South Africa

South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: The scariest man in South Africa — Professor Chris Malikane and the end of ideas

TRAINSPOTTER: The scariest man in South Africa — Professor Chris Malikane and the end of ideas

The South African financial establishment’s current boogieman is a genial University of Witwatersrand Marxist macroeconomist associate professor named Chris Malikane, recently retained by Malusi Gigaba’s Treasury in an advisory capacity. The whole saga, which includes an episode during which Malikane is alleged to have called for the country to “take up arms”, has exposed a genuine terror of ideas – both inside the establishment, and outside of it. South African bean counters are still terrified of academic Marxist economists. And there are still academic Marxists. Meanwhile, the Finance Minister is flitting around the World Economic Forum we happen to be hosting, promising the high and mighty that we have no ideas but the ones they prescribe to us. By RICHARD POPLAK.

Does super controversial Professor Chris Malikane know his Karl Marx? Boy, does he ever. Many South African academics can recite passages of Das Capital in their sleep. Malikane corrects their recitations during his own slumber. The South African Communist Party apparently has him on speed dial.

I’m kiddingthey have Hennessy on speed dial. But it’s close.

South Africa has enjoyed a long dalliance with Marxist dogma, so perhaps the most depressing thing about Malikane’s inauguration into media superstardom is the misuse of the term “radical” to describe his body of work. The professor is a high-end, PhD’ed, American-educated macroeconomist with a rock solid grounding in the science that underpins his discipline. I’ve gone through much of Malikane’s published work, and while he comfortably dons the musty, home-knitted sweaters of the post-colonial Marxist economic theorist, I’ve not come across an idea that hasn’t been promulgated by someone I’ve smoked a spliff with in a university dorm room.

In other words, standard commie academic flimflam, which presumably has just as much place at the University of the Witwatersrand as does its Hayekian, free market alternative. Indeed, all was quiet on the Western Neo-colonial Front, until Malikane went ahead and used the N-word in a public forum, which is somehow still a capital (get it?) offense in South Africa. His viewsor, rather, a populist version of views he has openly professed in front of students and colleagueswere published in the Sunday Times several weeks ago. The piece largely concerned the ravages of White Monopoly Capital, and once again, there should have been nothing explosive about the subject matter, given that not a single piece of analysis was new or revelatory.

So how did all of this become an affair of national importance? Well, Malikane recently became a member of the team advising new Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba, whom the establishment does not trust, and whose recent appointment invited downgrades from two of the three rating agencies currently governing our economic destiny.

Worse stillor better yet, depending on how you see these thingslast Saturday Malikane attended a Black First Land First (BLF) event in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, where he addressed to of crowd of 300 regarding WMC, RET, and many, many other recently coined acronyms. If the prof was hoping to keep his head down, this was the wrong forumamong other things, the BLF are Gupta apologists committed to upholding the “pro-black” presidency of the Peasant of Nkandla. (Yes, BLF founder Andile Mngxitama has actually employed that sobriquet. And on Wednesday, he made an insurgent mini-attack in parliament, scuffling with SACP members over the specifics of a presentation called The Malikane Proposals.) The event kicked off with Mngxitama singing the struggle song “One Settler, One Bullet”, and then the mic was handed over to the professor. What the crowd got was exactly what they came for: praise for the possibilities of Venezuelan and Zimbabwean disengagement from the global capital matrix; praise for the Indian government’s ownership of the mining and banking sectors; calls for our own government to nationalise everything under the African sun. “Like Moses, I keep wondering, is there another way to get to the Promised Land?” asked Malikane. 

Which is a really good question.

But then Malikane was asked why he had not yet incited the crowd to pick up AK47s and shoot up the nearby Puma store. (Not exactly, but something like that.) “It’s not for me to decide to take up arms. It’s up to united forces,” the prof told his interlocutor. “Taking up arms is one thing. But building a country is another.” He also articulated a widely held shibboleth thusly: “We must encourage the war of the black working class against white monopoly capital.”

Inevitably, after undergoing the sausage-making process of corporate mediation, several of the Sunday papers ran a version of the following: FINANCE MINISTER’S COMMIE ADVISER WANTS TO KILL US ALL. Should Malikane have chosen his words a little more carefully? Hey, it’s a free country, or it is until the prof gets his Marxist utopia. As if on cue, the DA’s shadow finance minister, David Maynier went apeshit, and called for Malikane’s head.

These are exactly the kind of reckless statements that undermine investor confidence and discourage private sector investment, which is desperately needed to boost economic growth and create jobs in South Africa,” he said.

Since then, Malikane has disengaged. “I am being called mad, yet I am a professor at Wits, writing articles for international journals,” he told Fin24. “I am called crazy and mad, mentally demented.”

Since then, he’s said very little. He did not return my calls, SMSs, or entreaties on social media.

They say universities are political minefields. Welcome to the real thing, prof.


But seriouslyhow dangerous is the stuff inside Malikane’s brain? Is his local brand of African Marxist theory, which has earned him awards, accolades, and an associate professorship at a reputable institution, so detrimental to our long-term fiscal health? Is he going to chase off skittish investors? Is he going to steal the Reserve Bank?

On this, it’s worth actually looking at Malikane’s work. Me, I enjoy reading this kind of deep academic crap, although I concede that it’s not everyone’s bag. Malikane has published papers entitled “A New Keynesian Triangle Phillips Curve” and “Inflation dynamics and the cost channel in emerging markets”, but his most striking, least technical, and most digestible paper concerns Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. His principle issue with the book is the famous economist’s threadbare and contradictory statements regarding the Bearded One, compounded by an insufficiently close reading of Das Capital. According to Malikane, Piketty’s ultimate aim is to prescribe nothing more than a tweak of a capitalist system that so brutalizes along class/race lines, when a complete dismantling is in order. Malikane’s takedown is well argued, heavily sourced, and technically sound. (I had someone who can add check the mathall standard economic formulas employed perfectly.) No question, dude’s a proper academic.

But then came his detour in the Sunday Times, derived from a widely circulated samizdat PDF called “Concerning the Current Situation”. This was not A-grade Malikane, but more of a populist screed, the basic premise of which cannot be considered even vaguely controversial at this point. To wit: Malikane wanted to take White Monopoly Capital’s toys away, and hand them over to… The State! The piece was undeniably compelling, but it was uncharacteristically sloppy. The prof did not include a single statistic to bolster his claims, and nor did he offer any sources that might have helped the reader better understand WMC’s mechanisms.

In the Malikane-verse, White Monopoly Capital just… exists. In his view, by creating an impenetrable membrane in which the entire economy is contained, WMC determines the trajectory of every last black life in the country. The major beneficiaries of this system are the white middle-class, who out of self-interest/racism inhibit black economic progress by deeming it as “a lowering of standards”, and shutting blacks out of the formal economy. Which means there is nowhere for the black working class to go but down, and economic “growth” or “efficiency” will only result in more WMC, and a tougher, more impenetrable membrane.

This may well be trueit sure feels truebut Malikane’s piece doesn’t read like economic theory. It reads like propaganda. The prof’s most useful observation is that South African political power has been effectively divided into two blocs locked in an eternal civil war. The first is a credit-capitalist class linked to White Monopoly Capital. The second is a tender-capitalist class linked to government patronage. This is a highly programmatic view of the inner-ANC meltdown, which leaves out far too much of the tasty bits. For instance, Malikane does not mention corruption, mismanagement, or even the odd honest mistake. This may be because he subscribes to the idea that an economy monopolized by racially exclusive capital leaves only patronage as an engine for economic mobility. Just as likely, it’s a flaw with the science of macroeconomics, which becomes more evident when it’s poorly practisedafter all, the devil’s in the details, none of which you can see at 30,000 feet. There are actual measurable losses that accrue from rampant state looting, just as there are for the corporate off-shoring of capital. This stuff has an impact on the economy.

But anyway. Malikane then goes on to describe the crux of our current troubles:

The battle that is now raging over the removal of the Finance Minister in particular, is led by white monopoly capital together with this credit-based black capitalist class, whose ownership and control of the state and the ruling party is being threatened by the rise of the tender-based black capitalist class, which also has links with the leadership of political parties. White monopoly capitalists are fighting to prevent the “capture” of their state and their control of the ruling party leadership. Only in this way does the term “state capture” make sense—white monopoly capital is preventing the “capture” of its state!

Having flipped the mainstream notion of state capture on its head, the solution, insists Malikane, is to transfer the key parts of the economy governed by WMCin particular the reserve bank and the private banking sectorto The State. Add to this the mining sector and the land, all expropriated sans compensation, and we arrive at a solution to the current situation. This would, as he writes in his Piketty paper, eventually lead to “explicitly [incorporating] the role of state-ownership of the means of production.”

It not possible, warned Malikane, to practice political “abstinence” with regard to this battle. Indeed, by speaking at a BLF event, and by his critics could hardly be blamed for assuming that he was siding with the “tender-based black capitalists”, given that Guptas cast a long shadow over the organisation.

As usual with this kind of thing, though, it’s Malikane’s glibness with regard to the pain ahead that is so troubling. He’s prepared to weather a Venezuelan implosion, because of course he is. And although he’s more than aware of Marx’s theories on the impact of technological progress, he doesn’t seem to factor them into his populist reasoning. Work is being swallowed up by automation and the digital revolution, which means a construct such as the “working class” will soon cease to mean anything, both as a political formation, and as an economic force.

Meanwhile, like most of the Radical Front, he portrays the current downgrade and its attendant consequences as an opportunity.

Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the Capitalist System was to debauch the currency,” wrote Keynes in 1919. “By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.” This quote is often mangled, and attributed Lenin as, “The way to crush the bourgeoisie is to grind them down between the millstones of taxation and inflation.” Either way, we’re looking good on this score. Burn down the system, and the masses will reign.

And yet, according to Letterists Guy Debord and Gil Woman, “on a spiritual level, the middle class are always in power.” In other words, South Africa’s situation is shared condition, and the downward lurch into oblivion is something occurring to many nations. There’s no meta-system to decouple from, because the meta-system has fucked out completely. We are locked in a global civil war, one that is by no means specific to place or people. Nationalisation by itself isn’t going to save nothing from no one, and “owning the means of production” is equally meaningless in a post-work worldafter all, no classical theory of “durable technological progress” ever figured on the digital revolution eliminating labour almost completely.

As Marxist sci-fi weirdie China Mieville recently said, “I don’t think anyone could look at the world and say this is a world fit for humans to live in, or a world where the vast majority of people are living the lives they deserve too. And revolution means an absolute systemic change, how can you not want that?” He was speaking about his latest book October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. What this new work makes clear is that revolution is possible, and even preferable, but never repeatable in its granular details. New ideas for a new age. An ersatz Soviet Union at the bottom of Africa is as unworkable as the neoliberalish nonsense we’re living through now.

In this, there is nothing even remotely terrifying about the ideas of Professor Chris Malikane. They should be thoroughly masticated by the New Treasurers, along with the bullshit proffered by all other experts. But how about some new ideas? We need change now, not in some indefinable revolutionary future, and how about we don’t hand everything over to the state, but demand from the state what I’ll call a functioning post-work social contracta basic living income for every working age South African. If this is done in conjunction with the release of state land and the development of an NHS style healthcare system, we’ve won, and we’ve entered the new stream far ahead of schedule, and without violence. This will demand the involvement of, and massive sacrifices from, the financial establishment, WMC and the Guptas. Various permutations of the idea are being piloted in Finland, Canada, Kenya.

Here, while our Finance Minister sells air at the World Economic Forum, the factions fighting for the “soul” of the country are bickering over the merits of Marx. To misquote the Original Beardo himself: history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as pure sadness. DM

Photo: Professor Chris Malikane (Photo by Netwerk24)


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