Defend Truth


Captured states, captured imaginations

Joel Modiri teaches jurisprudence at the University of Pretoria. He writes in his personal (and ideological) capacity.

Why would proponents of the “state capture” discourse have us believe that the solution to so deep a historical problem is a more faithful return to the altar of liberal constitutionalism?

We must not voodoo the people, nor dissolve them in emotion and confusion” – Fanon

If the current tide of politics and discourse in South Africa does not turn soon, the period beginning in late 2016 until now will be remembered for the utterly impoverished and hysterical character of debate, journalism and scholarship. Ushered in by public outrage over the late-night dismissal of government ministers, propped up by the release of scandalous (even if dubiously sourced) emails and marked by the strange personification of South Africa’s major problems in the figure of President Zuma and the Gupta family, the notion of “state capture” has now come to thoroughly usurp public space and political discourse. (The emails were not “dubiously” sourced. – Ed)

But if state capture is the dominant frame for understanding South Africa’s problems, the term by which our national priorities are to be deliberated upon, this reflects the consolidation of particular political, economic and ideological interests and is not simply the natural outcome of a society fed up with corruption.

Certainly, the ANC government’s collusion with local and global economic elites and their utter maladministration and flagrant misuse, indeed theft, of public funds appears to be escalating at an alarming rate. The attendant impunity with which this all seems to be conducted must also add insult to injury. It would not make sense in this context to claim that government corruption is entirely a white or middle-class concern – even though it certainly has perverse benefits for the ANC’s opposition and detractors from these ranks – since the primary victims of the ruling party’s various ineptitudes and failures have been black people who continue to live outside of the promises of freedom and democracy, who experience acute disappointment, marginalisation and powerlessness and who remain the “new” South Africa’s dirty little secret.

We should be well-schooled by now in the knowledge that for anti-colonial activist-intellectuals such as Frantz Fanon, Thomas Sankara and Amilcar Cabral, among others, the malaise and stagnation engendered by the corruption of a post-colonial government is less a failure in individual morality than a sign of a decaying national culture, the defective ideology and praxis of the ruling elite and an absence of visionary leadership. From this lens, corruption signifies a deeper fault line in Westernised liberal democracies in Africa, a failure in the ethical and political decolonisation of society and a prolonging of unfreedom tied to the global disasters of capitalism. The response in this instance would be the renewed search for not only an activist- and radical-democratic public sphere but for new visions and solutions from within the culture, history and experience of the community of the oppressed indigenous population.

Why then in this current conjuncture would proponents of the “state capture” discourse have us believe that the solution to so deep a historical problem is a more faithful return to the altar of liberal constitutionalism? The calls to “recapture” or “save” South Africa reveals more than constitutional patriotism but rather a stubborn clinging to a sanguine narrative of South Africa as a rainbow, miracle nation which is only now being desecrated by one president and one family. It may sound conspiratorial but cannot go unsaid that in some ways this state capture discourse appears as an attempt by the liberal consensus in South Africa to gain ground that was lost with the emergence of far more radical political and theoretical articulations in South Africa’s universities, public spaces and political institutions. How else to explain the anti-intellectual and profoundly undemocratic pressure on all South Africans to either condemn “state capture” (their way) or be labelled a Gupta lackey (the highway)?

If the EFF, the fallist movement and the growing “Azanian” ethos among black South Africans has activated a different diagnosis of the South African reality – which locates the source of the problem in the fundamental dynamics of injustice inherent to the capitalist, settler-colonial and white supremacist foundations of South Africa – then the late arrival of “state capture” surely represents something of an obfuscation of a sharpening contradiction.

Though it will appear obvious to the discerning reader, I should reiterate that I am not claiming that corruption and maladministration are unimportant problems. It is rather the retreat from a structural critique of economic inequality, white supremacy, and imperialism to an excessive and melodramatic focus on the contingent actions of individuals that is curious. The grandstanding that accompanies the anti-state capture lobby is not only tiresomely self-righteous but seems to operate through a quite narrow and selective determination of what counts as state capture/corruption and what does not. If state capture is to occupy the public space, it should be confronted with other political and intellectual visions which go much deeper to the root and scope of the problem. To this end, let us briefly consider three alternative “captures” for addition into the South African lexicon:

  • The spectacularly violent and foundational “colonial capture” of South Africa which begins in earnest in the mid-17th century and is yet to meet its end. South Africa – the name and the place – is itself the product of the history of European colonial conquest on these shores. The resultant economic, social, spatial and cultural dynamics that have persisted into the present have relegated the black majority to a wasted social existence and have caused immense existential, psychological and material devastation that runs across generations. These historical results of centuries of colonial-apartheid continue to define social relations in South Africa and remain the primary source of the unliveable, conflictual and increasingly precarious existence of the majority of its inhabitants. Insofar as post-1994 South Africa has preserved the basic constituents of conquest (land dispossession, economic destitution, racism, spatial inequality, psychological damage and epistemicide), the failings of the current administration are mostly worsening (rather than creating) an already existing dysfunction within the social order.
  • The “capture of democracy” through a litigious turn to the courts. Although met with moralistic hostility in South Africa, there has been a longstanding concern expressed in much of legal and political theory that the use of courts to resolve social and political conflicts weakens democracy and popular action. Not only because judges are unelected but also because law always reduces and “technicalises” complexity, it should worry us that much political contestation in South Africa ends up in courts for resolution. Ideally, matters concerning the values and the people who govern a society should be the object of robust public deliberation and community action – not a process driven by opposition parties, NGOs, privileged citizens and legal experts. What happens, in other words, when “rule by the people” – democracy’s most ideal expression – becomes rule by the courts and by markets?
  • The “capture of the imagination” through the elite orchestration of the media and public discourse. Most dramatically evident in the absurd but deeply held belief that “white monopoly capital” both does not exist in reality and is the product of a PR company’s shenanigans, South Africa appears to be in the grip of a deeply unreflective, partly misleading, and herd-like narrative and sensibility. Despite the release of evidence suggesting that the South African state has, long before 1994, always been captured by hegemonic interests of various kinds, many South Africans cling tenaciously to a refusal to see the larger history of problems we think only started in 2009. In particular, the historical record suggests that the workings of racial capitalism in South Africa have always directed its political actors and institutions – and that this present iteration of state capture is really only a small drop in the ocean. That a fact this obvious is constantly ignored or underplayed is both a crisis in social and historical literacy but also of the imagination – a sign of a society that refuses to be honest with itself.

There is much more to say here but the point is that when judged in relation to or in conjunction with these other forms of capture, the notion of “state capture” as the dominant description of South Africa’s contradictions as well as the liberal-constitutional prescriptions and attachments that follow it, turn out to be wanting in some important respects. It is not clear how “state capture” as both a concept and a term of media sensationalism and political satire can yield an accurate, critical and intelligent analysis of, and resolution to, our current condition and predicaments. Becausemolato a go bole, the exigency of historical justice, of the restoration of land to its indigenous people, of reparations and economic redistribution, of cultural resistance to Eurocentrism and Western imperialism, and the reality of the plain fact that we still live in a stubbornly racist society must remain on the table – as pressing and as urgent as ever. DM


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