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Bourgeois delusions get my goat

The primary decolonisation I support is the one where we take our heads out of our own, er, colons …

As Achille Mbembe has pointed out, the current trope of “decolonisation” is “a psychic state more than a political project”.

That’s part of what is making me grumpy.

He notes, too, that the chief purveyors of this new identity politics, defined by the pain of blackness and the injury of whiteness, are the emerging black middle class: those whose actual resources to surmount the obstacles of history and bigotry are the greatest among the ranks of the disadvantaged.

They are relatively advantaged in ways their parents could only dream of, yet their preoccupations are narcissistic at best. At worst – Jimmy Manyi comes to mind – they are cynically determined to preserve the black economic empowerment (BEE) trough that supports the narrow materialist elite to which they belong or aspire.

As others, such as Gareth van Onselen, have pointed out, this trope is profoundly anti-rational in that it privileges feeling over reason as a basis for political engagement.

Part of the effect of this approach is that it neatly avoids dealing with logical consequences, which makes it possible to present what is essentially a wish list as a viable policy choice, without regard for the uncomfortable compromises that reality imposes.

As a grumpy white male, you get “shamed” by “black Twitter” if you point this out. I came up against this issue when, in a moment of impetuousness, I commented on Richard Spoor’s unflattering extemporising about the reason for the predominance of white males in his legal team that is set to take on the major mining groups in a bid to get them to pay damages to poor miners afflicted with lung disease.

I was berated (relatively gently, I must say) for the unreconstructed nature of my supposedly insulting assumptions about black excellence.

My problem is that the proponents of this view hold two parallel positions that do not mesh.

The one, with which I agree, is that centuries of discrimination and disadvantage continue to have an effect on the lives of black South Africans here and now – and conversely that white people are advantaged: structurally, financially, socially, psychologically.

The other position, which appears to be held by those who complained about Spoor, is that we should ignore the effect of black disadvantage on the one hand – and white privilege on the other – when making choices about who is fit for purpose in a particular situation.

Those positions seem to me to be logically incompatible. This is not to argue that there is no space for affirmative action, merely that real world trade-offs have to be made.

Spoor’s position seemed to be that in the high-stakes case in which he was engaged, the interests of his poor clients came first – and his own cost-benefit analysis is what drove the selection of his team.

That still seems to me to be a defensible position.

To take another example: it would be nice to have more black pilots flying the flag at SAA, but the pool of black graduates meeting the mathematics requirements and having the enormous cash reserves needed to train as a pilot is vanishingly small.

SAA has been so poorly managed that it can no longer afford its cadet pilot programme, which understandably gave preference to black candidates.

This problem – as in every area of transformation – represents a policy conundrum.

Resources are finite. Choices have to be made about how much effort and cash to put into the input side (the education system that produces such poor results) or the output side, such as by putting resources into special assistance programmes for black graduates (already relatively privileged) who want to be pilots.

Of course, it’s not an either/or proposition, but there are consequences for the policy choices we make – and not talking about them won’t make them go away.

Another aspect of the decolonisation trope’s reluctance to engage with reality is its ahistoricism.

The complaint that the ANC “sold out” in 1994 – and that Nelson Mandela pursued reconciliation and an accommodation with white capital out of some misguided sentimentality – is another species of the current predilection for political fantasy.

The same people who rightly condemn the West for destroying flawed but functional states in Iraq, Libya and Syria seem incapable of recognising that it was in everyone’s interest for a transfer of power in South Africa to take place in a way that preserved a capable state, a functioning bureaucracy and an intact economy.

Mandela recognised that white South Africans controlled significant social, economic and political capital.

You could try to take it away from them by force, with a serious risk of destroying the entire infrastructure needed for reconstruction, or you could try to persuade them to contribute to building a better nation.

It’s not that there was too much reconciliation, it’s that there was too little.

Thabo Mbeki frittered away the social contract that Mandela built with white South Africa by pursuing the em-bourgeoisement of a black stratum, mainly in his own political interests and largely by allowing this elite to feed off the state.

In doing so, he created a culture of corruption that is now systemic.

Both Mbeki and the ANC underestimated the importance, the difficulty and the unsexy detail of maintaining and building a capable state, by which I mean a functional engine to drive the social and developmental contract.

To our credit we negotiated terms of ceasefire – a constitutional democracy – that was intended to transcend the categories of victory and defeat and instead set out a common road map to a better future.

Set against that, however, were two destructive imperatives central to the political philosophy of the ANC: the impulse to exercise control and the conception of transformation as a narrow nationalist project. These have both been pursued with a criminal hubris.

There was a brazenly articulated project to insert a parallel “government” of ANC cadres through deployment, which would supposedly allow the state to be controlled and directed outside the formal rules of hierarchy and accountability established by law.

The ANC has not taken nation-building seriously – at least since the departure of Mandela. By that I mean it has not understood some basics about statecraft, such as:

  • The state is the most important vehicle for rational redistribution – the reallocation of social goods in the interests of society as a whole;
  • For the state to function, you need a functional bureaucracy;
  • You cannot “manage” or “direct” complex processes; you have to build systems and institutions that operate independently;
  • Institutions cannot function simultaneously in the interests of medium-term state goals and in the interests of short-term personal or party gain, factional or otherwise;
  • Institutional independence, skills, culture and memory are important;
  • Implementation (in other words, outcome) is more important than policy (in other words, ideology);
  • Social and financial capital is scarce and should be protected and nurtured; and
  • Nation-building is not a zero-sum game. By this I mean violence and dispossession are likely to leave nearly everybody poorer, as we have seen in Zimbabwe, whereas persuading those with more to contribute more by demonstrating that a common benefit (peace, security, growth) can augment resources.

Under Mandela, the country started out with a programme that at least conceived of a goal of structural transformation – the RDP. Almost immediately (thanks again, Thabo) that programme was thrown out in favour of BEE, which represents an individualisation of redistribution and redress – a focus on the top of the tree, not the bottom.

There’s a famous quote about this process: “In these poor, underdeveloped countries where, according to the rule, enormous wealth rubs shoulders with abject poverty, the army and the police force form the pillars of the regime; both of which, in accordance with another rule, are advised by foreign experts.

“The national bourgeoisie sells itself increasingly openly to the major foreign companies. Foreigners grab concessions through kickbacks, scandals abound, ministers get rich, their wives become floozies, members of the legislature line their pockets, and everybody, down to police officers and customs officials, join hands in this huge caravan of corruption.”

That was philosopher Frantz Fanon, writing more than 50 years ago about the way in which the postcolonial dream descends into a nightmare.

It is hard to conceive of a policy more likely to produce a comprador bourgeoisie (a middle class that acts as an agent for foreign capital) than the racialised conception of transformation we have adopted.

This is particularly so because the state became the most immediate, most accessible source for individualised redistribution.

In its crude form, this project is colloquially expressed as the opportunity to “chow” from the body of the state – and to use this access as a patrimonial tool to accumulate and protect personal and political power.

The state is starting to look pretty damaged as a result. Eskom, SAA, the post office, the police, the prosecution service, the South African Revenue Service, the defence force, the trade union movement, and the list goes on …

The path we have chosen is hollowing out the capacity of the state to do anything, never mind anything transformative. So, what do we do?

First, I don’t think we should cede ground without a fight. That is particularly true of the state and state institutions.

We are arguing about removing statues when the building blocks of the state itself are being stolen or squandered.

And the loudest voices now are for an essentialist “nativism” that avoids taking a hard look at reality.

To borrow from Julius Malema, who reminded people in Alexandra that if all the foreigners were driven out they would still be living in shacks, the same analogy applies to when all the white professors are driven out.

The Constitution is not an unfortunate compromise forced on the black majority by the negotiating process. It represents common understanding of our finest minds of the framework that provides the best chance of a better life for all. We need to recover and defend that vision.

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Sam Sole Author
Guest Author
Sam Sole
Sam Sole works from South Africa. Journalist and managing partner of the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism. Digging dirt, fertilising democracy. Sam Sole has over 17731 followers on Twitter.

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