority in attendance, and the lives of the country’s demographic majority beyond the gates and across the road from the university campus, could not easily be ignored by those who queued in the sun to enter the hall. But then, perhaps for some the event was less about learning something about their immediate surroundings, or about themselves and their implication in and complicity with its vicissitudes, than about confirming already existing beliefs, or about being seen.
The audience applauded Piketty for his remarks about the extreme income inequality which sets South Africa apart from even its BRICS partner, Brazil, and his observations about the incapacitation of the poor through sub-standard education. On both of these issues, one was reminded of the work of Mamphela Ramphele (present in the audience) on poverty in apartheid South Africa: what distance have we travelled (or not) from apartheid, that crime against humanity for which there were neither criminals, nor criminalised beneficiaries; apparently the receipt of stolen goods, material or symbolic, is only criminal on an individual level. And while his critique of the privatising of education also drew approval, though it was hard to imagine that everyone in the audience sent their children to public schools.
And in that applause and seeming approval lay much of the paradox of the lecture as a phenomenon. The very income inequality Piketty was concerned with was exemplified in the contrast between the audience attending the lecture, and the majority of the people living on the far side of the fence separating the campus from the neighbourhood: German luxury cars gotten with the complete auto loans, and a collection of elites in the front row, middle class intellectuals and cultural workers behind them, and hoi polloi, somewhere else. A few of those in the class- and ‘race’ marked majority were there, either working as security guards, handing out water to cool down the attendees, and afterwards, picking up the litter left by those who hurried out to fill their bellies at the buffet and quaff down expensive wine.
While the content of Thomas Piketty’s talk was serious – his anti-comparison of the (non)demise of post-Revolution France’s Ancien Régime with the (non)demise of post-apartheid South Africa’s white dominated economic elite was both instructive and productive – the context always teetered hysterically on the edge of farce. How does one seriously engage inequality when the ostentatious display of inequality frames that discussion? How do we begin to engage, seriously, the need to break the cooperative relationships between global South governments and State functionaries, and the governments and multinational corporations of the global North, in a scene sponsored by those who cooperated in the making of this structural inequality which pockmarks post-millennial South Africa?
It all felt like something out of V.S. Naipaul’s oeuvre, or the less palatable moments in the work of Evelyn Waugh. Awash in the layers of un-ironic postcolonial self-parody, one cringed at the contrast between the topic Piketty was addressing – the nature of inequality in this society, and how to address it to avoid the consequences such inequality has historically led to – to an audience which exemplified the problem, yet applauded the proposed solutions in a space framed by the agents of the structural inequality.
In the last millennium it was said that postmodernists did everything in quotation marks, with a certain irony, so that when confronted with the epistemological and structural violence consequent to their beliefs and actions, they could step aside and claim they were being ironic, they had not meant it that way. In this millennium, perhaps postmodernism has subsumed the postcolonial condition. Perhaps the audience at the Piketty lecture were listening ironically, living ironically, and inhabiting their privilege amid deprivation which ensures the inequality their ways of being require, with postcolonial irony. Perhaps we needed an aerobatic display instead of musical numbers at the end, skilled pilots who could sky-write giant quotation marks.
Somewhere between the stage and the auditorium, between Piketty’s utterance and the audience’s reception of it, something got lost in translation. How else to explain the vulgar contradictions between believing in the necessity of overturning the unequal distribution of resources (material and cultural) in the most unequal society on the planet, and then celebrating that gap with the very symbols of that gap, the conspicuous consumption of expensive wine and food, the display of luxury vehicles, in a scene fenced off, neatly, from the realities of the majority of South Africans beyond the gate?
Between the folks in attendance who were the 10% who hog 65% of the income, while the 89% beyond the gates make do with the rest, were the 1% of underpaid labourers who guarded us, and then picked up our litter and cleaned up after us. We were performing the substance of the lecture while assuming we were there to learn how to resolve it.
In that sense, the Piketty lecture was a failed instance of what Mikhail Bakhtin called the ‘carnivalesque’, a space in which the rules could be suspended for a specific period, to show how unjust the status quo was, only for everything to return to ‘normal’ and for the power suspended during the carnival to reassert itself, often with greater authority and force. For the duration of that hot Saturday afternoon in Soweto, despite the content of Piketty’s talk, the rules of inequality which structure South African society were not even suspended for the audience.