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When will the working class capture the state?

Ayabonga Cawe is an economist by training, and aside from a short stint as a researcher at a government agency, he has never been a disciple of market doctrine. He speaks and writes on history, political economy and public policy. A pan Africanist, he earns his keep in the development sector as a project manager, but is often found in watering holes of the city, camera in hand holding court with other restless youth of different persuasions.

As we reflect, in the wake of Sharpeville Day, which in a depoliticised way we refer to as “Human Rights Day”, it is important to draw important historical links between that brave action of March 1960 and the pressing questions of today.

The Sharpeville protest, at face value, may have been about passes, but there was much more substance to passes than just an inconvenient regulation black Africans had to comply with. Passes played a crucial role in buttressing and enabling the “development” of the colonial and apartheid economy. Passes, in this day and age of great concern about “state capture”, are a historic example of what we call “capture”, which connects interests in both the private and public sector.

Marxist economist Ben Fine often derides the unhelpful distinction made in daily parlance between the state and the market. He argues that what we should in essence be looking at is the reproduction of accumulation paths among different interests across both the state and the market. Simply put, what key areas of common interest bind both state and market actors, and what does this then mean for a political economy like South Africa’s.

To better explain the point and outline its contemporary relevance, let us return to the passes. Passes served a dual role in South Africa: influx control (lowering costs of social reproduction, restriction of public service delivery and wages to Africans) and the eradication of wage competition between white and black labourers. The former served to suppress real wages among Africans due to restriction of movement, labour mobility across and within sectors, and by extension little or no bargaining power. The latter went some way to resolving the “poor white problem” and creating clear political distinctions between the black and white working class.

The passes effectively ring-fenced the white electorate for the National Party and then ensured low production costs and thus higher profits for white capital through the repression of wages. Therefore this collusive agreement between the Nats and capital in South Africa created the basis for the political economy of apartheid, and what one would refer to as “primitive accumulation”.

To explain primitive accumulation Marx had this to say:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production… These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g. the colonial system. But they all employ the power of the state, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.

For such primitive accumulation to occur, at its base is needed a political system that can summon the force (of coercion and persuasion) of the state to shorten the transition towards “a new society”. Are we to then ask whether the “capture” of the state by the Guptas presents a form of “primitive accumulation”; if so, to what end and for whose benefit?

One doesn’t need a breakfast invitation to a New Age Business Briefing to realise that the recent confessions by many ANC leaders about the influence of the Indian family have placed at the forefront of the public discussion the “capture” of the state by capital and, in this particular case, the barons of Saxonwold.

Timely questions emerge as we analyse what this means for the nation and the democratic project in South Africa. Does this revelation of undemocratic influence on policymakers in unobvious and clandestine ways have any material bearing on the second transition characterised by a radical economic transformation à la the ANC? Or is what we term “capture” strategic alliances with unconventional forces in pursuit of this aim?

If the Guptas have indeed captured the state, from whom did they capture it? Who did they displace, and why is there so little analysis of this aside from a recent article by EFF Deputy President Floyd Shivambu, which outlines some of the “capture” of the early 1990s of incoming ANC policymakers. The consequence of this lack of analysis is an inference that this “capture” is new or a marked departure from the normal functioning of the South African political economy. The assumptive logic is that the state has always been accessible to all, and from its inception in 1994 had been captured by a progressive cohort of mixed economy advocates with a working-class bias, despite the evidence to the contrary, from a policy perspective. This cohort, we are told, has now been displaced, and the most public manifestation of this displacement was the removal of Nhlanhla Nene.

The state in South Africa has historically been a site of accumulation for different classes of interests (the English renegades/pioneers, Afrikaners and now BEE/tender types) in pursuit of their own forms of primitive accumulation. From hut taxes to passes, the measures and political methods have been numerous in effecting primitive accumulation.

An additional dimension to this has been that the state has always been seen as this “site” because of exclusion from the private sector (especially for Afrikaners who felt they were excluded by the English, and Africans excluded by whites in general) of particular segments of society. It therefore isn’t surprising to hear policy wonks in post-apartheid South Africa eloquently explaining the role of the state in the accumulation of wealth in the black community in response to overwhelming barriers to such accumulation in the white-dominated mainstream economy. The Afrikaner state made similar inferences to explain why loss-making state-owned entities such as Sasol had to continue to be assisted by the state.

The Guptas are doing – more crudely, and in a crass way – what the ratings agencies, conglomerates, funders and local and transnational capital has always done in South Africa: influence the political terrain to achieve their immediate interest of undisturbed accumulation.

What we have in South Africa are two related developments that make the Gupta episode unsurprising. First, a state emerging from post-1989 geopolitical and neoliberal reality, often afraid to explicitly communicate its intent to pursue primitive accumulation through the state, and second, a state overestimating its ability to, in practice, commit to its “working class bias” in a financialised and highly unequal capitalist reality.

I am not saying the Guptas should receive less (or more) attention than the Ruperts and the Oppenheimers, nor am I saying Gupta capture is beneficial to the working class. What I am saying is that our discourse has been politically naive by thinking that the state is on a different moral plane to both sets of capturers, established (metropole and apartheid-produced capital) and novel entrants (as exemplified by the Guptas).

If we are to unmask the rhetoric and recent alarm with capture to ask an important question, we may find analytical value beneath all the commentary and sensationalism. Will the working class ever be in a position to capture state power, and/or is such a pursuit beneficial to that class, if at all? I am of the view that such a question will allow us to confront the asymmetries in influence between working people and capital at the centre of our “liberal democracy”. Such an analysis may also save us from a two-stage theory of politics that is accepted as the norm in South Africa.

Stage 1: Agitate for inclusion and access to state power to advance the interests of a disenfranchised or exploited group;

Stage 2: Access state power and transform the state into a tool of the working people.

The fact that the Gupta episode shows us, in a very dramatic way, that such a transition from stage 1 to 2 in pursuit of economic freedom is politically fraught and seldom borne out in reality, is telling.

One wonders why most political organisations (more especially traditional liberation movements) accepted this. Such acceptance is an outcome of the lack of a resonant theory of the state, and an understanding that the state is not a blank slate on a neutral logic that can be influenced solely by those in whose hands it sits, without influence from historic continuities and prevailing logics of control and accumulation.

One hopes that this Gupta episode will open the floodgates of debate in a manner that understands that you cannot speak of capture without speaking of Saxonwold alongside Brenthurst.

The logics of capture and accumulation are the same, and what is often seen as a catastrophic revelation of collusive state and private sector relations is but a crucial episode in a long-airing series that is the political economy of South Africa.

The crucial question is: at the end of that episode, are we better able to answer which political and commercial interests can bind both the state and the working class into inclusive, viable and transformative relations. The answer to that may be an invaluable contribution to the political traditions that spawned the martyrs of Sharpeville. Till then, we watch. DM


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