South Africa

OP-ED

South Africa: The upside-down world of racial capitalism and Black Lives Matter, Part 1

Residents demonstrate during a protest against the killing of 16-year-old Nathaniel Julius at Eldorado Park Police Station on 30 August 2020. While white people are the target of the ANC’s Racial Capitalism, the majority of black people are Racial Capitalism’s hapless victims, says the writer. (Photo: Gallo Images / Laird Forbes)

The ANC has turned racial capitalism on its head, that is, from originally being a racism allowing white beneficiaries to be comfortable with their privileges to a racism serving the same purpose but this time for elite black beneficiaries.

This is Part 1 in a two-part series.

In a society as troubled and divided as ours, unanimity about anything is unlikely. Yet, corruption has managed the almost unthinkable: we stand united in both agreeing that corruption is now unconscionable and in holding the ANC mainly accountable for this condition. President Cyril Ramaphosa publicly acknowledged this accountability on 21 August: “Today, the ANC and its leaders stand accused of corruption. … The ANC may not stand alone in the dock, but it does stand as Accused No 1.”

This public confession has been a long time coming. Just contrast it with the hero’s send-off the ANC’s leadership gave to Tony Yengeni 14 years ago, almost to the day: 25 August 2006. That is when ANC ministers and other leaders gathered to cheer Yengeni as he entered prison to serve his four-year sentence for fraud. His being released four months later, and almost immediately being re-elected in 21st place to the ANC’s 80-member body, the National Executive Committee (NEC), is a reminder of the then-broad acceptability of corruption.

Today’s unanimity about its unacceptability fragments immediately when it comes to what to do about corruption. Remedial debates are already in plentiful supply. Daily Maverick has been prominent in publishing many of them, including my own contributions. Some of the offered remedies have focused on individual miscreants, others on questions of morality, still others on corruption without criminal consequences. History has been invoked, while others have pointed to the need for systemic change. Yet, none have been adequate to providing an understanding of the many varied and always deep roots of the malaise. Corruption survives despite many announcements of its death. The roots can be severed but only after first having been identified.

It is with the hope of contributing to that aspiration that this further attempt is offered. The ambition is to provide an overarching analysis that connects the dots in all their dozens, from across the spectrum of South Africa 2020. The times warrant the risk of my analysis not being well-received, even by my friends.

(Given the profusion of the dots and the limited space of an op-ed, some of what follows must, unavoidably, be presented in a highly summarised form, occasionally shorn of nuances. The difference between black/Black and white/White is that the former of each is descriptive while the latter is a politically infused self-identity.)

White Supremacy and Whiteness return to non-racial South Africa

The ANC has a proud history of opposing the replacement of white racism with black racism. In the late 1950s it faced this challenge head-on. A vociferous group within its ranks objected mainly to the external influence of white communists. In 1958, these nationalists broke away from the ANC to form their own racist-flirting party, the Pan-Africanist Congress. In 1969, the ANC opened its ranks to all colours. The ANC was also the prime mover behind the non-racism with which South Africa’s new Constitution begins. The prominence of white members of Nelson Mandela’s first government therefore occasioned no surprise. The disproportionally large number of white MPs among the ANC’s contingent was similarly unremarkable.

Things took a dramatic turn in 2015. The student protests against the statue of Cecil John Rhodes led to some two years of frequently violent confrontations. This was when White Supremacy, Whiteness and White Monopoly Capital entered the public arena in a big way – and by assertion only.

It has now become commonplace to speak of “Whites” as an entirely homogeneous group and, hence, applicable to each person who looks white. There is no escape. Having some prejudice-free whites threatens the easy label of Whiteness and accordingly has little practical relevance, notwithstanding the occasional acknowledgements of some white people being the exceptions to the rule. With monolith Whiteness intact, every “white” person is, by extension, an automatic beneficiary and protector of White Supremacy.

What needs emphasising is that this (effectively) new and largely unchallenged Black consensus about there being no exceptions to “Whiteness” – if you look white you are White – is without precedent in the history of South Africa. The Left contribution to this normalisation is dealt with later.

Resurrection of a now-forgotten incident highlights the desperation to find a white racist, who, implicitly representing all whites, gives credence to Whiteness. It came in early 2016 in the shape of a certain André Slade, a self-proclaimed and entirely unapologetic racist owner of a guest house. There were not many people in 2016 who readily gave national media interviews to say that black people are inferior to whites, and to attribute their inferiority to God’s divine plan. There are similarly few guest house owners who openly proclaim their defiance of anti-discriminatory laws by not opening their doors to blacks. Seeing Slade as an unbalanced eccentric was not why there was a viral response to him. His appeal was, indeed, his very bigotry, his rabid racism.

This is why the now-racialised ANC chose to add to the national outrage caused by a single, hitherto completely unknown guest house owner; an individual whose mental health can be inferred from his greeting black journalists: “I am your King. I am the King on earth.” Led by an ANC provincial minister, 3,000 angry protesters somehow made their long way to his remote guest house to protest their outrage. Having served his purpose, André Slade disappeared into obscurity. (Unlike others – Penny Sparrow, being the first – he faced no legal sanction.)

Colonialism joined White Supremacy and Whiteness as the new enemy. Along with other political parties, the ANC began talking about the need for decolonisation. To some extent, this was an appeasement of the students. Behind the student revolts was an economy no longer able to provide an almost assured path to joining the “black bourgeoisie”, the black capitalists then-president Thabo Mbeki first publicly pledged to help create, sustain and develop as a government priority, in 1999. The students blamed colonial Whiteness for what for them was the failure of transformation. They also blamed the ANC, even accusing Mandela of having “sold out” to the Whites.

With few of the leaders of the ANC seeing any link between capitalism, the ANC’s neoliberal policies, and the trinity of “poverty, unemployment and inequality”, the demand for decolonisation conveniently put the ANC on the same side as the students. Joining the students in demonising White Supremacy – and, thus, in part, to deny their own very privileged positions – was an easy next step.  

There were, additionally, other, more explicitly opportunistic reasons for joining this demonisation of Whites. The ANC feared the former president of its Youth League, Julius Malema. It saw the new, Malema-led Economic Freedom Fighters as its main left-wing opponent. As Malema became more and more virulent in his anti-White racism, so did the ANC. Facilitating the speed and explicitness of the ANC’s attacks on Whiteness was Jacob Zuma. He was fighting for his political life, as well as keeping himself out of prison for what could be the remainder of his life. Keeping pace with the mounting evidence of his corruption and increasing and vocal calls for him to step down, he sought refuge in blaming Whites.

This perforce gallop through the tangled web and complexities of the period should suffice as an outline of why and how the ANC has used racism as an explanation for the crises of capitalism to which it is firmly wedded. In doing so the ANC has turned Racial Capitalism on its head, that is, from originally being a racism allowing white beneficiaries to be comfortable with their privileges to a racism serving the same purpose but this time for elite black beneficiaries. (I hope to return to the original Racial Capitalism in a separate article.)

While white people are the target of the ANC’s Racial Capitalism, the majority of black people are Racial Capitalism’s hapless victims. Unlike the creation of White Supremacy, this is not a deliberate – or even convenient – outcome. Regardless of intentions, however, black people do pay an enormously heavy price for the privileges of a few who vaunt being Black.

The collateral damage of ‘transformation’: The black lives that do matter

Black lives – African lives – do matter to the ANC. This is the reality reflected in the standard, everyday language of the ANC: an exclusionary “our people”; the Africans in whose name the ANC speaks, most often. “Black people in general and Africans in particular” is the formulation with a long history. “Our people” comes from pre-1994 days and does still often embody genuine desires to be the liberation movement that led to the fall of apartheid. Allowing that desire to co-exist with a very different current reality is a contradiction that doesn’t negate the genuine wish held by many within the ANC. It is rather a case, pithily expressed by Slavoy Zizek, of: “I know, but I don’t want to know what I know, so I don’t know” (Zizek, S. (2008). Violence: Six sideways reflections. New York: Picador, p.53).

Responding to the worldwide revulsion at the racism behind a white US policeman’s murder of a black man, President Cyril Ramaphosa used the occasion to attack White Supremacy in South Africa:

“This sense of the natural order of things encourages white South Africans to racist outbursts, where they think they have the licence to call black people ‘monkeys’, to caricature black people in our own country… to have black academics overlooked for promotions. … [All this] needs to be challenged and broken. We need to acknowledge that racism is not only to be found in the behaviour of individuals, that it permeates within institutions, communities and societies and is manifested in many ways. …Poverty and inequality wears a black face.”

The global Black Lives Matter upsurge inspired the ANC to launch its own anti-racism campaign, in early June. For the ANC, the death of 11 black South Africans by black South African police enforcing the law during the first few days of lockdown didn’t disturb the coherence of the campaign.

It simply wasn’t allowed to. Not even the immensely larger contradictions that long-preceded George Floyd’s murder could dent the ANC’s single-minded pursuit of advancing the Black Lives of an elite. And of doing so in the name of “our people” and racial justice.

Black lives that don’t matter

The enormous price most Africans pay for the advancement of a few Africans is a matter of daily report, even though seldom expressed in these explicit terms. Indeed, there is no need for a litany of what is already all too well known. However, a tipping point seems to have been reached when emergency monies, for meeting the unprecedented crises caused by the coronavirus, were turned into a lucrative business opportunity for looting by senior members of the ANC or those with connections to such people.

While the corruption itself wasn’t new, the public outrage was different. Notwithstanding the numbness of a public exposed over the previous decades to never-ending scandals, these latest ones succeeded in reawakening the sense of moral collapse. This is best conveyed by a Daily Maverick editorial. Under the headline of “Stealing from your own people is a crime; stealing during the pandemic is a crime against humanity”, it began: “There should be a place in jail for everyone who steals from their own people. But there should be a place in Hell for those who find the fortitude within them to steal from the people during a pandemic.” It ended: “The elite are immune to everything, including shame… They will be rich and literally everyone around them will be poor. How long do they think that can last?”

Stealing from your own people is a crime; stealing during the pandemic is a crime against humanity

This rhetorical question speaks to the desperation pouring from a perspective on the moral turpitude of our current leaders. However, the Left prides itself in having a deep systemic understanding of corruption and class morality. It is apposite, therefore, to turn ever so briefly to why South Africa’s Left (which is where I place myself) have added to the confusion rather than the expected clarification. DM

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