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Decolonisation: The perpetuation of normalised racism?


Jeff Rudin works at the Alternative Information & Development Centre (AIDC)

The VBS heist shows the dots of corruption connect with a much more comprehensive critique of the shallowness with which we are seeking to redress the injustices of our colonial and apartheid past.

The VBS heist — arguably the most brazen bank fraud in South Africa’s history — was recently dismissed by listeners of a radio talk-in programme as a campaign by the white-controlled media to discredit the only black owned and managed bank.

The rubbishing of South Africa’s first black government was also said to be part of the agenda. The host of the radio show — Stephen Grootes — tried to reason with the callers. He pointed out that the media was hardly white controlled, that the editors of the main newspapers were black, that the Governor of the Reserve Bank that commissioned the report — The Great Bank Heist — was black, as was the report’s author, Terry Motau.

He also asked if the reporting was factually wrong and, if not, was the media not supposed to report the facts? But nothing he said weakened the “white conspiracy” position of the callers.

This got me thinking. My reflections led via…

  • the largely ignored question of why the ANC has so recently and enthusiastically accepted a critique of colonialism seen almost exclusively as a white crime, and,

  • having made the discovery, to become ardent supporters of a racialised decolonisation project that subsumed apartheid, and,

  • why, even long before this discovery, it had adopted racialised policies and practices at the same time as celebrating the non-racialism enshrined in our Constitution, as a Founding Provision,

to what appears to be an all-embracing racism that has brought us to where we are today and keeps us locked out of a non-racial future.

Race is so deeply woven into and explosive of the South African social fabric that there is an urgent necessity for any analysis helping to forge the key to unlocking the racial prison that is today’s South Africa.

My understandings of the heist and, more particularly, of the unsupported insistence that any scandal attached to VBS is a racist invention by the white media against a black bank and government, includes the following.

It begins with a simple proposition put baldly for the sake of clarity: A black identity, rooted in a rigid dualism that sees everything as either black or white — respectively, good or bad — creates intolerable stress on any negative perception of blacks. (The search for an exclusive identity is now a dominant, worldwide feature. Why this should be so is not explored here.)

For those inclined to dismiss the dualism as being too simple, let me invite examination of: (a) the sleight of hand that gives “race”, an effective genetic reality, even when, as is most likely, “race” is accepted as being nothing more than a highly malleable social construct; and, (b) the crudities of the all-embracing, “racial” stereotypes that have become dominant; stereotypes that allow for no exceptions because to allow for any deviation is to destroy the stereotype: If you’re “white”, you’re inescapably doomed — or blessed — to be “white”, whatever that means.

Regarding the denial of the heist, it must be recalled that Grootes’ attempts to counter the denial with a string of facts made no difference.

Even allowing for the different meanings of and intensities attached to being ‘black’, by people who embrace blackness, the blackness of the bank heist must create a sense of unease and, therefore, a disposition to look for other explanations.

Like the rotten apple one advanced by the well-known political journalist Ranjeni Munusamy. In her view, the heist was the work limited to “a group of gluttonous people”. Or, listen to the Deputy Finance Minister, Mondli Gungubele, for a variation of the denial Grootes encountered: “There is nothing black about this [heist], this is theft… it’s criminal. There is no worse way to insult black excellence [than] associating black people with what has happened at VBS. It has nothing to do with black excellence and has everything to do with thuggery”.

Alternative, non-racial, stereotype-free explanations for the VBS heist and the rampant corruption it represents are available. It goes like this, in my version:

By the early 1990s, at the latest, the ANC had abandoned any idea of even a moderate Keynesian transformation. The ANC’s new commitment was not only to safeguard capitalism but to help it grow so as to facilitate the creation of black capitalists. Preserving capitalism necessarily also meant the perpetuation of individualism, inequality and poverty. This was the new context immortalised by the ANC’s then national spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama saying he hadn’t struggled to be poor, as justification for being part of a lucrative BEE deal.

Would-be black capitalists, in an environment promoting individual wealth, face a challenge: How to become a capitalist without capital? We now know the answers: BEE, access to public money and affirmative action. All three are utterly dependent on one thing: Race.

This is explicit in the case of BEE, which, under capitalism, can only be black elite empowerment. Affirmative action can take a number of forms. In its South African iteration, it is not only explicitly racial but gives a post-apartheid institutionalisation to all the colonial/apartheid-invented “races”. Finally, we have come to know access to public money as corruption.

All three of the challenges to becoming a capitalist without capital draw heavily on white guilt and various forms of the idea of transformation as reparations for the injustices of the past. Until a few years ago, these injustices were apartheid-linked. Then, thanks to the student uprisings, the ANC (re-)discovered colonialism. And, hey presto, an additional 300 or so years were added to supposedly white crimes and, thereby, a still further boost for the claims of black entitlement.

What needs emphasising is that the crimes of both colonialism and apartheid were very real; it’s the racial colour-coding that is sloppy and/or opportunist. Also meriting emphasis is that the routes taken to create what former president Thabo Mbeki called the “black bourgeoisie”, is, in essence, no different from what capitalists everywhere in the world have done since the birth of capitalism itself some centuries ago.

This is to say, corruption is no more a “black” condition than colonialism or apartheid were features inherent in a “white race”.

Nevertheless, the cry for decolonisation is an idea whose time has truly come: It simultaneously adds to both black grievance and white guilt. The absence of a proper idea of what decolonisation means in practice compounds the effect on both.

This lack of clarity makes it much easier for the black bourgeoisie to use colour as a most convenient cover for advancing their own class interests, and, moreover, to do so to the accompaniment of applause from a working class (including the unemployed and otherwise marginalised) that sees itself as black. Just as “white” slavery and then capitalism bought off the white working class with privileges by association.

Race”, however, serves as more than a club beating white guilt to open access to wealth and status. Its additional — and crucial — role is a protective one: it provides moral legitimacy to otherwise illegal or immoral behaviour.

How else to explain the number of participants in State Capture that goes far beyond just Zuma and the Guptas? I suspect that, for most of the actual participants, as well as many black observers, race serves a self-protective purpose: Effectively: “We are only taking back what the whites stole from us”.

The VBS scandal, I’m suggesting, highlights the self-reinforcing role race plays today. Race is essential for the black bourgeoisie, whether real or aspirant. It is the circumstance of being capitalists without capital; or, small capitalists in a world of big capitalists; or, recent professionals having to confront old professionals on their road to the top that constitute the primary energy driving the use of race.

However, the more race is used the more it is normalised and the more it is normalised the more it is evoked when needed to defend actions taken in the name of transformative decolonisation. More specifically, race is used when economic sectors or institutions or professional bodies are accused of still being “white dominated”. The race card is invariably evoked as the first defence by those accused of corruption or other forms of impropriety: “I’m being attacked only because I’m black”.

No surprise, therefore:

  • when, in response to VBS being placed under curatorship, in March this year, Tshifhiwa Matodzi, the chairman of VBS, who allegedly stole R326-million, claimed it was all a racist plot. “In the end, we were faced with a well-organised and powerful system which does not tolerate growing black banks and black excellence”;

  • that this claim was supported by the Black Business Council, which dismissed the initial reporting on the bank as “intimidation” intended to “retard the growth of black-owned businesses”;

  • that Werksmans Attorneys were attacked for their report on the bank, that, according to a senior bank executive, embodies “the very essence of whitism”.

Apart from the fightback by powerful people fighting to keep themselves out of prison, race is, additionally, almost certainly behind the selectively unenthusiastic implementation of the justice system. When the lack of enthusiasm is not because the implementing officials are themselves involved in questionable activities, the ambivalence is because of an empathy, whether conscious or not, with those considered to be implementing their own, unilateral reparations against the white colonisers. This is probably why the ANC’s own Ethics Committee has been such a failure.

In summary: the more the three (race-based) solutions to being a capitalist without capital are used for illegal or socially disapproved purposes the greater is the use of race in legitimising those purposes; a legitimisation that includes inaction.

The good news is that this self-reinforcing use of race and racism is not impregnable.

First and foremost, what is required is a critique of the almost unchallenged notion that a race-based transformation is a necessity. Moreover, it is invariably just accepted that this transformation takes place within the very capitalism guaranteed to leave poverty and inequality untransformed, for the vast majority.

The logic of this transformation is that monopoly capitalism is fine provided only that it becomes “black” rather than “white”. CEOs and their obscene pay are similarly fine provided only that 80% of them are black. This is to say, capitalism can “empower” only capitalists and “affirm” only an elite.

Black Economic Empowerment, like affirmative action, even when at their most successful, are guaranteed to leave most black people poor, even those lucky enough to have jobs. Apart from the fact that inequality is a global feature of capitalism, we already have more than 25 years of our own experience to confirm this reality.

BEE/affirmative action are a perfect scam. Not only do they enrich a tiny elite — almost two-thirds of the richest 10% of South African households are black — but they use the permanence of black poverty/white success to justify both their continued existence and, indeed, their demands that the legislation be enforced with even greater vigour.

This is a Left understanding of the marriage between capitalism and BEE/affirmative action. Exposing the role of race in these nuptials is therefore an urgent task that falls to the still largely silent Left.

It should be noted in passing that this strategic intervention against systemic corruption must also address the connection between outsourcing and corruption. Outsourcing virtually invites corruption by companies all essentially offering the same services at the same price. Corruption offers the often needed “competitive advantage”; public contracts always being “highly lucrative” makes the chase worthwhile. The alternative of “in-sourcing” reduces the market for corruption.

The required strategic intervention against corruption is by no means restricted to socialists. A critique of racism remains central to that strategy. However, the critique must be a principled one that does not leave the exposure of black racism to white racists.

One link between race and racism seems to be strangely neglected. Decolonisation is emptied of its energy without a White Enemy. Most conveniently for the decolonisers, they have an obliging Other. White guilt makes it very easy for them to be attacked. Many of the white beneficiaries and defenders of apartheid are still alive. But, people — deemed by others to be white — seem ready to take on the guilt arising all the way back to 1652! This is an extraordinary perversion of a natural justice all of us take for granted.

Thus, for instance, when Floyd Shivambu angrily reminded his accusers that he was not responsible for whatever his brother might have done, they backed off. But the “white race”, in its entirety, is expected to accept — and does largely accept — responsibility for the actions of people from the 17th century; people about whom they are likely to have as much knowledge as they do of the Man in the Moon.

Lawyers, regardless of colour, ought to be reminding everyone that the law — rightly — does not allow for such never-ending, transgenerational guilt, regardless of what might be its popular appeal.

It would be nice to think that the VBS heist may yet become recognised as a decisive turning point. The heist shows how a black identity makes it difficult to acknowledge a black owned and controlled bank shamelessly robbing black clients. That the clients were desperately poor, adds to the difficulty.

The heist further offers an understanding of the extent to which a black identity is mainly driven and sustained by a racialised access to scarce resources. Making race the road to riches is legitimised by a racism normalised to render all white people inescapably and permanently guilty of the crimes of apartheid. The fortuitous and recent arrival of the ideology of decolonisation further fuels this legitimisation.

Connecting the dots” has become a popular challenge. The VBS heist shows the dots of corruption connect with a much more comprehensive critique of the shallowness with which we are seeking to redress the injustices of our colonial and apartheid past.

What passes for “transformation” is its opposite: the permanence of an economic system in which transformation can never be more than elite empowerment. DM


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