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:
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. Because “molato 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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