/ 30 May 2018

At Brics think tank, scholars get drunk on their own rhetoric

Two months from now
Two months from now

Naomi Klein remarked that a think tank is a group of people paid to think by the people who control the tanks. Here in Johannesburg, one of South Africa’s highest-profile intellectual vehicles appears to be a victim of drunken driving by scholars from whom we otherwise expect much stronger political navigation skills.

In the central business district of Sandton, a large gathering of state-funded intellectuals (staying at the five-star Intercontinental Hotel) is conferencing in heart-warmingly hedonistic style, replete with national Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (Brics) songs and dances. The Brics Academic Forum and SA Brics Think Tankmeeting, winding up on May 31, must be South African scholars’ most expensive event of the year, in spite of the theme Envisioning Inclusive Development through a Socially Responsive Economy.

The mandate from Higher Education and Training Minister Naledi Pandor’s opening speech was framed with unabashed talk-left ideology, regardless of obvious walk-right realities. She asked academics to “develop a collaborative set of interventions that advances the agenda of the bloc. The Brics formation is one that is based on a progressive view of how the world should develop; and the world is in need of progressive ideas, of ideas that come from issues of social justice and inclusion.”

Advancing that agenda actually entails avoidance of major class contradictions within and between the Brics, and between the Brics and Africa, especially host South Africa’s rampant corporate and state corruption. The point, according to Brics facilitator Anil Sooklal, deputy director-general of Pretoria’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco), is state-business-intellectual “synergy”:

“We found that the Think Tank and Academic Forum is working in one compartment, and our business [sector] was working in another compartment, and government in another compartment. So we took the initiative to bring them all together.”

But, as the gathering this week illustrates, being embedded within a state-corporate power and funding system — at a time the National Research Foundation is cutting back drastically on scholars’ research subsidies — risks transmission of the worst disease intellectuals can catch: failure of analytical nerve.

For the Brics Academic Forum is occurring in a Johannesburg neighbourhood where, regular PricewaterhouseCoopers studies show, “eight out of ten senior managers commit economic crime”, within a country that PwC regularly rates as having the world’s most corrupt bourgeoisie.

Brics-from-above rots from the public-private head

Two months from now, Brics political rulers Michel Temer (Brazil), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Narendra Modi (India) and Xi Jinping (China) will join host president Cyril Ramaphosa, also at the Sandton Convention Centre. Each of their governments exudes an overwhelming stench of malfeasance.

Last November, to take just one example, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ “Paradise Papers” revealed secretive tax haven activities by these presidents or their close associates. While Temer and Putin may be most profoundly exposed, Ramaphosa himself has been implicated by investigative journalists in massive illicit financial flows via mining houses Lonmin and Shanduka which he owned, and cellphone giant MTN which he chaired.

The local Brics Business Council will convene simultaneously in late July, led by controversial “Fourth Industrial Revolution” proponent Iqbal Survé, who succeeded disgraced Eskom boss Brian Molefe as Council head last year. Survé’s Independent newspaper chain carries non-stop cheery news about the Brics, especially his Council leadership.Three of the four other Council members are Transnet’s Siyabonga Gama, Aspen Pharmaceutical’s Stavros Nicolaou and Mediterranean Shipping Company’s Sello Rasethaba. All acquired prolific wealth amidst very serious charges of tender fraud (Survé, Gama and Rasethaba), price fixing (Nicolaou), Gupta-denialism (Gama), spying on anti-corruption whistle-blowers (Gama), and even sexual harassment in the course of Brics-related travel duties (Rasethaba).

The Business Council was founded in March 2013, when the Brics heads-of-state summit came to Durban. As its enthusiastic chair, Molefe pronounced, “Our overarching goal as the SA Brics Business Council is, therefore, to bring tangible projects to fruition more quickly and to strengthen the interface between the governments and private sectors of the Brics economies.”

Before losing his job running Eskom in 2016 due to the Gupta brothers’ bribery scandals, in which he became one of the country’s reviled officials, Molefe was chief executive of Transnet. During the 2013 Brics summit, he signed a high-profile $5 billion loan from the China Development Bank to pay for Durban port improvements and new locomotives.

Yet, as investigative journalists at amaBhungane reported, “Transnet bought seven of the world’s most expensive port cranes because its Chinese state-owned supplier [Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries] inflated the price to pay off the Guptas,” and then the South China Rail supplier of locomotives gave 21% kickbacks to the Guptas worth more than $400-million.

This rancid state-corporate nexus can be termed “Brics from above”. In contrast, there are four active networks we might call “Brics from the middle”. For although many (not all) intellectuals in Sandton this week seek ideological pro-Brics synergy with the big boys, the Brics Academic Forum members actually fit rather more comfortably within the upward-gazing Brics Trade Union Forum, Brics Youth and a ‘Civil Brics’ network driven by NGOs.

All retain a generally positive attitude about promoting the Brics bloc. None dare mention the specific stains of corruption spreading all around them. And all were told by Dirco in no uncertain terms that their messaging must be provided in the form of polite policy ‘asks,’ spelled out at least a month before the Brics summit. That way their ideas can be integrated into the formal agenda, with no distracting counter-summits or protests in late July to compete for the media’s and society’s attention. (Those are left to traditional brics-from-below gatherings which since 2013 in Durban have offered constructive critique, and which in 2018 will be hosted by the United Front–Johannesburg under the slogan Break the Brics.)

Against mental colonialism

To be sure, unbridled pro-Brics dishonesty is simply impossible in this extreme context, and some of the intellectuals gathered in Sandton are often critical of existing regimes. SA Brics Think Tank chair Ari Sitas, a University of Cape Town sociologist, even cited a Russian interview with Brazilian philosopher-lawyer Roberto Mangabeira Unger:

“Our whole tendency is to accept the general blueprint of the market economy imported from the North Atlantic world and then to compromise it or qualify it with elements of state capitalism, political authoritarianism and compensatory social democracy – that is what we do. It is a set of compromises, qualifications and evasions, rather than strong national projects. We lack these projects.”

Unger continued with an autocritique that should make the Sandton set squirm:

“Not only we have political and plutocratic elites that subordinate national interests to the self-serving objectives, but in the midst of all our bluster about national self-searching we are all tainted by mental colonialism. What is shocking to see in these countries is that the intelligentsia and the political elites are to a very large extent servile, they are submissive to the intellectual fashions and alternatives that are imported from the Academy of the North Atlantic countries.”

For a while, at least prior to 2015, such fashions included the idea that a united Brics would offer a genuine challenge to imperial power. But by mid-2017 when the Chinese hosted similar gatherings of academics and civil society, there were such intense geopolitical and economic conflicts between Beijing and New Delhi that Modi nearly boycotted the Brics heads-of-state summit, as he had done the Belt & Road Initiative conference four months’ earlier.

Perhaps serving as a precedent for the Sandton meeting, a Quanzhou seminar of Brics intellectuals last August, at the time tensions were hottest, “paid little attention to the ongoing India-China military stand-off” on the Bhutan border, remarked Observer Research Foundation chairperson Sudheendra Kulkarni: “Obviously, the Chinese hosts did not want a divisive bilateral issue to get any kind of focus in the midst of deliberations at a Brics seminar.”

Reflecting servility to local power, many of South Africa’s state-funded intellectuals and commentators remain pro-Brics, albeit in often schizophrenic ways. At the extreme end of this spectrum, the most actively ‘anti-imperialist’ voices are those of Gayton McKenzie – whose Brics chapter in the book Kill Zuma by Any Means Necessary last December loyally provided the Zuma narrative – as well as Black First Land First and Black Opinion ezine.

According to these (generally pro-Gupta) analysts, Cyril Ramaphosa is a Western-oriented saboteur of Brics in the same way that current Brazilian president Temer arranged a coup and prison sentence, respectively, against his two predecessors from the Workers Party, Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and Lula da Silva in 2018. The Mail & Guardian recently quoted an unnamed Dirco official, suggesting that Ramaphosa “is warming up to the West, almost recalibrating our relations to focus on the West because those are his friends, at the expense of Brics … It’s almost like Zuma had put all his eggs in that [Brics] basket.”

A similar tale was spun by Zuma himself in 2017, in a weirdly personalised way: “I was poisoned and almost died just because South Africa joined Brics under my leadership.” (There is no hard evidence for this, only gossip about a link to an alleged CIA agent.)

This conspiratorial crew have Sandton scholarly allies when they assert that the Brics are actively undermining Washington’s power over global finance and geopolitics. The Brics Academic Forum program profiled an abstract by University of Zululand historian Maxwell Shamase claiming:

“Brics calls for the democratisation of the interstate system and opposes Western and US dominance of global governance … Most scholars do indeed agree that Brics have rejected the dominant political economy paradigms of the liberal order, including a market-oriented regulatory system, fiscal austerity and comprehensive liberalisation of trade.”

(Sadly, it turns out that the confident words above were not originally Shamase’s, they were borrowed verbatim without attribution from a Delhi think thank, the Observer Research Foundation. But this was not an instance of South-South solidaristic resonance: they were actually penned in 2015 by idealistic Finnish PhD student Marko Juutinen and his colleague Jyrki Käkönen. And yet, as it became increasingly obvious that Brics did not actually reject the dominant neoliberal world order, Juutinen reversed himself last September: “The Brics on one hand seek to promote some form of pluralism in the international arena, and on the other do not seem to offer an alternative.”

Residual anti-imperial fantasy

In another example of dubious Sandton scholarship, one of South Africa’s most insightful tech analysts, Rasagan Maharajh from Tshwane University of Technology, has gone on record advocating a Brics alternative to the Western-controlled internet, albeit with not a single mention of Beijing’s extreme surveillance, censorship, active net repression and official Orwellian ‘social credit’ attempts at citizens’ behaviour modification – the latter carried out by Tencent, in which the Sandton scholars have made large investments (as have all of us with JSE pension portfolios, via Naspers).

In the same spirit, regarding climate change, Maharajh wrote in the Brics Academic Review (a new journal launched in Sandton this week), “the Brics are resolute in their efforts to continue to meet this commitment [to the Paris Climate Accord]… and have all indicated plans to moderate their own developmental expansions and curb their respective emissions.”

Maharajh must be excluding from consideration the extreme carbon-addicted features of South Africa’s National Development Plan.

In his Brics Academic Review contribution, even the progressive economist Seeraj Mohamed spreads the fairy dust:“Brics countries should continue to push for reform that gives increased voice, democracy and accountability to the International Financial Institutions.”

In reality, the Brics have been doing exactly the opposite. The December 2015 Brics countries’ increase in IMF voting shares (China up by 37%, Brazil 23%, India 11% and Russia 8%) occurred at the expense of Nigeria and Venezuela, which both lost 41% of their votes, and even South Africa lost 21%, with a dozen more in between. (The five Brics IMF directors joined the West’s in endorsing a second term for managing director Christine Lagarde, reaffirmed the day after she was convicted of negligence in a €400-million corruption prosecution at her prior job as French finance minister.)

It is important to cite the likes of Maharajh and Mohamed here —because they are usually very sensible, comradely analysts (i.e., they’re among the best thinkers, not the most hackish), which suggests that because of their urgency to promote the Brics, those in the academic consultancy zone twist and turn from interpreting what is in reality a “sub-imperial” relationship with the West into an anti-imperial fantasy.