South Africa’s White Monopoly Capital: It’s Not A Myth, Here’s Why [Opinion]

The term White Monopoly Capital has become a fiercely contentious talking point in South Africa’s political discourse. Proponents and opponents regularly clash when the legitimacy of the catch-phrase is questioned, leading to a polarization of society and a stagnant stalemate about the future of economic growth.

Activists have referred to the term while demanding legislative amendments that would ensure an equitable redistribution of wealth. President Jacob Zuma, assisted by Bell Pottinger and the infamous Gupta family, has used the term as a scapegoat for the country’s economic predicament. Many white economists have, in turn, shifted the focus back onto government by claiming that the real hurdles to economic transformation lie with Zuma’s administration, which is beset with corruption.

Caveat: While it is true that the Gupta family did use PR firm Bell Pottinger to place a spotlight on white monopoly capital, the terms existed for decades before the Guptas set foot on South African soil.

While there is no doubt that the South African State has a monopoly on certain areas of the economy, it is still significantly less than the percentage of sectors in the hands of whites.

Poverty alleviation discussion at the upcoming summit

Commenting in the Mail & Guardian earlier this year, Khadija Patel speculated that the policies adopted by the first ANC government were partial to the protection of White Monopoly Capital. In 1990 Nelson Mandela declared that the “white monopoly of political power must be ended” and that the “restructuring of our political and economic systems” would be essential to combat inequality in the pursuit of a genuinely free society.

Patel further reported that professor emeritus of economics at Stellenbosch University, Sampie Terreblanche, allegedly claimed that White Monopoly Capitalists, like the Oppenheimer and Rupert families, enjoyed considerable policy influence with Mandela during the transition from Apartheid to a democratic republic. On the agenda was the safeguarding of white capital and resistance to radical economic transformation.

In light of these revelations, could it be said that the Oppenheimers and Ruperts were the original Guptas?

One of South Africa's wealthiest billionaires

According to Peter Bruce, the editor-in-chief of Business Day, and Financial Mail, white monopoly capital does indeed exist, to a large extent, in certain sectors, such as retail, banks, construction, and big business.

Rob Rose, the editor of Financial Mail, says “there are clearly elements where our economy doesn’t provide the best access.” Rose believes this is especially evident “at the top end, with the structural situation with banks and a lot of companies; it’s very difficult for new entrants to break in.” But Rose believes that “some of the figures bandied about that white monopoly owns everything” aren’t entirely correct.

“Certainly white people, on a per capita basis, still own a larger chunk of the economy than black people. But it’s not the monopoly situation that some people like, say, the Gupta family would like to paint. So it’s more nuanced.”

On the other hand, Tim Cohen, the editor of Business Day, feels that government’s claims about white monopoly capital would gain more currency if they “disposed of their own monopolies.”

“The biggest monopolies in South Africa are owned by the government. And that’s the transport sector and the electricity sector. And I see no movement, you know those are the two biggest monopolies by miles.”

Both Cohen and Rose agree that the government is trying to shift blame for its failures in implementing economic transformation with programs such as the National Development Plan. However, regardless of the poor implementation of economic policies, scapegoating the government for South Africa’s slow growth is narrow reasoning at best.

Placing the blame on the “other” in order to absolve oneself of responsibility is an indolent act of misdirection; an attempt to avoid scrutiny of the still active Apartheid systems and structures that were created to favor whites.

Notwithstanding, before I get into the nitty-gritty’s, there is some good news, as evidenced by the growth in parts of the economy.

South Africa’s black middle class is growing rapidly. According to a United Nations article, the black middle class consisted of 4.2 million citizens in 2012. The UN figures were echoed in a study conducted by the UCT Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing which noted that the black middle class had grown from roughly 1.7 million people in 2004 to 4.2 million in 2012.

In the same study, it was found that the purchasing power of the black middle class has surpassed that of the white middle class by R80 billion. Black homeowners are rapidly catching up to whites.

Having said that, John Simpson, director of the Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing, says roughly 70 percent of black people in the middle class are weighed down by pressures to support their families who have not yet escaped poverty. This dynamic is colloquially referred to as the “black tax,” because the same pressures are not commonly associated with white South Africans. The significance of this hurdle in the way of upwards mobility is not to be underestimated.

According to a report by New World Wealth the number of black dollar millionaires – with a net value of R14,5 million upwards – has risen from 14 percent of South Africa’s millionaire population in 2007, to 45 percent in 2016. Between 2014 and 2015 the number of white millionaires declined by 34 percent, while black millionaires increased by 18 percent.

It is reported that South Africa loses roughly 10,900 white millionaires per year, which is primarily as a result of emigration due to security concerns and political instability. This negatively impacts South Africa’s economy in the sense that an inordinate amount of white wealth, amassed over time using the benefits of institutional racism, is leaving the country each year, instead of being ploughed back into efforts to transfer wealth and provide black people with access to the economy.

Although the increase in black millionaires is a very positive development, the highest concentration of capital assets still mainly resides in the hands of whites.

White Elite: Extreme Wealth Concentration

According to the Sunday Times rich-list for 2016, South Africa has at least eleven billionaires. All of them are white men, apart from one Mr. Atul Gupta, whose fortune pales in comparison to his super wealthy peers. Who are they, and what are they worth?

Nicky Oppenheimer – De Beers – R84 billion; Christo Wiese – Brait SE – R81.2 billion; Ivan Glasenberg – Glencore – R60 billion; Stephen Saad – Aspen Pharmacare – R16 billion; John Whittaker – Intu Properties – R15.9 billion; Lauritz Dippenaar – First Rand/RMB – R12.9 billion; Bruno Steinhoff – Steinhoff – R12.6 billion; Johan Rupert – Remgro – R10.6 billion; Jannie Mouton – PSG Group – R9.8 billion; and Koos Bekker – Naspers – R9.6 billion.

An obscene amount of wealth generated from South African minerals and other natural resources and cheap labor. While some of these gentlemen now live abroad, most of them still hold overwhelming sets of shares in local sectors and monopolize supply in the private sector.

Colonial wealth extraction exploited South African mineral reserves

Economy: State-owned vs. Private Sector

According to Dr. Lucien Van der Walt, a powerful and wealthy black elite has emerged within the state over the last 23 years. This elite, consisting of wealthy black entrepreneurs and politicians, controls roughly 30 percent of the economy via the State. Dr. Van der Walt refers to state-owned behemoths like the Industrial Development Corporation, Eskom, Transnet, South African Airways, and the South African Broadcasting Corporation as examples. The State also owns 25 percent of all land.

However, despite the State’s immense wealth and power, private ownership of capital goods far outweighs the influence of the state.

Johannesburg Securities Exchange (JSE)

If we look at the JSE’s internal data, we see that 23 percent of the Top 100 listed companies is owned, directly and indirectly, by black people, whereas white people own 22 percent.

Considering that white people make up roughly 8 percent of the population, whereas black people constitute approximately 90 percent, it means that per percentage of ownership whites own 11 times more of the JSE than black people.

The JSE’s foreign investors hold around 39 percent of the Top 100 shares. According to the JSE, the countries which dominate the foreign investment portfolio are the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany. These are majority white European companies.

On top of that, a further 16 percent of the Top 100 shares have not yet been analyzed, are set to reveal additional data on shareholder demographics that will likely increase the white ownership share.

Senior Management

Leadership positions in the private sector have remained overwhelmingly white. Although there has been some movement in the last 23 years, 70 percent of top managements positions are still held by whites, of which most are men. Black people hold a mere 13 percent of senior management positions. Considering that whites make up about 10 percent of South Africa’s economically active population, whereas black people make up 76 percent.

Last year the 16th Commission for Employment Equity (CEE) Report found that South Africa’s labor market “continues to be racialized and gendered,” and that this sector “remains hierarchical with blacks concentrated at the lower levels and the white group occupying decision-making positions.” Moreover, the report reveals that black employees rarely receive promotions and “remain stuck at the professionally qualified and skilled technical levels.”

Income disparity

Research conducted by Econ3x3 found that the “wealthiest 10 percent of the population own at least 90 to 95 percent of all wealth” in South Africa, while only receiving roughly 60 percent of income.

Conversely, the middle class, constituting approximately 40 percent of the population, earn about 30 to 35 percent of all income, yet “only own 5-10 percent of all wealth.” The study further shows that the “poorest 50 percent of the population, who earn about 10 percent of all income, own no measurable wealth.”

The study also found that white households are on average vastly wealthier than black families.

Black households receive an annual mean income of R69,632, while white families earn five and a half times more at a yearly average of R387,011.

Furthermore, according to Nicolas Pons-Vignon, a senior researcher at WITS School of Economic and Business Sciences, the median income – the point at which half the households earn more and the other half less – is even more revealing.

“In a country as unequal as South Africa, high earners push the mean [average] above the median, for both populations though more for whites, unsurprisingly given that there are also many more poor black households.”

The median annual income for black households is R34,078, while the average is R69,632. Essentially this means that half of black households in South Africa earn less than R34,078 per annum.

Needless to say, most of South Africa’s generational wealth was ill-gotten during a time of high exploitation, dispossession, murder and oppression of the black majority by white colonial settlers.

South African police officers killed more than 30 miners who charged them at a Lonmin PLC platinum mine


Statistics South Africa released a report on unemployment figures in 2015. According to this report, 27.9 percent of black people were unemployed, while a mere 7 percent of white people were not employed. If broad unemployment figures are taken into account, the percentages rise to 39 percent of black people and 8 percent of white people who are unemployed.

The Land

According to a fact-checking report published by Africa Check, slightly over 100 million hectares of South African land is used for agricultural purposes.

A land audit conducted by the state revealed that 79 percent of South Africa’s land is privately owned. However, this figure is said to lack nuance in assessing the more particular facets of land ownership.

In 2013, the University of the Western Cape Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) found that there are roughly 40,000 farming units today, covering about 67 percent of the country. The majority of these farmers are white, although a small number of black farmers have begun acquiring capital to purchase land, or have been awarded land with the aid of the agrarian reform process.

Most of the land areas previously known as “homelands” are now owned by the State, and forms 15 percent of South Africa’s total land mass. Outside the former communal homelands, a further 10 percent of the land is owned by the state, but PLAAS warns that “state land cannot be conflated with black ownership, nor seen as an unproblematic source of land for redistributive reform,” as this land has been demarcated for shared use.

South Africa’s urban centers account for a further 8 percent of the country’s land mass, yet houses 60 percent of the population. About 95 percent of whites reside within these areas.

It is apparent from these figures that significant disparities are still present, racially skewed in favor of whites.

South Africa is the world's tenth largest producer of sugarcane with growers annually producing an average of 19.9 million tons of sugarcane per year.

Colonialism’s lasting legacy

A recent report by Oxfam, released on May 2 this year, found that the impact of colonialism is still severely hampering the growth of African economies. Research shows that at the time of independence, the former colonies were beleaguered by inequality levels that were “around double those found in the UK, France and other Western countries.”

Moreover, experts argue that the “extractive institutions created by colonial powers to concentrate political and economic resources in the hands of the few, left a legacy that is associated with poor development outcomes over the longer run.”


Capital, in the economic sense, consists of capital goods or assets such as property/land, machinery and technologies, vehicles, and various other means of production. On the authority of Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, capital is “That part of a man’s stock which he expects to afford him revenue.”

In South Africa, the majority of land is still owned by whites. Capital in the form of human labor is exploited in expansive quantities on the farms and mines that are owned by majority white multi-national big businesses that originate in South Africa. The big banks are white, as are the most major insurance and media conglomerates. Most of these companies were established during Apartheid, escaped justice at the hands of the TRC and have vehemently resisted transformation.

Moreover, most young black entrepreneurs are unable to keep head above water, let alone gain access to financial capital with which they can establish small businesses. White people, on the other hand, benefit from generational wealth that places us in a prime position to seek out quality education and start our own enterprises.

While the government is accountable for many of these problems, it does not absolve white people, in any way whatsoever, from grabbing hold of the reins and leading the transfer of wealth and economic power.

How do we do this? Look out for Part II of my analysis where I will be exploring various viable solutions based on sound, tried and tested research.

[Featured Image by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]