South Africa

South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: The ageless, never-ending government/corporate collusion porno

A little lost? As the leaks get leakier, the details remain important: one day, if or when South Africa is blessed with a National Director of Public Prosecutions with even the vaguest interest in doing his or her job, there will be many people to charge for many different activities. But there is a larger, meta story at play here: the #GuptaLeaks themselves reveal how a particular democratic dispensation (mis)functions during capitalism’s end of days: everything in our lives is subject to a longstanding collaboration between governments and corporations, a bromance that has created societies far more dystopian than any sci-fi thriller could have posited, Blade Runner’s Tyrell Corporation notwithstanding. By RICHARD POPLAK.

This has happened before.

The leaks, I mean. They’ve happened before. And I’m not referring to Watergate or the Pentagon Papers or the Panama Papers or WikiLeaks or Snowden. I’m referring to an incident of toxic seepage that occurred right here in South Africa, in a past that was not so much a foreign country, but a galaxy far, far away.

In January 1977, barely six roiling months after the Soweto uprising, an envelope arrived at the Sunday Times offices. In the halcyon days before Mail Chimp and Snapchatted surgical wounds, tip-offs arrived via the postbox, and this particular note promised information concerning a super-secret society called the Broederbond. While the likes of dissident journalist Hennie Serfontein had been publishing leaked stories about the brotherhood since 1963, for most hacks at the time, this was not a story, but the story: wasn’t the Broederbond the exclusive club of blue-blood Afrikaner braai chommies who ran the most powerful, soon-to-be nuclear-armed white supremacist utopia in the world? Weren’t they a version of the Freemasons jacked up on Calvinism, chauvinism and paranoia, a dudes-only cultural-political circle-jerk so obscure they made even tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists lose sleep at night?

Sure. But still, few outside of the ruling class truly understood the reach of the society, and nor could they prove how influential the brotherhood was within the governing National Party. Where were the documents to back up the assertions? Were there documents to back up the assertions?

Much smoke. No weaponry.

The letter, it turned out, was the portal into a universe. With almost no expectations, a Sunday Times journalist named Ivor Wilkins scheduled a meeting with the anonymous tipster. He was stood up. He scheduled a second meeting. Again he was ghosted. Wilkins shrugged it off: a story this big wasn’t going to be handed over like a boerie roll at an NG Kerk egg and spoon race. But one year after the arrival of the initial letter, Wilkins got a call from the Sunday Times reception desk, informing him that he had a visitor. Wilkins didn’t recognise the name, but nonetheless invited the man up to his desk. Minutes later, a small fellow drenched in flop sweat sat across from the reporter.

“I’ve come to talk about the Broederbond,” he said.

Many years later, the source of the country-redefining Super-Afrikaners leak would be revealed as an unassuming dominee, who apparently served as secretary of a Johannesburg Broederbond branch. His conscience had forced his hand, and the thousands of documents he eventually leaked to Wilkins and his news editor, Hans Strydom, would allow them to precisely map out the reach of the secret society.

The story of the leak itself has been lost to the tumult of history, which is a shame, because this is often how the news happens – a loyal soldier turns snitch because God keeps yelling Bible verses in his ear. It has happened all over the world, variations on a theme. Inexplicably, the most recent edition of The Super Afrikaners: Inside the Afrikaner Broederbond, redacts the backstory-containing preface to the 1978 edition, which was one of the single biggest publishing sensations of the apartheid years (outside of Scope, of course).

What Wilkins and Strydom were able to do with the dominee’s photocopying skills, first in the Sunday Times, and then in their mega-selling book, was to publish apartheid’s operating manual. One of the documents in journalists’ possession was called “Masterplan for a White Country: the Strategy”, which is fairly unambiguous as far as titles go: the Broederbond, since its very first meeting in 1918, was created to wrest the country from the other “race” – in this case, white English speakers. It was a vast, supremely well-executed shock-and-awe empowerment programme that distributed the country’s spoils to an Afrikaner elite, while uplifting the rural Boer from the shame and penury inflicted upon him during the South African war.

Before the Borg, the Broederbond: almost every single aspect of state, provincial or municipal policy was drafted by hundreds of committees attended by 12,000 “scrupulously selected” brothers, and then handed over to the government, as if by fiat. Verwoerd, Vorster, Malan – Broederbond. Members were deployed to every ministry, every state-run service provider, every business that did business with anyone who counted.

Historians claim that the society’s reach was over-emphasised, but if so, only slightly. One could call what they pulled off state capture, but it was more than that. It was rule from the shadows, and it worked to perfection.

* * *

There are, of course, echoes bouncing back between then and now.

“In South Africa, where the economy increasingly takes on the look of a socialist state,” wrote Wilkins and Strydom, in 1978, “there are a large number of semi-State corporations, all of which have Broederbond representation in their top echelons.” Later, they wrote, “It is the fusion of […] the Cabinet and the Broederbond Executive Council, and the forces they individually and collectively represent; that gives the National Party its present position of extraordinary power in South Africa.”

But we shouldn’t get too carried away by these political fugues: just because a fig resembles a human scrotum doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It just reminds us that the natural world – much like politics – only generates so many possibilities before it runs out of options and repeats itself.

That said, Freud described the uncanny as “the constant recurrence of the same thing”, which also serves as a perfect description of history. The point here is not to insist that the ANC has re-upped apartheid – the argument of equivalency is a false one, and not only because the whole world now basically functions like one big separate-but-equal penitentiary. But it is enormously strange that another leak has sprung, as if by magic, at another critical moment in this country’s wacko history. After the dominee spilled his can of Koo pork and beans, South Africans could no longer say that they were confused about what apartheid was, who was behind it, and what its intentions were.

But the apartheid regime existed in another epoch, and a self-contained elite like the Broederbond would be much harder, if not impossible, to maintain in a world that is so much more connected – not only within countries, but between countries. In fact, countries aren’t really countries any more, at least not in the 1970s conception of the term: South Africa is just another (small) node in a vast global system that has much less patience for Messianic proselytising than it does for officially sanctioned big canvas financial malfeasance.

And so, sadly, things are much messier this time around. The digital connections that render secret societies impossible generate a different form of cover fire. In the New South Africa, there is much to be said for the very elegant construction, as per a recent Pari publication called “Betrayal of the Promise”, of parallel, warring tracks of power – one a “constitutional” faction that has links with the formal economy and the old-school financial elite; the other a “radical” faction that dominates the procurement processes linked to state-owned enterprises (the gates of which are kept by the Guptas). If that was all there was to this country, we’d be in relatively good shape. The reality, as laid bare in the latest leaks, is that the divisions between “constitutional” and “radical” are far more porous than that.

Instead, we’re tiny players in the global game of corporate/ government collusion, where the average punter can’t shift $10 without getting FICA’d squarely in the nuts, and connected Mafiosi like the Guptas can cycle tens of millions through legit outfits like Standard Chartered, and get sent complimentary stress balls in acknowledgment of their continued custom.

KPMG, Liebherr, SAP, Bell Pottinger, McKinsey, to name only a few. Outside of the leaks, we could add many more enablers, mega bankers Goldman Sachs primary among them. As per a headline on this news-site, “More multinationals ensnared in Transnet kickback web,” which pretty much sums the situation up. The equation is simple: multinational + state-owned enterprise = dumpster fire. These enormous companies, pillars of the global economy, are all implicated in the corruption scandals that have whopped South Africa over the course of Jacob Zuma’s ruinous presidency. They have actively, knowingly collaborated with his proxies, sending obsequious little love letters to retain their business, ignoring the political cacophony that surrounded them in order to stay close to the boss’s bosses.

Now, here’s the critical part – it is the government’s job to regulate the activities of business, big and small. The government must also police those regulations, and punish those who subvert them. In any capitalist system, this almost always fails to happen satisfactorily. Why? Because the immense cumulative wealth of the corporate sector allows for commensurately immense bargaining power. In a globalised, neoliberal system, companies can simply up and leave, taking with them their tax disbursements (as pathetically crooked as these may be). The contract is thus less a contract than a gentlemen’s agreement, minus the gentlemen.

What’s more, the distinction between the formal corporate or business sector and government is murkier than it has ever been. CEOs become prime ministers; ministers of finance become members of the board. The cellular melding of business/government has been an unprecedented catastrophe that is literally ruining the planet, and it is indeed a planet-wide phenomenon. It has broken trust in the social contract, largely because corporates have become the first and most important citizens of any capitalist entity: above the law; subject to diminishing regulation; unpoliceable.

To be clear, this is not a breakdown of the corporate world. It’s a breakdown of government. The system was set up to anticipate corporate corruption; instead, the system rolls corporate corruption into the mainframe. The power that corporations wield extends into newsrooms, of course, helping to shape mainstream consensus, while the monarchical social heft of the business elite ensures that “thought leaders” (a term that should only ever be met with instantaneous projectile vomiting) are too fucking terrified to take on fellow members of the court, in case they’re shunned at an organic farm-to-table dinner party.

As the #GuptaLeaks make plain – and this really is their utility from a global point of view – there is no real distinction between corporate and government corruption any longer. The ANC – any governing party anywhere in the world, really – and “formal” business are co-stars in a seriously disgusting porn clip, one in which the sex is so punishing and intimate that it’s impossible to distinguish one body from the next.

* * *

Most, if not all, of the men mentioned in The Super-Afrikaners are dead, and very few of their names, 7,500 of which were published by Wilkins and Strydom, mean anything to anyone any more. And yet, without the leaks, the regime they helped design and maintain would have remained something of a cypher.

Different this time around, except the same: no one will remember who Malusi Gigaba is 30 years from now, and even fewer people will give a shit. But the state he helped create and maintain will hopefully become an anachronism: a government/corporate merger that disappears money through the international financial system, based on rules written by bought politicians, all of it Guptafied into a closed loop of constant, unending criminal activity.

If it isn’t an anachronism – if something like South Africa still exists decades from now – well, the data dump won’t count for much. We’re running out of water, money and time.

Our next leak occurs on the other side of the apocalypse. DM

Photo by Andrew Thrasher via Flickr. 

Gallery

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted