The Spectre of the Red Berets

The Spectre of the Red Berets
Steve Rhodes via Flickr

Or, is South Africa the new Venezuela (or, worse, Zimbabwe) and what does that mean, exactly, for the future?

Forty years ago, we were living in Surabaya, Indonesia, and one of our closest Indonesian friends learned that my family and I would be back in the US on a family visit for a month or two. He asked us for a small favour – could we please purchase some new berets for him. He was deeply addicted to them as stylish headgear – and the truth of it was that he really did look very dashing and artistic wearing one, even in that all-pervasive Indonesian heat.

He was a professional photographer and painter, as well as a popular published poet, and the image of him wearing a beret truly fit the man. We all liked Krishna a great deal and so there was no question of whether or not we would make the effort to find a store that sold men’s hats – particularly high-quality wool berets – even in the midst of a muggy, steamy Florida summer where most clothing stores sold bathing suits, T-shirts and flip flops, rather than suits, ties, or berets.

To make a long story short, we returned after our travels with a selection of berets in various colours. He particularly liked the blue and lavender ones we brought, but he wouldn’t even touch the bright red one that had a natty little leather strip attached to its leather rim.

What was the matter, we wondered. It turned out it looked far too much like the berets that had been worn by many of the people soldiers had arrested, beaten up, or killed in Java, immediately after the 30 September 1965 coup attempt by the Indonesian air force and the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

Once the coup attempt faltered, the army proceeded to hunt down anyone potentially associated with the coup, or who might be in silent sympathy with it (here one can read “richer Chinese residents”, since the coup was ostensibly backed by China), or who had simply held political and social views that were now unacceptable to those fighting back against that attempted coup.

As a result, our friend was more than a little afraid of the aura of the red beret in Indonesia’s symbolic political universe – and thus what his friends (or critics) might think he was saying, just by wearing such a head covering. And don’t forget, our moment with that rainbow array of berets took place some 15 years after the events of 1965, but where a red beret still had a serious emotional quality to it that seemed to emanate nearly noiselessly from it, whispering to the more gullible: communist cadre, communist cadre…

Pull back for the wide shot. Perhaps the very suggestion of the deep power of a red beret arises from all those elite military units all around the world that have adopted a red, crimson, or scarlet beret as their unit’s official dress headgear. Then there has been red beret use by various paramilitary forces, and even by revolutionary units such as the Carlists of 19th century Spain, and by worker militia units in the midst of the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. And now, of course, most recently, it has been taken up by South Africa’s very own red beret brigade, the Economic Freedom Fighters, under the redoutable Cde CIC Julius Malema.

This, in turn, brings us to today’s question: why South Africa and Venezuela appear to be attempting to cosy-up to each other – or at least it seems so on the part of some South Africans. Moreover, the thought that South Africa may be about to enter free-fall via Venezuela’s current economic rabbit hole has some analysts and critics more than a little alarmed over South Africa’s future.

For some on the left in South Africa, of course, there has always been that emotional tug, the allure of the extreme left wearing a red beret. There is the saga of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the romantic, albeit failed, revolutionary with his ubiquitous head shot on thousands of T-shirts, for example. Long after most of the world had come to recognise the futility and failure of the Soviet experiment, South Africans on the left continued to embrace the results of the October Revolution, but without its more inconvenient aspects, well into the 1990s with all those baleful after-effects now plainly visible.

And then, of course, there has been the continuing love affair with Cuba. Of course there is some logic to that infatuation. There was the Cuban military’s crucial participation in the Namibian/Angolan fighting and its support to liberation movements more generally, and the more recent support to South Africa via medical training, among other things. And for some others, there is its undoubted prowess in sports, public health and the ballet.

But South Africa’s embrace of Cuba over the years has seemingly come without regard to the island nation’s particularly sad record on human rights and freedoms or individual economic emancipation (with the more open space for private enterprise in recent years finally giving a bit of kick to the country economically). But this particular love may now have increasingly been superseded by a still more recent infatuation with revolutionary Venezuela, even in its current dolorous economic state.

Back when he first took over the reins, the late Hugo Chavez seemed to have all the parts available to him. He could thumb his nose at the gringos up north. He could expropriate businesses and investments, issue diktats that subsidised prices on basic commodities, along with all the usual ideas that are held in common with populist authoritarians. Not surprisingly, Chavez himself had made quite an impression on the EFF’s CIC, who had then pronounced Venezuela to be an exceptional model for future development in South Africa as well.

Of course all of this was all underwritten by some sky-high prices paid for its oil – and Venezuela floats on top of a vast lake of crude petroleum, reportedly the largest on the planet – even more than under Saudi Arabia, Iran or anywhere else. In spite of Chavez’ antipathies towards the US (mutual ones, as it tended to happen), his now-nationalised oil company continued to sell its product to US refiners located on the Gulf of Mexico coast.

That was crucial since a peculiar problem with Venezuela’s oil is that it is particularly heavy grade stuff and sulphurous to boot, and most refineries are not equipped to deal with it – although a group of refineries in Texas and Louisiana are so equipped just for this condition. Through everything, including a range of financial sanctions from el norte, their oil has been able to be processed in those US refineries without impediments.

A further problem for Venezuela, however, has been that as the oil price has slumped way back from some record highs – the ones that allowed all those subsidies and profligate spending – Venezuela largely stopped paying for all the maintenance and specialised supplies needed to keep that heavy, sulphurous oil flowing from the wells. And then, suddenly, the cost of all those basic commodities could not be sustained (the kind of thing that had kept the mass of common people largely supportive of Chavez or at least neutral towards his regime), as commodity suppliers baulked and shortages loomed; and then as they became the central, overwhelming, all-consuming feature of most Venezuelans’ everyday existence.

Even as Venezuela has continued in the midst of its downward slide, its new president, Nicolás Maduro, has continued to blame America and others, internally and externally, for all Venezuela’s problems. To hear Maduro speak of it, none of the nation’s current difficulties stem from the government’s appalling economic policies, corruption and inefficiencies, and Maduro’s ongoing authoritarian impulses.

Now the Venezuelan government has also embarked on an effort to build up its relationship with South Africa as a kind of embryonic South-South alliance against the depredations of the North. Venezuela’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, spent a working week in South Africa in July where, according to IOL’s reporting on it:

Venezuela’s objective is to create a pole of power between Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa which can translate into a free trade zone that will counter western trade and political hegemony. ‘We are very supportive of BRICS as a grouping and would like to forge closer relations, as we are already close allies with Russia, India, China, and South Africa,’ Arreaza told Independent Media….”

The report went on that, along with the usual complaints about American financial imperialism:

“ ‘Despite the trouble in our economy, we haven’t sacrificed social investment and we are still providing hundreds of house to the poor, complete with three rooms and two [!] bathrooms. We continue to distribute regular food packages to homes and provide free healthcare and education to our people,’ Arreaza told Independent Media.”

It is a pity that the medical care increasingly is coming without access to medicine, according to most media reports.

Shortly after that visit, as President Maduro was addressing a large parade gathering, several small drones with equally small explosive devices were seen hovering close to the presidential podium, and then set off explosions that, although they killed no one, led almost immediately to charges that collectively, Venezuela’s neighbour, Colombia, right-wingers at home, and Venezuelan émigrés (inevitably in the US) had been responsible for this, and so, almost as fast as you can say “Major Strasser”, the usual suspects were arrested.

The thing of it is, in influential circles outside South Africa, the current South African discourse over expropriation without compensation is now being compared – unfavourably – to what had occurred in Zimbabwe in the early 2000s, and the processes that ensued in Venezuela after Chavez took power.

Typical of such warnings were reports, not too surprisingly, in the Wall Street Journal or by in comments by the SA Institute of Race Relations, as reported in Biznews. The latter had read:

There’s a neat line from expropriating ‘idle’ land to economic implosion, warns IRR head of policy research Anthea Jeffery in a piece that should be required reading for every South African. The ANC has been pushing for land grabs in a bid to reclaim support lost to the Economic Freedom Fighters, which has promoted Venezuela style economics and would like to see land ripped from white owners. President Cyril Ramaphosa is losing his magical glow – dubbed Ramaphoria….”

The hope, of course, “is that the country would improve for the better – in no small part because it has become evident that he supports the concept of land expropriation as carried out in Venezuela and Zimbabwe.”

Or, as Jeffery had herself written:

In the mid-1980s, Venezuela, with its major oil and mineral wealth, had per-capita GDP similar to Norway’s and was the richest country in Latin America. By 2017, however, more than 80% of its people were living in poverty. In 2018 its annual inflation rate is expected to top 1,000,000 percent. President Nicolás Maduro blames the country’s implosion on an ‘economic war’ being waged against it by opposition parties and the US. The real reasons lie rather in the expropriations and price controls intrinsic to the ‘21st century socialism’ introduced by former president Hugo Chavez.”

And so here is where the battle lines over South Africa’s own future are being drawn. For some, the first example inevitably is Zimbabwe’s galloping economic collapse that was triggered by the land grabs that began nearly a generation ago. As if to offer yet more reinforcement of what is not to be done, critics of South Africa’s presumably impending expropriations without compensation (EWC) now have the cautionary example of what has happened in Venezuela as well. For proponents of EWC, however, the lessons to be drawn are that such EWC must be done right so as not to frighten those investment horses as economic equity is finally, painfully achieved.

Take your pick. DM


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