OP-ED

South Africa: The upside-down world of racial capitalism and Black Lives Matter, Part 2

By Jeff Rudin 2 September 2020

The innauguration of Thabo Mbeki as South African president, pictured with previous president Nelson Mandela, in Pretoria on 27 April 2004. (Photo: Gallo Images / Christiaan Kotze)

The ANC’s Black Lives Matter is not a hypocrisy. It is much more than that. It is a defence. It is the second of the two ways in which the African rich seek to think well of themselves. It serves as a self-justification of otherwise intolerable actions and unthinkable greed.

This is Part 2 in a two-part series. Part 1 can be read here.

The failure of the South African Left

This is a subject more properly dealt with by books, many books. This is true even when, as here, the focus is exclusively on the white Left. The absence of a black Left critique (with the notable exception of Neville Alexander silenced by death in 2012) makes evident their concurrence with the positions of their white comrades.

Two events (although both involving the SACP and Cosatu) encapsulate the general failure.

The first event began with a heated public debate in the build-up to the 1994 elections. At issue was the pay and perks given to the outgoing members of the apartheid Parliament. The critique from the Left was that MPs’ salaries, rather than continuing to be that of the First World, should reflect the Third World reality of most South Africans. One of the first steps taken by the new Mandela government was to establish a commission to recommend a pay structure appropriate for the then-new South Africa. At least one member of the commission was not only a member of the SACP but, unlike most other communists, she was not also a member of the ANC. Her reason for this, she told me, was that the ANC was bourgeois.

The commission duly reported towards the end of 1994. It found that there was indeed a major problem with MPs’ pay: it was too little! The new Parliament voted themselves the recommended salary increase. This, arguably, turned out to be the single most seminal decision of democratic South Africa. As an ironic inversion of the slogan of the 1922 white miners, it was a case of: “Elites of the world unite to make way for a Black South African elite” (a comment made by Diane Salters).

The SACP, with its large parliamentary presence (as part of the ANC contingent), was silent about the increase. So, too, was the officially socialist Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), which also had a significant presence on the ANC benches in Parliament. There was, indeed, only one notable public dissenting voice: that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said much of what one would have expected from the SACP and Cosatu consistent with the struggle having been on behalf of “our people”.

I asked some of the leading members of the parliamentary SACP, both as MPs and members of Mandela’s first Cabinet, how they could have supported this unexpected move. They explained that they had queried the decision within the ANC’s parliamentary caucus. They had kept quiet when accused of being racist; that they were querying the matter only because most MPs were now Africans.

This event needs closer unpacking. The African response will be deferred until the final section of this article. For now, what needs addressing is an outrageous accusation. The charge was against individuals whose commitment to the struggle against white racism was beyond question: they had not only devoted most of their lives to the Struggle but had risked their very lives as part of the Struggle. In a word, they were part of a small group best placed to be mortified by their own sometimes lifelong comrades accusing them of racism. Adding to the manifest injustice of the charge is that it stemmed from a single event that went to the very heart of the Struggle: the ANC’s acceptance of a salary increase when the ethical position – made so clear by a shocked Archbishop Tutu – was to have argued for a pay cut consistent with the Struggle having been on behalf of “our people”.

Why had these white communists allowed themselves to be cowed?

An immediate answer is the two-stage revolution of the SACP’s strategic understanding of the transition to socialism: South African capitalism would first need to be normalised by the emergence of African capitalists before the class contradictions of capitalism were sufficiently developed for the African working class to separate itself from its racial identity and thereby lead the revolution to socialism.  

Whether or not they were familiar with Marx’s own words about “the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure” being “the specific economic form in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producers”, they knew more than enough. They knew that beginning with 16th century slavery, to say nothing about the enforced bloody creation of a black working class and the gold and diamond riches that required cheap labour, racism made the exploitation and oppression morally acceptable. This is to say they knew – and they taught others to know – that the exploiters had to turn the exploited into non-people for the fruits of the exploitation to be devoured without guilt. Race, in other words, was, in origin, a social construction of class imperatives; the “innermost secret” of capitalism where the dehumanised Other was of a different skin colour.

This understanding does indeed offer what could be an immediate answer to the SACP’s acceptance of the salary increase. But this would be far too simple to be anything near a sufficient explication.

Making sense of the silence of the white communists in 1994 suggests that race had by then become different from and independent of class. Moreover, the specifically African “race” of South Africa was implicitly seen to be classless, without any class divisions. It is further suggested that, such was – and is – the identification with the victims of class oppression that the working class, the class for itself which was to be the springboard into a classless society, was metamorphosed into the hegemonic primacy of a classless black race of Africans.

Inherent in this perception is that capitalism functions according to the colour of its capitalists. Thus, black capital behaves differently from white capital.  

Confirmation of this colour confusion brings us to the second of the two events. In 2003, as part of the government’s strategy of creating a black bourgeoisie, it “outsourced” one of its state-owned enterprises (SOE) to a large British transnational corporation that, together with African owners, bought 51% of the enterprise. The now African-managed company was offering a 0.5% wage increase conditional on an increase in the working week from 40 hours to 45 hours. Sick leave was to be reduced and transport subsidies phased out. The wage negotiations resulted in bitter and prolonged strike action. Six weeks into the strike, the lead negotiator of the main Cosatu-affiliated trade union involved, who was a life-long (white) socialist, made the following confession:

“The problem with this dispute is that we didn’t put up a huge resistance to this particular privatisation. To be honest I think the union genuinely believed, because there was a strong black economic empowerment component, that things wouldn’t be too bad, but it’s been quite the contrary. Everyone in our union agrees that we have not come across such hard-headedness since the 1980s and, if anything, this is the kind of dispute that will harden attitudes against privatisation because it simply demonstrates what can happen” (Mail & Guardian 23/1/04).

Strikingly, the “hardening of attitudes” was against “privatisation” rather than a reassessment of the attitude towards the black capitalists. Another Cosatu-affiliated trade union, whose members were also part of the strike, expressed its “anger” that a company, prominently owned by Africans, could be so anti-worker (SABC News 28/1/04).

The abandonment of any Marxian class analysis is, indeed, most evident when it comes to Thabo Mbeki’s creation of the black bourgeoisie. When the language changed from black bourgeoisie to its current Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) or “Transformation”, it was met with the same silence. Both should be a direct challenge to the Left. In the name of this transformation, we now have a South Africa unequivocally committed to interfering with the normal reproduction of our inherited class structure.

The Left (particularly initially) says little about this, and the SACP and Cosatu – the ANC’s formal allies – have done nothing in practice to challenge the mere transfer of class-defined benefits to the members of the government, or the ANC’s leading cadres, African businesses and African professionals. BEE claims the empowerment of all black people. One doesn’t expect the government to say anything about whether this is possible under capitalism. But the Left’s essential silence is consistent with its view of Black being classless and, therefore, of an “empowerment” that embraces the working class. Black capitalism ends up being a socialism for the working class!

A further striking testimony to the characteristic primacy of colour rather than class among the Left was provided by a leading member of the SACP. In a private conversation with me (probably in 2000 or 2001) about which class – bourgeois or worker – benefits from the SACP’s alliance with the ANC, the life-long white communist stunned me by saying he couldn’t objectively critique the ANC because the ANC – not the SACP – was the centre of his life!

This acknowledgement has further ramifications. What is essentially a romanticised picture of socially constructed Africans shapes the white Left in other significant ways. The very strength of the empathy with the oppressed produces an inversion of the classical defence mechanism of identification with the oppressor. The standard example being the Jews who hid their identity by being the most anti-Semitic of the Nazis. Not being able to change their colour, the white Left’s inability to become the oppressed has resulted in both a favourable predisposition towards Africans, and a deferential surrender to African nationalism.

Disavowals of being white by attacking anything they can label White is another consequence. Hence the white Left’s leading role in colour-coding class privileges. “White Monopoly Capital” is probably a white Left invention. Rather than speaking of residential areas of the rich, the reference becomes White areas. Under the original Racial Capitalism of apartheid, white areas were White as a function of law; under the current Racial Capitalism they are rich as a function of capitalism. Yet, the Left chooses the anachronistic apartheid designation rather than the current class one. Similarly, class privileges – regardless of which specifics – invariably become colour-coded as White privileges. The working class itself is similarly and anachronistically racialised as the black (meaning African) working class. It is with these various colour confusions where the black Left joins the white Left in the racialisation of class.

A far bigger challenge now faces us. Understanding the white Left is easy compared to making sense of the turpitude of what might appear to be a racialised African disorder. Recall the anguished question of the Daily Maverick editorial: “The [African] elite are immune to everything, including shame.”

Racism turned upside down: The black bourgeoisie play the race card

There is an easy answer to why and how South Africa has now become the “broken society” spoken about in so many different ways and by so many different people. The answer is to invoke Fanon. Writing in 1961 about the then very new phenomenon of decolonisation, Frantz Fanon, in his celebrated, “The Wretched of the Earth”, provides a penetrating analysis of the post-independence black leadership that is perspicacious of today’s SA.

“The national middle class discovers its historic mission: that of intermediary. Seen through its eyes, its mission has nothing to do with transforming the nation; it consists, prosaically, of being the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the mask of neo-colonialism. The national bourgeoisie will be quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoisie’s business agent. … But this same lucrative role, this cheap-Jack’s function, this meanness of outlook… symbolize[s] the incapability of the middle class to fulfil its historic role… [of transformation. Instead] the spirit of indulgence is dominant… and this is because the national bourgeoisie identifies itself with… the decadence of the bourgeoisie of the West. … [The national bourgeoisie] is in fact beginning at the end. It is already senile before it has come to know the petulance, the fearlessness, or the will to succeed of youth.”

This searing critique, however, is not the sufficient answer to South Africa in 2020. The ANC itself recognises this. It did so in 1969 when it committed itself to avoiding these dangers. Arguably among the most important ANC documents, prior to its unbanning in 1990, is its Morogoro Conference’s Strategy & Tactics. The then-commitment is so starkly different from today’s reality that it bears repeating in some length.

“Our nationalism must not be confused with chauvinism or narrow nationalism… It must not be confused with the classical drive by an elitist group among the oppressed people to gain ascendancy, so that they can replace the oppressor in the exploitation of the mass.

“In our country – more than in any other part of the oppressed world – it is inconceivable for liberation to have meaning, without a return of the wealth of the land to the people as a whole. It is, therefore, a fundamental feature of our strategy that victory must embrace more than formal political democracy. To allow the existing economic forces to retain their interests, intact, is to feed the root of racial supremacy, and does not represent even the shadow of liberation.

“Our drive towards national emancipation is, therefore, in a very real way, bound up with economic emancipation. … This perspective of a speedy progression from formal liberation to genuine and lasting emancipation, is made more real by the existence in our country of a large and growing working class whose class consciousness complements national consciousness. Its militancy and political consciousness as a revolutionary class will play no small part in our victory, and in the construction of a real people’s South Africa.”

Thabo Mbeki, the president who declared the formation of a black bourgeoisie to be among the top priorities of an ANC government, the same Mbeki who was a member of the Central Committee of the SACP, provides much of what I would consider to be a Marxian answer to our conundrum. His answer, moreover, carries all the weight of his own contradictory position. He thus merits being quoted at some length. Adding to its significance is that it comes from his speech delivered at the 4th Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture in July 2006, presented, moreover, before an audience that included a great number of the black bourgeoisie he had already helped create.

“[T]he new order, born of the victory in 1994, inherited a well-entrenched value system that placed individual acquisition of wealth at the very centre… of our society as a whole. …

“Thus, every day, and during every hour of our time beyond sleep, the demons embedded in our society… seem always to beckon each one of us towards a realisable dream… With every passing second, they advise, with rhythmic and hypnotic regularity – get rich! get rich! get rich!

“And thus has it come about that many of us accept that our common natural instinct to escape from poverty is but the other side of the same coin… [with] the words – at all costs, get rich!

“In these circumstances, personal wealth, and the public communication of [that] message becomes… the means by which we communicate the message that we are worthy citizens of our community, the very exemplars of what defines the product of a liberated South Africa.

“This peculiar striving produces the particular result that manifestations of wealth… determine the individuality of each one of us who seeks to achieve happiness and self-fulfilment, given the liberty that the revolution of 1994 brought to all of us.

“In these circumstances, the meaning of freedom has come to be defined not by the seemingly ethereal and therefore intangible gift of liberty, but by the designer labels on the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the spaciousness of our houses and our yards, their geographic location, the company we keep…

“It is perfectly obvious that many in our society, having absorbed the value system of the capitalist market, have come to the conclusion that, for them, personal success and fulfilment means personal enrichment at all costs, and the most theatrical and striking public display of that wealth.

“What this means is that many in our society have come to accept that what is socially correct is… the notion that each one of us is as excellent a human being as our demonstrated wealth suggests!”

After this, one may well ask, is there anything more to say? There is! The black bourgeoisie are no more immune to thinking well of themselves than the white variety who, to achieve the dehumanisation of the exploited Other, invented a subhuman race of black people.

The black bourgeoisie achieve this same end – within the inequalities of capitalism and the status system it necessarily evokes – by inverting the racism they keep alive. They do this in two ways. First, both legitimising their “personal enrichment at all costs” and, indeed, being the steroids on which they achieve even greater heights of personal enrichment, are the White Supremacy and Whiteness they have resurrected as the reminders of the reality of their dehumanisation. The fortunes the white bourgeoisie pay themselves are further reminders of felt injustice. As a South African inversion of “race always being a relational construct”, the meaning of Blackness both implies and depends on Whiteness (Posel, D. (2010). “Races to consume: revisiting South Africa’s history of race, consumption and the struggle for freedom”, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 33(2), 157-75).

Saying all this is not to absolve them of their individual immoralities. What it does do is underscore the salience of Marx’s “hidden secret” of the specificities of the societal whole built on and around the way in which capitalism produces mass poverty and obscene inequality as the collateral damage of the wealth expropriated by the few – regardless of colour.

The ANC’s Black Lives Matter is not a hypocrisy. It is much more than that. It is a defence. It is the second of the two ways in which the African rich seek to think well of themselves. It serves as a self-justification of otherwise intolerable actions and unthinkable greed. “Our people” expresses an anguish that assuages the guilt of their class separation from the people they have left behind. Like the “trickle down” rationalisation once so favoured by the global rich, the African rich are probably appeased by thoughts of “our people” being the eventual beneficiaries of their current, reprehensible labours.

The ANC is not the cause of corruption. Nor is BEE or tenderpreneurship, or even privatisation. All are symptoms; all facilitate corruption. But none are the primary causes.

From being a colonial and apartheid nightmare, Racial Capitalism has become a means of delivering long-delayed reparations – but only for a few. Colour-coded class-inequalities have the last ambiguous laugh. A laugh of celebration but also a laugh of remorse.

Changing the world – or, more modestly, South Africa – always first requires a sufficient understanding of the conditions in need of changing. This long essay therefore ends by returning to the beginning: the need for change. Against this urgency, the analysis offered here is easy. DM

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

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