South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma looks on as his new cabinet members are sworn in.
There is no such thing as “radical economic transformation”. This meaningless phrase is now almost as much a part of our South African lexicon as koeksister, chisa nyama, commission of inquiry and Nkandla.
The fact that you can use a word or a phrase with confidence or with gay abandon does not prove that the word or phrase has meaning. Doing so is sometimes simply proof that the more you say something the more you internalise the false belief that you are speaking clearly.
I marvel, for example, at how ANC comrades have entire conferences about phrases such as “the national question”. But, despite some of these folks having been around since the Last Supper, none of them that I have asked can ever give me analytic clarity about the meaning of this ubiquitous ANC phrase.
Then I remind myself of the principle of charity that one should apply in dialogue with others, and therefore guarding against what philosopher Lewis Gordon refers to as “disciplinary decadence” — the anti-intellectual expectation that your own academic discipline’s norms must apply to all other subjects and disciplines, including rules about what it means for words or phrases to be adequately defined. And then I try to grapple anew with vague words and phrases.
For at least 10 years now I have grappled with popular words and phrases such as “ubuntu” and “the national question”. I may have to give up soon. Life’s too short.
This brings me to the latest such phrase that I outright refuse to grapple with. I am referring to “radical economic transformation”. It truly is a bit of gibberish that should not be taken seriously.
A functional analysis of the purpose the phrase serves is far more important than pretending the term has genuine meaning. Therefore, we should start by unmasking the intent behind the phrase’s usage, especially when uttered by the likes of President Jacob Zuma.
Zuma, despite laughing at us whenever he gets the chance, is not superhuman. He is merely human. He has to have regard for social and political facts that constrain his wily ways.
He is under pressure from multiple fronts. He is under pressure from the South African Communist Party, factions in the ANC, many academics, writers and segments of the media, tens of thousands of democratically minded citizens organised through civil society vehicles and other groupings who see his departure as a precondition for the country to try anew to realise its potential.
Zuma has many allies, but he is also losing them faster than the rand is losing value. He has to try both to reward his remaining allies and to ensnare some of his critics.
This is where the invention of the phrase “radical economic transformation” comes into play. It is a meaningless phrase whose function is to persuade allies in the left of the alliance that he, Zuma, is still committed to fighting economic injustices inherent in a neoliberal, capitalist economic order.
When the youth, trade unions and communists helped Zuma to ascend to power in Polokwane in 2007, they were hoping that his election to the highest position in the party and in the country would usher in a decade of economic justice.
The left was optimistic. It thought that exploited workers’ demands in many sectors, from mining to agriculture, for a more equitable distribution of the value extracted from these sectors would be championed by an interventionist state led by Zuma.
The left thought that inequality would be reduced and economic growth would not be assumed to be a sufficient metric to focus on in dealing inequality a deadly blow.
The left had hoped that the back of neoliberal economic policies would be broken. Zuma, unlike the pipe-smoking cadre with his English education who came before him, was the great hope for a “radical” overhaul of an unjust economy.
Political freedom would be expanded to include economic democracy. It was a romantic vision born of the frustration of several years of jobless growth and trickle-up black economic non-transformation policies under Thabo Mbeki.
Zuma, we now know, turned out to be a disaster so horrifically bad that if Zuma and Mbeki were to run for president of the country tomorrow in a makeshift election, the likes of Blade Nzimande and Zwelinzima Vavi would have nightmares about who to vote for. They would probably abstain or cross the border into a place called exile.
Zuma thinks that by using meaningless phrases such as “radical economic transformation” he can regain the historic Polokwane moment. This foolish man does not accept that his time has expired.
We are simply experiencing a painfully inelegant final movie scene that the directors should have cut 30 minutes ago. The directors, also known as the national executive committee of the ANC, are hamstrung by self-serving creative differences.
If Zuma wanted to transform the economy radically, he should have done so from 2009. He had the power all along. But he failed because he never gave a damn about anyone other than himself, his family and his handlers.