Saturday, 22 April 2017

Radical Economic Transformation in South Africa: How Radical Are You Prepared to Be?

South Africa has reached a tipping point, and change beckons. Anathema to some, in particular the upper middle classes, this change goes by the name “radical economic transformation”. Until now, the full weight of the sentiment underlying the push for more radical intervention in the South African economy was not taken as seriously. It was the language of the ultra-left Economic Freedom Fighters, who pursued a radical agenda that they had once sought to reintroduce to the centre of ANC politics when they were still members of the ANC Youth League (i.e. before they were expelled from the ANC). After they were kicked out they took the fight to the ANC, eating significantly enough into the ANC’s vote to help the ANC’s main opposition – the Democratic Alliance – to victory in three of the country’s major metropoles (the opposition took four, but relied on their support to take three i.e. Johannesburg, Pretoria and Nelson Mandela Bay).

Yet the reason why radical economic transformation is now being talked about in every home across the country is that it is the stated new policy direction of the ANC. In a bid to survive its disastrous presidency, the ANC has opted to take the wind out of the EFF’s sails and present themselves as prepared to make a return to their core values as a movement. They have recognised the widespread societal discontent with the lack of adequate transformation, economic upliftment, access to services, social mobility and the conditions of poverty and near-poverty that the black working classes have been relegated to in the new South Africa, and have now decided to do something about it. There is no doubt that there is a sincerity behind this push for a new set of economic policies, yet the question regarding what radical economic transformation entails in practical terms remains a matter of debate.

For this reason, many commentators have been quick to dismiss it as yet another amorphous term that has been deployed to fool the masses into casting their votes for the ANC at the next presidential elections in 2019. With a steadily decreasing portion of the national vote under Jacob Zuma – a presidency that took a wrecking ball to the tripartite ruling alliance, as well as to the state and state owned enterprises and companies, leaving the country wracked with uncertainty, economic decline, unemployment, rampant corruption, the highest inequality in the world and widespread discontent – it is reasonable to make the conclusion that the new rhetoric is simply political spin that has been designed to ensure that power remains within the hands of the ruling party. Indeed, some have referred to this new turn of events as the “Zanufication” of the ANC, in reference to neighbouring Zimbabwe.

On closer analysis, however, it is easy to see that what is actually transpiring is that a new debate has been initiated, a debate wherein significant contestation around what kind of (radical) economic transformation is required to restore faith in the role of government and the state, as well as the kind of economy and society that South Africa aspires towards being. Simply put, South Africa has entered a moment in which a new reformation of sorts is in the offing. It is potentially the most significant turn that the country has taken since it became a democracy in 1994 and proceeded to deregulate and liberalise its economy in 1996.

The public debate on what kind of radical economic transformation trajectory to adopt has only just begun, but it is worth tracking what is central to the nature of the key arguments that have emerged. And with the push for radical economic change being an idea that has long resided with the South African left, in one form or another, it should come as no surprise that the majority of initial contributions have emerged from left thinkers and commentators. The centre-left are also weighing in, but their contributions have yet to emerge in the same numbers as the traditional and far-left have.

Yet there is one key observation that can be made about all of the currently floated ideas of what radical economic transformation should be, that is; they are all largely redistributive in nature.

The far left – such as the EFF – propose nationalising the mines, banks and the South African Reserve Bank; notions that send tsunami level shock waves through the private sector, as well as speculative international investors and global markets. It proposes using the country’s key resources and assets, in addition to taxes, directly – through government – for the good of the people. It smacks of the socialist politics of Latin American leaders such as Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez, which aimed to nationalise land and resource bases in service of social equality imperatives.

The traditional and centre left propose using the large South African state as a vehicle to create a new class of black industrialists who will be able to obtain a more significant share of the ‘pie’ (i.e. the South African productive economy) i.e. through allocating state-led projects mainly to black business. This remains a redistributive trajectory as it is not entirely certain that businesses that are nurtured through state funds will be able to transition into competitive markets within the private sector with ease. Indeed it may well prove to be the case that they end up fighting each other off in the quest to establish monopolies over state projects and tenders instead.

Even the traditionally liberal politics and conservative economics of the official opposition – the Democratic Alliance – has swung towards the left and reinvented itself as a more social democratic party. Recently on television I saw the leader of the opposition – Mmusi Maimane – speaking from a podium that had a message attached to it, one that ensured the public that the DA would protect its social grants. This while its now embattled ex-leader – Helen Zille – was waxing lyrical about the supposed ‘benefits’ of colonialism and the need for a meritocratic economy in South Africa.

There is no doubt that there is a need for significant redistributive reforms to the South African economy. Given South Africa’s historical injustices, as well as its current high levels of socio-economic inequality – an inequality that clearly delineates primarily along racial lines – it is no doubt that the colonial, postcolonial and post-Apartheid era dispensations share common fundamentals at the systemic level. Inequality is so deeply rooted within our very systems of governance, that relying purely on markets and trickle-down economics, with mild social democratic reforms, is bound to result in disappointment.

Yet it is not enough merely to discuss radical economic transformation in the context of redistribution alone. It is entirely unavoidable to talk about the radical economic transformation of an economy without asking what is going to drive the engine of the economy i.e. its productive capacity. Simply put, what kind of production will grow (i.e. I am not referring to growth here in the sense of GDP growth, but in terms of the productive economy), and who will be buying what we produce?

In a sense, a redistributive set of reforms assumes that the engine of the economy is okay the way it is. Metaphorically speaking, a redistributive agenda only addresses the ‘power’ coming from the ‘engine’ of the economy. It redistributes the ‘power’ but does not ask whether the engine requires an overhaul. In doing so, it is doomed to difficulty, frustration and failure. An economy needs to produce competitively and usefully in order to remain relevant within regional and global markets. It needs to be thinking about the engine that drives it as much as what that engine produces.

And real economic engines are ones that not only produce, but innovate. They innovate new offerings and capture and grow their markets. They do not simply capture the state and grow on the basis of its offerings alone (i.e. such as large state-led procurement and infrastructure deals). It is in this sense that I pose the question that is the title of this piece, namely, “How Radical Are You Prepared to Be?”

The use of the word radical implies a complete break from the norm, and not a mere perpetuation of it; something that changes the fundamental nature of the existing system. With this in mind, it is clear that if we are not addressing the question of what kind of economic engine our country is transitioning towards, then we are not being radical about economics; we are merely being radical about social equality i.e. we are using the economy to achieve social equality as an end in itself; we are not attempting to change the fundamental structure and of the economy in a significant way.

Industrialisation, which is desperately needed in the current South African economy – primarily to alleviate high levels of unemployment – will not happen by itself. It needs the help of government and the state to help shape it. Whether in capitalist, social democratic or socialist and communist regimes, governments and the state play a key role in shaping the economy in general, and the productive economy in particular. Ensuring that the work force are employed, is always a top government priority.

For example, in all the emerging positions on radical economic transformation, we have heard very little being said about the criticality of the proposed nuclear power deal – the largest in the world at 9,6 GW – that is estimated at one trillion rand, but which will likely triple or quadruple over the course of the project. Some comments are made here and there about the potentially crippling effects of the debt that the deal may incur on current and future generations, and potential to significantly weaken sovereignty as a consequence of issuing ill-advised guarantees for foreign loans, but the key danger that the deal presents to the economy has largely gone un-mentioned.

That is, the danger that the nuclear deal presents to the capacity of the engine of the economy to significantly innovate and evolve has gone un-mentioned. Simply put, if such large amounts of funding are guaranteed by the state for large-scale bulk infrastructure nuclear builds – which have extremely high upfront capital costs – then the nuclear deal will effectively crowd out other significant investment opportunities in the energy sector in South Africa.

In particular, South Africa will likely not feature as a participant in the growth of the renewable energies sector in particular, a sector that has unprecedented growth, speculative investment and employment creation profiles. For example, according to Fortune Magazine solar and wind energies are creating jobs 12 times faster than other industries[1]. Speculative investment into the renewable energies sectors has now long been 4-5 times as much as that going into fossil fuel technologies, indicating that should we make the choice to diversify the energy sector through a renewable energies trajectory, we would likely attract much needed foreign investment as well.

With such a large African market on our doorstep, one that desperately requires small to medium scale energy solutions to meet the needs of its most vulnerable and poor – many of whom live in slum and informal settlements that lack access to bulk infrastructures and service provisions – it makes eminent sense to be putting significant effort into growing renewable energies solutions in South Africa and innovating offerings of its own to take out to the rest of the continent. Moreover, we have the economic base – i.e. reputable service and manufacturing sectors – through which to catalyse expansion into new, emerging African markets.

Renewable energies can be implemented at small and medium scales, create orders of magnitude more employment than conventional bulk energy infrastructures, and can stimulate a range of value-chain related industries such as energy savings management companies, small scale maintenance and installation entrepreneurships, and skills development and training agencies. They are the natural starting point for the radical transformation of the productive economy in South Africa i.e. the heart of the engine itself, its energy sector. 

Historically, the South African economy has been understood as clustering around a ‘minerals energy complex’, off which its manufacturing base was later established (most of which was strongly linked to the mining sector, as well as the availability of cheap energy). My contention would be that a truly radical approach would seek to diversify the energy sector and open it up to a broader range of entrepreneurs, organisations and agencies within South African society itself. 

Research and studies suggest that South Africa only need consider the need for nuclear energy between 2025 and 2035. It makes no sense to be desperately attempting to tie up a nuclear deal with; (1) guaranteed escalating costs and possible national bankruptcy, (2) a Russian company that has overcommitted and under-delivered/faltered entirely on a number of smaller scale projects around the world, (3) a potential to tie South African consumers and producers into potentially higher future energy costs (especially if the Russians absorb most of the upfront capital costs) than would otherwise be the case if a competitive, evolving energy market were in place (i.e. some renewables have reached parity with conventional energy sources and will likely become more cost effective as they go to scale and new innovations emerge), and lastly that it would crowd out the space for innovating new systems, product and service offerings that can be leveraged to open up markets on the continent and play a critical developmental role at the same time.

The energy sector is the most sensible entry point to seed the transition of the South African economy i.e. by drawing on both offerings within the information and green technology sectors to establish the foundations and capacities to establish a competitive production and innovation base within the South African economy i.e. to upgrade its ‘engine’ so to speak, so that it can access new markets, most of which lie on its doorstep. With a well-established tertiary sector in place (i.e. services), South Africa has the distinct advantage over others on the continent, and can use this to its advantage in making inroads into markets across the continent.

Moreover, from a developmental perspective, it can help seed a developmental transition that could well eventually underlie an “African Renaissance” in the process. By addressing the four main sectors that affect African household budgets, that is; the costs of water, transport, energy and food, it can help stabilise household budgets in the medium to long terms by decreasing their vulnerability to exogenous factors (e.g. scarcity/cost of fossil fuels), as well as dampening monopolisation and rent-seeking through ensuring diverse competition in the sector.

In this vision of radical economic transformation, a revolution in renewable energies will be followed by the full suite of available green and sustainable technology options, systems and built infrastructures. From mass public transit systems, to waste and water recycling, reviving old industrial zones, to permaculture and agro-ecological sector offerings, the potential for seeding new growth is indisputable.  And the next new market for these offerings, according to most global corporates and agencies, is right on our doorstep. And given the challenges we face in our country, it is likely that the innovations we produce will prove useful across the rest of the continent.

If our industrialisation strategy is to compete on the same terms as China or India, the large ‘factories’ of the world, or with North America and Europe i.e. the developed nations, then we will likely succeed in achieving only marginal growth, if any. We simply cannot compete with them at what they do. We need to compete with them by linking into the new offerings that have emerged and growing our capacity to innovate solutions that fit the African context more suitably i.e. for example, offerings that are decentralised, low tech, easily maintained, cost effective (i.e. low cost, innovative financing schemes), reliable, robust and so forth.

While it goes without mention that a redistributive agenda is entirely necessary when we talk of radical economic transformation in South Africa, it is also critical to recognise that without taking aim at the engines of production in the South African economy, we will not achieve any significant restructuring of the actual economy.

It also goes without saying that the rampant and deep corruption that has come to characterise the South African state and government has to be addressed before any kind of future can be reasonably entertained, but other authors have addressed this comprehensively and I have chosen not to focus my energies on reiterating the obvious. Rather, my goal with this piece is to raise the question of what a truly radical new vision of the South African economy would be, and how central and critical the role of the productive economy is in achieving that vision.

We will remain doomed to a future of ‘second-rung’ economic activities should we not take this opportunity to go beyond mere redistributive reforms and seed the potential for economic diversification through harnessing new growth offerings. For decades there has been a consistent mantra; that significant industrialisation is required to take the South African economy forward, and that it would need to diversify significantly to achieve this. That opportunity is now on our doorstep, should we approach it in a half-baked manner, and fail to conceive of a truly radical vision – one that is not only socially radical, but is radical in terms of economic transition – then we would have failed to leapfrog ourselves into the most significant emerging economies, ones that will increasingly dictate how the 21st Century unfolds. It will be a ‘revolution without a renaissance’, and that, in effect, is a revolution that is incomplete.

If there is to be upheaval, uncertainty and radical change, then let that change be constructive and productive, let it be change that brings us closer to being the kind of society that we aspire to being, the kind that is set out in the constitution, and reflects a deeply held set of shared beliefs about what kind of society we should be. Let that change result in tangible benefits for those in society who need it most, and in a manner that the whole of society can celebrate the improvements in quality of life that result from it. Let this opportunity not be squandered by short-sightedness, dogmatism and ignorance of the vast changes that the globe is going through; we need to work with both what is out there, and what we have, in order to bravely forge a new future for the generations to come. Let that be the guiding principle around which radical economic transformation is conceived of and put into practise, lest we end up doing more of the same and end up with nothing new.

[1] See:

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Building Active Citizenry: The Key to a Participatory Democracy

Protesters marching from District 6 to Parliament in Cape Town

Yesterday, on Friday 7 April 2017, South Africans took to the streets in their tens of thousands to protest against the presidency of Jacob Zuma and the failure of the ANC to hold him to account for reckless decision-making that has sent shock waves through the economy and threatened the livelihoods and household budgets of the bulk of society. They took to the streets amidst a background of intimidation and the threat of state violence and the ANC Youth League and recently formed veterans association who effectively positioned themselves as the ANC’s extra-state militia.

The International Workers Vanguard Party cut a lonely figure

The marches were most notable for the absence of organised labour, and that middle and lower middle class marchers made up the bulk of the protest actions across the country. Yet this is nothing new in the tradition of protest in South Africa. In contrast to the nostalgia impregnated versions of South African history, citizen-based anti-Apartheid protest actions were largely constituted of middle and lower middle class pockets in different communities. Organised labour usually took to the streets under their own banners and with their own demands. 

The romantic visions of the working class rising up from their homes and workplaces to hit the streets is an obfuscation of historical fact; indeed, their vulnerability often precluded them from being able to take such action. It is mainly within organised labour that they found their expression. In the 1980s working class youth did engage in riotous activities in the quest to “make the country ungovernable” but it was not organised in the same way as labour organisations, the churches and the United Democratic Front (UDF). 

The reality of protest action in South Africa under Apartheid was that the middle classes, in particular black and brown middle classes, played a huge role in mobilising the resources, people and leadership within society to facilitate citizen-based action. What is different about yesterday’s marches is that the white middle classes came out in greater numbers than they ever have before.

This has drawn a fair amount of criticism. “Where were they during Apartheid?” the critiques go. “Where were they when Marikana happened, when the Esidemeni deaths occurred … where were they when services were failing in black townships across the country?” The debates around the legitimacy of protest action have largely revolved around the racial and class dimensions of the protests.

It is true that for many years the white middle classes have been apathetic about the state of politics and the plight of poor black citizenry in South Africa, preferring to dwell exclusively on issues that affect them directly such as black economic empowerment, transformation and land reclamations. Yet the profound irony is that the black middle classes were also largely absent from the streets when all the aforementioned events and issues arose in South Africa. Apart from social media exhortations of solidarity with the working classes, cross-class unity between the black and working classes has largely proved mythical.

Moreover, there is a paradoxical reaction to white middle class politicisation that appears to have escaped the many cynics that have raised their voices. It is this; that the white middle classes have long been the subject of criticism for their inaction in the political realm, yet now that they have taken to the streets to express their political dissent they are criticised for taking action. It appears that they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Finally, white South Africans may begin to understand one of the greatest difficulties of being black in white dominated organisations, institutions and the like; that you are actively delegitimised no matter what you do or say.  

You have to fight for your place, and yesterday’s showing from the white middle class was a declaration of intent to do just that. For the first time in my life I heard white people chanting the anti-Apartheid slogan “Amandla Awethu!” with vigour. It is still too early to tell exactly where it will lead, and what kind of politics they will rally around, but it is a good first step. Multi-racial middle class unity was also on display, and that is a profoundly positive step in the right direction for South Africa, as it is precisely that kind of unity – with all its contradictions and fraught interactions – that is needed to build the foundation for longer term political contestation of key top-down decisions and governance failures.

There was also a sense that middle class South Africans – who for the past twenty years have largely been sold on the rainbow nation narrative – were displaying what it means to them; that they do inhabit spaces in which their understanding of non-racialism is put into practise. They clearly do not interrogate its shortcomings and contradictions adequately, and are largely in denial about the systemic and structural racisms that inhabit South African society, but what they were displaying was their understanding of the political project that the new South Africa embarked on under the now-hallowed leadership of Nelson Mandela in 1994.

Slogans chanted from the balcony were echoed by the crowds below
To underestimate the strength and power of the rainbow nation narrative is politically na├»ve and strategically inept. It is still a powerful driving force behind middle class South African society identity. Indeed, it is precisely the narrative that the official opposition party in South Africa – the Democratic Alliance – has successfully wrested away from the ANC, whose politics now revolves around racial polarisation and divisiveness. The DA, however, is not without its race politics challenges as some members and the former leader – Helen Zille – have increasingly exhibited precisely the systemic and structural racism that its new black leader – Mmusi Maimane – is working furiously against (this has brought him into conflict with the outspoken ex-leader of the party).

Yet drawing the middle classes in the new South Africa out onto the streets – whether white, brown or black – is an incredible achievement. Moreover, the protests drew people out locally, that is; they took to the streets in their various neighbourhoods and areas across the country, in addition to converging upon major state venues such as parliament in Cape Town, as well as Church Square and the Union Buildings in Pretoria. It is from this that the seeds of active, local citizenry can be built in South Africa, especially within middle and lower middle class neighbourhoods and areas.

The absence of a coherent ideological or political project that they can articulate or motivate for, at this stage, should come as no surprise. The protest actions of yesterday are but a starting point. They are not yet a movement or set of movements of any recognisable description. They are largely united by a joint frustration with corruption, the lack of political accountability and the inaction of politicians and the ruling classes (one might also add traditional activists and left intellectuals to this). So what is the plan moving forward? What can actors within society draw upon to keep the momentum of mobilisation and protest action?

Often overlooked, but fundamental to building active citizenry, is the experience of power that citizen-based action engenders in people. People who are ordinarily atomised and have retreated into the personal realm, becoming focused on the day-to-day affairs that occupy their personal lives and ambitions, are rendered powerless under political structures and leaderships. When they come together and act in concert, especially in large numbers, their feelings of frustration with the status quo is exorcised and legitimised. It is a liberation of sorts, that is; a liberation from the sense of one’s personal inadequacy and powerlessness in the face of political power. They begin to understand that only by acting together can they bring significant pressure on prevailing systems of power, and bend them to their will. Their politics then becomes meaningful, as it is no longer constituted only of a collection of personal frustrations. Indeed, they are less likely – in the South African context – to make plans to emigrate when they make the realisation that they do in fact possess the capacity to take action and exert political pressure on the matters that they find agreement around.

Indeed, it is not ideology that brings people together in the political sphere. Most ordinary people in liberal democracies are largely unaware of the ideological frameworks that govern their political lives, whether tacit or explicit. Rather, as the political theorist Hannah Arendt intuited from her observations of the political realm, it is the experience of power derived through “acting in concert” that awakens people and societies to their political power.

So what is the way forward for middle and lower middle class society in South Africa? How do they continue to build momentum so that a more active and engaging polis is actualised? Well, it is rather simple in theory, but requires great practical effort at grassroots levels. Mobilising beyond protest at the local level is key. Protest action is critical, but the key to awakening a dead polis is to get active engagement going between local citizenries.

First, gathering in town-hall meetings to discuss and debate what kind of society they want to live in and how to actualise it, as well as their priority actions and the reasoning behind them, is critical to building active citizenry. That is, both protest and sincere engagement is required. Leaders, experts and respected individuals and groups can also visit and occasionally participate, sit on panels and field questions from the citizenry, and engage them on their terms, taking time to flesh out and explain their differing perspectives, allowing the citizens to make more informed political choices.

Second, citizens can also take initiative to constitute their own forums, where they can discuss and organise around particular issues, interests and ideological perspectives. They can then represent these issues, interests and ideological perspectives more effectively when gathered with the larger community, as well as when gathered in large formations (e.g. when embarking upon mass action in major cities and locations). Indeed, large protests around the world, and in anti-Apartheid protests, usually brought together a wide range of local, regional and national groups (e.g. labour, political, religious, interest based, issue based, etc.); they often marched under their banners.

Third, planning and mounting large and small civil disobedience and other protest campaigns. These need not always be confrontational; they can be creative and enjoyable, and can bring people together in the public sphere in such a manner that they leave better informed and inspired to take action themselves. It can serve to induce a multiplier effect in society. What is critical about protest, however, is that while it does not always have to be confrontational, it should always contest power i.e. it must not merely amount to a pointless gathering of people with no clear demands.

Fourth, it takes concerted action from individuals and groups who are motivated to gather people and prepare all the logistical and organisational criteria that is critical to successful attendance and engagement. Literally this means getting on the phone and calling up each neighbourhood member and asking them to attend. It also means going door-to-door in neighbourhoods to engage with citizens directly and rally support. Nowadays there is also social media and a range of other mechanisms through which to organise, but person-to-person interaction should never be underestimated for its power to bring people together. It takes time and effort, and a lot of the organisational tasks are mundane, but it is key to facilitating successful and broad engagement.

To recap; gathering as a neighbourhood or community, gathering in smaller focus groups or forums, mounting civil disobedience campaigns, and paying careful attention to logistical and organisation criteria, are key to activating local citizenry in the political sphere. There are other factors that may prove important in different local and other contexts, and it is certain that a lot of learning-by-doing will be required. The important thing is to get on with it. In order for political action to be successful and relevant it requires sustained, long-term engagement and protest activities. It needs to recognise that there is no end to the pursuit of an accountable and robust democracy, it is an ongoing one.

South Africa effectively requires a reformation of its political sphere, one in which ordinary everyday citizens begin to make their voices heard and can exert their political will on its leadership and within society at large. This can only lead to positive and healthy outcomes for democracy in the long term. There will no doubt be problems and differences, but an active citizenry is without doubt the foundation of a healthy democracy. The very first step has been taken by the middle classes, and despite the detractors, it is a necessary and immensely positive step in the right direction. 

What happens after this, is up to society itself. It has tasted its political power, and we can only hope that its appetite will grow, as only through active engagement can South African society overcome the deep polarisation that its politicians have subjected it to and which it has become infected with. It cannot, and will never be overcome through retreating into individualism, or splitting into self-reinforcing groups; it can only be overcome through direct interaction with one another.

To focus on whether Jacob Zuma is ultimately removed from power (and who he is replaced with in the short term) by these protest actions is to miss the point of these protests, and constitutes an overly reductionist understanding of why citizen engagement and action is necessary. Indeed, it renders one immobilised by hypothetical considerations that go back and forth and offer no hope of change. By now, the vulnerability of government and the state in South Africa cannot be solved by short term actions; the rot has gone too deep and has spread too wide to simply be removed by getting rid of the president. It will take sustained action from broad cross-sections of society to rectify. The removal of the president, if it is achieved, will merely be a symbolic show of the power of the citizenry (although an important one at that no doubt, and with significant political implications). Sustained long-term action will prove necessary to reconstitute the integrity of government and the state in South Africa.

In this respect, picture a society that discusses its priorities, interests and issues with their neighbours regularly, and can mobilise within a week or two to get massive numbers out onto the streets, and you begin to grasp what South Africa could be if it can build on the momentum that has gathered in previous weeks. Will there be challenges, and are there risks? Indeed, but the risk of not building the base for active citizen engagement is orders of magnitude greater, as the past twenty-two years has proven beyond any reasonable doubt. Like our bodies, the polis - or the body politic - is only ever healthy if it is regularly exercised.

Monday, 3 April 2017

The Helen Zille Labyrinth: Revisionism and The Politics of Discontent

Journalist: “What do you think of Western Civilisation?”

Gandhi: “I think it would be a good idea.”

Helen Zille’s recent comments on the benefits of colonialism predictably resulted in a national outcry. Unsurprisingly, she was roundly chastised by her own party leader and other members of the DA leadership, while some pleaded for calm and a more measured and generous interpretation of her statements. Some, like Ghaleb Cachalia, offered his own, far more nuanced interpretation of her comments than she had the good sense to provide. She has been called to appear before a disciplinary committee, who will give her the “fair hearing” that she proclaims only the DA is capable of, a trait that she erroneously attributes to its colonial heritage (colonial jurisprudence was undoubtedly exploitative and unfair to the majorities they ruled over; to claim otherwise is to propose such drastic revisionism as to claim the Holocaust was a fabrication).

Parliament recently debated the issue, and she provided a considerably more careful version of her views in her speech to Parliament. Yet the speech itself was not without its deeper contradictions. The first of these is that she conflated colonialism with Western Civilisation. This is a problematic conflation, and one that frankly goes a mile too far in respect of logic and reason. The second is that Helen Zille is a self-proclaimed “non-racialist” who “does not see race” but “sees people”. That, however, does not translate in her view of history, for her history is patently delineated along racial lines. There are clear reasons on her part for both the conflation between colonialism and Western Civilisation, as well as the racial delineation of it. In Helen Zille’s version of history, Western Civilisation equates to “white” civilisation, is hence indivisible from that of the white settler of the colonies. This is nothing new, and settler identities in South Africa have historically embodied this mythical conflation and delineation in order to justify holding disproportionate power.

But here’s the rub, if Helen Zille truly was a non-racialist, her view of history would be far more nuanced. It would acknowledge that civilisations have interacted in time, as well as across space, and each successive civilisation builds upon the knowledge it inherits from its predecessors. No civilisation that has interacted with others can lay claim that its knowledge can be regarded as the exclusive preserve of its civilisation. Only in cases where civilisations have developed in relative isolation from others can this claim be made. This is clearly not the case where Western Civilisation is concerned.

Moreover, human knowledge and invention, and the roles of different peoples in the projects of civilisation, cannot easily be discounted. So, to proclaim the genius of Egyptian architects who constructed the pyramids without acknowledging the highly skilled Hebrew slaves that made their constructions possible, is to assume that the underclasses in these projects were merely labour, the kind akin to animal labour. Historically, the idea that slaves and other workers were insignificant in the technological and other ‘progress’ of civilisation is erroneous at best and there are plenty examples to draw on. 

A brilliant articulation of this can be drawn from I.B. Thabatha’s 1952 “The Boycott”.

"... there is no such thing as 'Western Civilization' ... There is only human civilization, which is the sum total of knowledge and techniques slowly acquired by man in the course of his development throughout the ages. Peoples in different parts of the world have come into contact with one another, mainly through trade and conquest, and have communicated their techniques from one to the other.... Once the peoples of Europe became civilized, they in turn made their contribution to the body of knowledge accumulated through the ages. Civilization as we know it to-day is thus the property of mankind. It is the heritage of all men. As we, the Non-Europeans of South Africa, are part of humanity, we claim this civilization as our natural heritage ... No-one can deny that every day of our lives since the advent of capitalism in this country, we have been creating civilization.... the whole edifice of the South African state with all its wealth and well-being, could not have been built without our labour. In every field of South African life a Black man's labour is indispensable... How monstrous, then, is this idea of the Black man's ingratitude!"

This, single paragraph is astonishingly relevant today, and a careful reading of it exposes the clear reasons for the deep discontent that Helen Zille’s comments raised amongst black South Africans in particular. The tone of her tweets was offensive and provocative in that it gave black people the impression that they were being chastised for their ungratefulness for the benefits that colonialism brought them. It is clear from her speech, and other preceding statements, that she attributes this to a sense of victimhood – i.e. a victim mentality – that prevents them from taking ownership of their inherited condition, laying constant blame on history and white settler-hood. Hence she casts dire warnings against the rise of “African racial-nationalist propaganda”, which can lead to the targeting of “minorities” in South Africa.

The notion that despite slavery, forced labour, forced removals, forced labour, theft of land and resources, and a legacy of chronic under-development, colonialism nonetheless brought benefits to the colonies, gives the impression that the civilising mission of colonialism was a necessary evil. Indeed, this is how Helen Zille’s defenders and supporters on twitter interpret her statements, which a cursory inspection of their responses reveals. This perspective negates the fact that countries that were never colonised – such as Ethiopia and Thailand – have nonetheless modernised along with the rest of the world. There was no necessity in colonialism other than the scramble for resources; there was no justification in colonialism except in the racist superiority complex that Western civilisation afforded itself, especially in the Victorian era.

In contrast, and perhaps because she was now in the spotlight (something she enjoys, to the detriment of the actual black party leader Mmusi Maimane), the tone in Helen Zille’s speech to Parliament was far more guarded and careful. She took great care to roll out quotes from black leaders, black writers and a black history textbook author to justify her position. Yet there was a patent sleight of hand in all of this; she moved from the tone of “Please, just be honest …” to one that was far more apologist, claiming that her comments were opportunistically exploited as all she really meant to state was that despite its diabolical nature some benefits did derive from colonialism.

If that was the case, why has Helen Zille not focused her efforts on the profoundly destructive intergenerational impacts that colonialism and Apartheid wreaked upon South African society? Why has she disparaged the emerging discourse on “decolonisation” and the student movement that has elevated it into the public realm? Why does she propose a “meritocracy” for the country with the highest inequality in the world (i.e. according to the World Bank) instead of looking at mechanisms for redress and equity? Why does she label these attempts at transformation as “bribe-based black enrichment masquerading as black economic empowerment”? Indeed, Helen Zille is long on criticism of any attempts at redress of the horrors of our past, but extremely short on reasonable propositions on how to do things better. There is absolutely no empirical evidence for meritocracy as a solution – it is merely an ideological prop deployed by conservatives who distrust any form of social democracy as ‘socialist’.

Moreover, she apologised “unreservedly” for her comments, yet has gone on to justify them with long-winded articles and speeches. Something is amiss here, when you apologise you withdraw your statements as ill-founded and/or offensive. You do not continue to harp on the same chord having apologised for sounding it out in the first place. That is what an apology is. South African politicians are masters at sowing silk purses out of sows’ ears. They have many years of experience in the spin and bamboozle dirty tricks campaigns that characterises our politics, and Helen Zille is no stranger to these tactics. Indeed, they have fueled her populist campaign to the right of centre for many years now.

This cognitive dissonance – holding contradictory stances and ideas in play at the same time without acknowledging it – locates Helen Zille on the mirror end of the spectrum to the “African nationalists” she warns against. In reality her actions mirror theirs in unmistakeable ways. When one looks to Jimmy Manyi, Julius Malema, and even the president Jacob Zuma, they make use of a different tone when addressing the nation than when they address their followers directly. When addressing the nation they are more measured and articulate, taking the time to build their arguments into some semblance of a logical chain of thought. However, when they address their followers directly they pull no punches and descend into the politics of discontent. There is an unmistakeable change of tone and they make outrageous statements to their base. This is classic populism, where a politician panders directly to their base in order to buoy up discontent.

She goes further, claiming to be glad of her tweets, as they have opened up – in her opinion – an important national debate on the issue. The reality, however, is that the public debate on colonialism was brought to the fore by the student movement over two years ago. Yet she has – at every turn – disparaged and attempted to shut down that debate. It is clearly not a debate that she wants to have. She wants to have her say, but she does not want others to have theirs. This is not made up. Last year, just as the polls to the municipal elections closed, she tweeted that black students who had written a newspaper article describing their feelings of being mere “drops in the ocean” at the University of Cape Town should leave if they didn’t like it, and that they should have their funding withdrawn. These are hardly the statements of someone who is open to debating the issues of colonial inheritance and the challenge of transformation today. These are simply the statements of someone who wants to shut down the debate entirely.

It is reminiscent of Jimmy Many’s outlandish statements and comments on twitter, which he rationalises on television in more detail, knowing that there is a particular audience he is speaking to (e.g. the denial of the ‘Zupta’ controversy as an agenda of “white monopoly capital”). Helen Zille does exactly the same; her alarmist bleating about an attack on minorities is all about white middle class fragility in the new South Africa. If she really cared about minorities who are under attack then why has she not been more vocal about xenophobic attacks on African migrants and refugees, and why has she not spoken out when her own party leaders, such as Herman Mashaba, have made statements to the effect that foreign Africans are engaged in criminality. Well, it is because she shares these views. When my wife, an expert on migration, had a meeting with her on the issue, she pulled out a list of foreign Africans who had been charged with crimes as justification of her suspicion of them. If she was really interested in protecting minorities, why not start with those who are actually being targeted by unfair competition laws, and who are stabbed, shot and burnt to death on the streets and in their informal shops? Perhaps some minorities are ‘more equal’ than others?

In the ultimate exercise in selective and tautological reasoning, Helen Zille invoked the words within a school history textbook that was written by a black historian, which made mention of some of the tangential benefits of colonialism [1]. She then asked parliament if he should be fired for these views, triumphantly proclaiming that perhaps the only reason she is being singled out is because of the colour of her skin. And there, in flash, she tacitly gave credence to the main claim that her white conservative base holds dear i.e. that they are victims of ‘reverse racism’ in the new South Africa. From a position of relative privilege she can proclaim not to lapse into victimhood while expressing a clear case for it at the same time.

But contradictions are the new substance of politics, not just in South Africa, but across the globe, as the conservative right mount an offensive on the liberal consensus. Helen Zille may once have been a liberal, but she moved with her base, and is no longer a classic liberal. She is an arch neoconservative, engaging in revisionism and reactionary politics of a kind that appeals to that base. She has become their mascot, replacing the Tony Leon of old, who would cut a far more fitting figure in this new era of politics. At least with him, you knew where you stood. His positions were unequivocal and clear, but they did not win the DA any black votes.

Helen Zille is a far more crafty character than Tony Leon. She plays in the grey areas, where her messaging can be taken one way or another, but her core conservative base knows exactly what she is insinuating. It is an infuriating game, and while some black voters (i.e. especially minorities such as Indians and Coloureds) may be inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, black voters who have endured post-Apartheid duplicitous racism will more likely be put off considerably.

Her transition from carelessly chosen words on twitter, to carefully chosen ones in her speeches, her contradictory claims and statements, her un-scholarly historical conflations, and conspiratorial retreats serve to create a great deal of noise out of which anyone can read whatever they wish to. In contrast to the clear messaging of her black party leader, Mmusi Maimane, who is a unifier and grand ‘rhetoritician’, Helen Zille’s political messaging can only be understood in terms of a labyrinth; by the time you’ve made your way out the end of it you’ve forgotten where it started. Like Donald Trump, she creates her own version of history and current events with careless disregard for facts and context, leaving it to all and sundry to undo while she moves on to her next outrageous outburst. It’s a game of catch-up, and like Trump, she appears to be winning when she is in fact doing irreparable damage, damage that others will have to work desperately hard to undo. And that, for her – unfortunately – is how the game is played!

Yet, as the saying goes, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!” It remains to be seen for how long the South African electorate will continue to be fooled by the DA ex-leader’s antics before they gang up on her and hold her to account.


[1] Incidentally, my Apartheid era standard three school history textbook (10 years old) claimed that Indian indentured labourers were brought to KwaZulu-Natal because Zulu's were "lazy". This fabrication ignored the fact that Indian indentured labourers had specialised skills in growing sugar cane in particular, and that Zulu traditional homesteads were sustainable and self-subsistent, so they did not have to work on the plantations in order to survive. Eventually they were driven into labour by the introduction of taxes such as the poll tax and hut tax.  I'm simplifying here to make a point, that Zille erroneously invokes school textbook excerpts as proof of history; in reality, history is always written subjectively.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Left-Wing Paralysis: Dispatches from the Echo-Chambers of the South African Left

“Revolutionaries do not make revolutions. The revolutionaries are those who know when power is lying in the street and when they can pick it up.”

Hannah Arendt, 1989 Thoughts on Politics and Revolution[1]

Faced with perhaps the greatest post-Apartheid crisis of leadership and governance that the democratic dispensation has endured, the South African left are largely unable to find a coherent voice, and are hence unable to mount any serious programme of action to remedy the situation.

The situation, however, is clear if one follows the money. The recent cabinet reshuffle is a thinly veiled attempt to follow through on a series of attempts to green-light the R1 Trillion nuclear deal. Indeed, no sooner than the new Minister of Finance had been appointed did he declare his support for the deal. The nuclear deal follows a long line of scandalous corruption expose’s, disastrous maladministration debacles and numerous attempts to take control of the various institutions that make up the state complex, by the current ANC government, led by President Jacob Zuma.

It is true that there are many dimensions to the crisis that South Africa finds itself in, in general. Economic growth is marginal, almost at a stall, unemployment and inequality are at unacceptable levels, the various institutions and organisations within the state that are tasked with delivery have hollowed out from within and regularly failed dismally to meet public demand, some parastatals (such as South African Airways) have required large bail-outs despite poor leadership and constant failure to meet their own targets, strikes and protests are regular features of the South African political landscape, and the political decision-making is so unpredictable that it regularly sends shockwaves through the economy. To add to this, the ruling party has all but fragmented and split from within, and the ANC is now in a pitched battle with itself while the nation looks on. It is the worst of times for South Africa since the heydays of Apartheid.

Yet it is undeniable that the pending nuclear deal, which the president needs to sign off on before the December 2017 ANC presidential election presents the most immediate threat to the medium and long term future of South Africa. To ignore this central reality is to ignore the fact that every other social agenda relies on the security of the public purse. Whether one talks of free or semi-free education, healthcare, public transport, social housing, and so forth, the reality is that a deal that is likely to induce crippling debt would thwart every other agenda that the left raises its voice in support of. So this is a time when anyone who is familiar with the political history of South Africa would legitimately expect that the left would be on the march. Yet it isn’t so. The question is why.

In order to understand the South African left you need to rewind back to the events of Polokwane in December 2007, where the left played a critical and key role in ousting then president Thabo Mbeki from the leadership seat of the ANC, and handing it over to Jacob Zuma. At the time, Jacob Zuma was already a divisive public figure. He had over 700 counts of corruption pending against him, most related to the ‘other’ deal that went awry in South Africa, the famous ‘arms deal’. He had also been previously forced to step down from the vice presidency after the 2005 Hilary Squires judgment, in which he was found to have had a “mutually beneficial” relationship with Schabir Shaik, who was found guilty of corruption and sentenced.  

At the time, the South African left rationalised the ANC’s internal coup at Polokwane by claiming that Jacob Zuma would restore the agenda of the left and revive the famous post-Apartheid Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which had died under the neoliberal policies of Thabo Mbeki. Jacob Zuma, we were promised, would be our Hugo Chavez, our Evo Morales, he would put the left agenda into motion and rescue the poor from their margins and bring them into the centre. They would be priority number one, and Jacob Zuma – the ‘consensus builder’ – was the one to do it because he was not like the ‘arrogant’ Thabo Mbeki who they viewed as increasingly more autocratic in nature.

The South African Communist Party threw their weight behind Jacob Zuma. The Council of South African Trade Unions and the ANC Youth League also threw their weight behind him, with Julius Malema – the leader of the ANCYL – and Zwelinzima Vavi – the leader of COSATU – declaring that they were willing to “kill for Jacob Zuma”. Mathews Phosa and long list of ANC leaders that sit within the ANC National Executive Committee also loudly proclaimed their support for Jacob Zuma. Prominent activists such as Zackie Achmat also supported Jacob Zuma, declaring that he should be given a chance to govern and be judged on that.

There were very many leaders who convinced South Africans that they should judge Jacob Zuma on his performance. He drew the SACP closer to the centre of power than they had been under the latter years of the Mbeki government, as well as COSATU, and they became central to his leadership. For the left, they were given the pound seat under Zuma, and they readily took position. At the time there was little critical reflection, there was an eagerness to get on with it and rhetoric took precedence over analysis. There was scant hesitation on the part of the left and they proceeded to mount an impenetrable defence of the new President and his leadership, of which they were a part.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the ANC alliance with the SACP and COSATU lies in tatters. The vast majority of prominent leaders who stood by Jacob Zuma – even those who professed to be prepared to kill and die for him – are now his most vocal critics. Just yesterday the SACP called for his resignation, despite the fact that they were the biggest winners in last week’s cabinet reshuffle. They now profess deep outrage at President Zuma’s actions and insinuate that his decision-making has proceeded in a manner that goes against the ANC’s traditions of consultative governance, that he is in effect making his decisions without them, and by implication, with others that lie outside of the ANC fold.

Yet the intellectual and activist left have found themselves unable to mount any serious programme of action against President Jacob Zuma’s leadership. Their first explanation is that having made the mistake of throwing their support behind Zuma at the outset; that they need to be more reflective of their actions now. Their second explanation is that the Zuma leadership represents an ideological project, which necessitates accessing the national treasury so that they can have greater control over how funds are dispensed in service of the poor. On the face of it, these explanations seem to make sense. Yet there is far more to the left’s reluctance to take action against President Jacob Zuma.

It can be better understood by examining the consistent pattern of behaviour that has emerged over the years, as each and every scandal around the president and his leadership has hit the headlines. With each new scandal and failure, the initial response of the left is to profess outrage and unhappiness at the most recent turn of events. That is, their shock is vented and it is unmistakeable that they are unhappy with the situation.

Thereafter, however, when public calls to action are made, the left retreats into hyper-theoretical analysis and begin to demand that without a clear programme of action that addresses the underlying systemic problems (as they see it) in our government and economic system, they cannot throw their support behind any programme of protest action. They also raise doubts about who they may be asked to partner with – typically associating any centrist dissenters with the agendas of the private sector and big ‘monopoly capital’ – and flatly refuse to join hands with them. They refuse to compromise what can only be termed as their ‘ideological purity’, for the sake of convenience. “What will come next?” they shudder, and retreat into long-winded conspiracies and theoretical meanders, avoiding taking any action in the end.

In their view, and it is plain to see if one witnesses the interactions between prominent left intellectuals, academics and activists, that they desire a coherent programme of action before budging an inch off their seats. That they are not willing to join with a rag-tag mixed bunch of ordinary South Africans and different interest groups to see through an issue-based agenda. Without a clear ideological programme, they aren’t interested in wading into the space of action. Indeed, they are consistent in this position, as it is also the position they adopt towards the student activists who have been protesting for free and ‘decolonized’ higher education in South Africa. Ironically, many student activists who have themselves been abandoned by the left take up the same position towards any attempt at a broad public coalition to oust the Zuma leadership. It is indisputable, however, that all and sundry who occupy this position believe deeply in what they profess to.

Yet if one looks behind the ideological posturing, and the desire for a coherent political project as a pre-requisite for action, there is a stark reality that cannot be ignored. It can be understood by asking why the left were so quick to jump into bed with Jacob Zuma in the first place. Despite the mea culpa’s that abound in left discourse – that they were too quick to throw their support behind Zuma and are hence being more careful now – the reality is somewhat different. If one reads between the lines and looks past the pretence of ideological purity, this has everything to do with power.

Simply put, the left threw caution to the wind in their early support of Jacob Zuma because they saw him as their opportunity to gain power. Now, when faced with the abject failure of his presidency, they are unable to see a clear way to power by joining hands with the rest of society and committing to an issue-based programme of public action. Hence the reticence to proceed without a clear ideological framework, hence the suspicion of actors from other sectors in society who they fear may hijack the momentum and marginalise them. They are not refusing to take action due to a preference for ideological consistency; rather they refusing to act because they cannot see clearly how they gain significant political power through becoming part of a broader, issue-based movement for change.

Were the situation different – i.e. if the left were unified and strong, and could mobilise broad-based public support – they would no doubt be hurling themselves headlong into protest, convincing the rest of society (like they did before) to trust that they would work out their ideological programme when they were in the driving seat of power and could make things happen. The high levels of navel-gazing and introspection that the left are currently engaged in, ad nauseam, would be swiftly put aside and reconciled as critical to the pragmatics of power.

In respect of the claim that the Zuma presidency is guided by an ideological project, the reality is that this ideological project never materialised in any significant shape or form over two terms under Zuma. It is not a sincere ideological project; it is merely a smokescreen for accessing the treasury to guarantee the financial gain of Zuma’s large patronage network within and outside of government. The nuclear deal is central to this agenda, and that is why it alone presents South Africa with an immediate crisis of gargantuan proportions. It is effectively the ‘check-mate’ of the Zuma presidency, and even if he is removed as ANC president at the end of the year and recalled, once set in motion, a deal as large as this will prove very difficult to undo.

With the exception of very few on the left, such as the Alternative Information and Development Centre who put out a statement calling for the left to put their differences with the rest of society aside to stop Zuma’s leadership and the nuclear deal, the overwhelming response from left wing intellectuals and academics has been to refuse to be seen to be part of any public action that is led by those who have taken the first step. They are even unwilling to enter the space of action and collectively formulate a vision that they can be comfortable with; which in reality is how most sincere, practical political projects are formulated. They have adopted an attitude of distrust towards the groups who are taking action, instead of engaging them and working out their differences.

Although it is a great pity that the left cannot be seen to reduce itself to engagement with those of other persuasions, including ordinary South Africans who are largely unable to engage in deep left wing theoretical debates, it is the left that will suffer most as a result of their inaction. Throwing themselves into the space of action offers them a critical opportunity, that is; to reconstitute the heavily fragmented left into a cohesive public force for change. Nothing unifies as much as broad-based engagement does, it is a testing ground where issues and interests can be resolved in the space of action. The immediacy of action forces a pragmatism that many on the intellectual front of the left are so far away from that they have essentially made themselves irrelevant. This is true not just in South Africa, but in many other parts of the world right now, hence the ironic adoption of left-wing discourse by those within the alt-right.

Yet the leadership vacuum remains, and it will be captured by those who are willing to get on to the streets and engage with ordinary people, mobilise them, and give them a structured approach towards achieving the goals of their cause. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and this is especially the case when crisis has arrived on society’s doorstep. The space of action contains the fire that forges the new ‘steel’ of movement. Movements cannot be built in theory, from afar, they need to be built with real people – warts and all – and diverse sets of actors, in order to be effective enough to contest power.

In the end, the left’s worst nightmare – that of a country that continues to be driven by a liberal agenda – may become a reality precisely because they refuse to act. And it is predictable what they will do. They will snipe from the side-lines, pointing out all the theoretical reasons why whoever is ruling is moving things in the wrong direction and will ultimately fail to give South Africans the future they desire, but the reality is that they have abdicated their first responsibility. That is, the first responsibility of anybody who is engaged in the political domain is to society itself, and not to grand ideologies or theories, or to their need to retain the respect and admiration of their peers (which is to whom most internal debates on the left are directed). The first responsibility of political actors is to the people, and not just to power; it is indeed strange and surreal that the left itself needs to be reminded of that, but here we are.

[1] Full quote: “Revolutionaries do not make revolutions! The revolutionaries are those who know when power is lying in the street and when they can pick it up. Armed uprising by itself has never yet led to revolution.”