Africans should emulate Punjab’s example

At nearly all our childhood tables, we were fed the following non sequitur: “eat your greens! there are children in Africa who are starving!”. In Africa, at least, the lesson is a little more accurate “eat up! there are children in India who are dying of hunger!”. In the gruesome arithmetic of famine-related deaths, there are indeed more in India than Africa. Which makes today’s news all the more chilling.

In Indian newspapers today, we read of the premier of KwaZulu-Natal, S’bu Ndebele, who has just spent the past two weeks imbibing the wisdom of the subcontinent. The Indian papers are very pleased with Ndebele’s visit, because at the end of all his journeying, he has become convinced of the sorts of things that Indian pundits have been saying all along. The headline in today’s Financial Express: ‘Africans should emulate Punjab’s example’. India rocks, and if only they were more Indian, Africans wouldn’t be in half the trouble they’re in now.

So what, exactly, has Ndebele learned? Well, in his own words

Too many of our people are literally starving in a province that is arguably the most fertile in the country. We can benefit a great deal from the province of Punjab in India where the state has succeeded in turning the rural poor into a thriving and growing state economy and has become the `food basket of India’.

Although he might like us to interpret his words as meaning that “a green revolution in KwaZulu-Natal will make the poor richer”, it’s hard to do this for the very good reason that, in Punjab, precisely the opposite has happened. A quick visit to those bomb-throwers at the United Nations Development Programme paints an unflattering state of post-green-revolution agriculture in Punjab. You can read the details here, but the upshot – of increased levels of suicide, poverty, and environmental degradation despite an initial promise of exactly the opposite – have been snappily summarised as a “Green Revocation”.

At another level, it’s important not to gloss Ndebele’s words. In Punjab, the state has indeed succeeded in “turning the rural poor into a thriving and growing state economy”: turning the poor into the ground like so much manure, grinding them into the soil, but for the greater benefit of a growing state economy.

Perhaps, though, Ndebele has learned a different lesson. With a number of land claims in KwaZulu-Natal piling higher, and beginning to fester, perhaps the benighted premier has come up with a way to pour lime on the rot. As SS Gill, at the Punjab Agricultural University, notes, the Green Revolution acted as a substitute for land reform. Although the question of an insurgent and armed peasantry is far from the South African political agenda (compare with the Naxalites), the demands for redistribution, over a decade after the end of Apartheid, have become fairly central. In 2005, there were nearly 900 protests by poor people in South Africa demanding, in the words of the South African government ‘service delivery’. But these protests, at least in the ones I saw, were calls for far more – for service delivery? Sure – water, electricity and the odd toilet would be nice. But also dignity, recognition, land, and some say in the future. This was, after all, what the struggle was for, and the ANC government’s failure to deliver on its promise is something of which it is becoming increasingly aware. So what better, under the circumstances, than the distraction of a technological production fix (for a few people) in rural areas. And, for the rest? Well, Ndebele picked up another lesson in India too.

In the print edition of today’s Indian Express, Ndebele is reported as being “very impressed with the Taj Mahal and would use the knowledge of India to attempt similar cultural projects in Kwazulu-Natal.” We’ll forget that, during the struggle against Apartheid, the kinds of Zulu cultural nationalism for which Ndebele has become a patron, were actively fought by the ANC, in much the same way that the Congress party – nominally ‘secular’ has puppeted chauvinism and xenophobia since its inception. More than that, Ndebele announced that “Various projects will be developed at a technical level to enable to mutual aim of linking islands of knowledge to the mainland of need”.

It’s a striking image. S’bu Ndebele: stranded in a sea of ignorance, cast off the shores of need, building bridges from the dry land of knowledge to the dry land of, er, need and then, um.

Okay. As a metaphor it doesn’t really hold together. But as intent, it does just fine. It flags South Africa’s brave new world – technicist and, therefore, nationalist too. One in which the culture is removed from work, where knowledge is removed from the people, and where capital gets to control both, in technological transformations to agriculture, and in little cultural theme parks, where heritage can safely replace history.

If these are the lessons that Ndebele has picked up from the Congress Party in India, then he’s learned well.