The radical populism search for a uniquely South African iteration of the ethno-nationalism that is sweeping the world has been discussed in this column extensively, though not exhaustively. Generally, however, the driving force behind the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction is more a type of nostalgia for a historical moment that was missed.
To understand this historical moment, it’s important to recall the “liberation impulse” that drove indigenous movements which rose to power immediately after independence, from West Africa to Zimbabwe.
This impulse was set off by an almost immediate replacement of outgoing colonial administrators with indigenous administrators — as an end in itself. In some West African countries, Africans played little to no role in administration during the colonial era, while in other places they did — like Nigeria. In some instances, political parties had to be formed, hastily, to take their places in Parliament and/or administration.
In Niger, there was more or less an administrative class, if one may call it that. Chinua Achebe explained that Nigeria, “had some of the very best secondary schools in the British Empire. As a group, these schools were better endowed financially, had excellent amenities, and were staffed with first-rate teachers, custodians, instructors… and librarians. Of course today, [writing in 2012] under Nigerian control, these schools have fallen into disrepair, and are nothing like they were in their heyday.” (See, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, p 20).
In general, however, decolonisation in post-war Africa followed a path of dependence that began with ridding the country of Europeans or “non-Africans” by various means of coercion and consent and replacing each and every administrative position with an indigenous person. That was all that was necessary.
They want complete control of everything — nothing less
For most early African independence movements, nothing beyond total control of every aspect of society became an end in itself. As it turned out, it was necessary, but insufficient. Over the two or three decades that followed, Africa’s political economic decline drove individual countries, from Egypt to Zimbabwe, into the arms of institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and began to rely on aid, grants, loans and concessionary funds. Many independent African countries were soon caught in a poisonous web of conditionalities, or debt traps — or both.
It became clear, after the East Asian Tigers took a pathway from the periphery of the global political economy, that Africa was lagging behind — quite seriously. One striking example is the poverty in which most Angolans live — despite its oil resources — while its immediate post-independence leaders (and their children) became stupendously wealthy. We can go up and down Africa and find similar patterns of corruption and maladministration. Since independence there have also been at least 40 coups, coup attempts or insurrections, with a handful of irredentist and secessionist claims.
But none of this matters; this is the “new” trajectory the RET faction seems to strive for. They want to turn the clock back, in a manner of speaking, to the start of African independence, and follow the path of all African countries, from Ghana to Angola, and devil take the hindmost. This would certify us, as it were, as Africans… Africa belongs to Africans, and “non-Africans” are not welcome. Whether it’s the pieds-noirs of Algeria (which included great thinkers like Albert Camus, Louis Althusser or Jacques Derrida), Indians in Uganda and Kenya, or white farmers in Zimbabwe.
This was followed by the nationalisation of everything, losing control of inflation and macroeconomic stability, and to hell with expansion of industrial or manufacturing. African leaders now had their countries and they could do with them as they wished with naught for the comfort of the people.
More than 60 years since the start of independence in Africa, the continent is home to the greatest poverty, hunger, need and displacement in the world, with some of the most corrupt governments, corporations and piracy — as in the Niger Delta. Only now, in this third decade of the 21st century, are there references to “green shoots”.
Democratic South Africa has tried to avoid path dependence
At the outset of South Africa’s democracy, a small group of people — let us for convenience refer to them as the Cabinet’s economic transformation committee — concluded that the country was fortunate. While the economy that the new government inherited was already on its knees, the ruling alliance could learn from and avoid the mistakes that most post-independent African countries made over 40 to 50 years.
Democratic South Africa could avoid the path dependence that led African countries to the theatre of failed states, fragile states, hollowed-out states and states that suffered more coups than rainfall. The imaginary Cabinet committee of the late 1990s plugged into the global political economy (with all its flaws) that was different from the world of 1960 — the year of African independence.
This is a problem for the RET faction. Never mind the fact that the liberal capitalism that blossomed in the 1990s collapsed horribly in 2008, the RET faction wants to discard all the progress in thinking, evidence and fresh ideas and approaches that have emerged from clearer thinkers since about 2000, and reset the country in a twisted, almost Pol Pot or Maoist way, to Africa’s Year Zero — the year of independence, 1960.
They are quite comfortable about making the same mistakes that were made by African leaders from Kwame Nkrumah to Robert Mugabe and Jacob Zuma — as long as it does not include “non-Africans” and gives all power to the party, it’s perfectly acceptable.
The Constitution, a document that took into consideration domestic and global factors, and grounded itself in late capitalist reality by presenting a social democratic impetus, is not good enough because it does not include getting rid of South Africa’s pieds noirs (those referred to as “non-Africans” or “non-African blacks”). The Constitution also does not include rapine, revenge and pogroms against “non-Africans” — and this really gets the RET faction angry, never mind their quite transparent pretences of “non-racialism”. They can’t hate whites because Carl Niehaus is their best friend. Hau!
That poverty and inequality are structural phenomena with fundamentally social and historical origins is ignored. That the world is going through one of the greatest shifts in global realignment seems to be beyond comprehension. That the globalisation of finance, pari passu with the expansion of information and communications technology (and the dangers this presents) are not worth considering. That robotics and artificial intelligence threaten jobs at one level, and stand to alter work patterns on another level, has to be ignored because we remain hostage to ideologies that are as useful to the masses of unemployed as a dried carbuncle in the gluteal fold of a 4,000-year-old mummy.
All that matters to the RET faction is that they want to start at the beginning. They want to go back to the 1950s when countries like Sudan (1957) became independent, and follow the passages of independence. Through a questionable interpretation of syncretism they may want to do all of the above without giving up on trappings of consumer capitalist culture; the latest luxury automobiles, gaudiness, kitsch and the banalities so dear to the nouveau riche.
Yet, the RET faction would probably insist, as did Frantz Fanon (who in RET parlance would have been a “non-African” black) that violence may be “therapeutic”. We should probably not be surprised when “isolated incidents” of arson, banditry, kidnappings and assassinations amount to large-scale domestic conflict in the coming months and years. DM