In times of political instability incoherent narratives abound, facts are twisted in the service of narrow interests and misinformation flourishes. The polarising debates over the recent arrest of former president Jacob Zuma are a case in point.
Did Zuma’s arrest signify a victory for the forces of white monopoly capital in the ANC? Are some black people naively rejoicing at the unjust imprisonment of a revolutionary leader?
In Chapter 3 of The Wretched of the Earth (1961), titled The Pitfalls of National Consciousness, Frantz Fanon provides a prophetic analysis of how the leaders of anticolonial movements, once having achieved political independence, fail to transform hopes for freedom into reality.
South Africa has become a manifestation of Fanon’s tragic prophecy. Jacob Zuma is no revolutionary or progressive leader and to claim so is to disembowel the meaning of the term. But President Cyril Ramaphosa is not the righteous midwife of a new dawn either. Both leaders have been pivotal actors in policy choices and political battles that have left South Africa to stagnate in a state of permanent socioeconomic crisis. Where they differ is in their strategies for amassing illegitimate power.
Both leaders, and the party to which they belong, are powerful members of a class that lives only for itself to sustain an economic order in which it enjoys prosperity. Citizens whom the ANC once served have been left to drown in destitution and despair.
The ANC has become a postcolonial disappointment, evolving into what Fanon described as the “national bourgeoisie”, a class disinterested in and incapable of leading South Africa through the radical change it urgently requires. This class encompasses the ANC, chiefs and kings, some trade union leaders, the chief executives of state-owned enterprises and actors in the private sector, black and white.
Why has the ANC, in particular, undergone such rapid decay? The party’s failures are not solely the result of its collective moral impotence or because of the greed of individuals. Too much significance is poured into the actions of individuals in mainstream political commentary.
Here Fanon’s ingenious stretching of Marxist theory becomes useful. His political analysis begins by asking questions about the material conditions and historical processes at work in settler-colonial states such as our own. He concludes the fundamental error of the national bourgeoisie is its inability to change the mode of production that enabled imperialism to assert its power over native populations.
What is a mode of production? It describes all that goes into producing life’s necessities, including the means through which these necessities are produced (raw minerals, farming, factories, human labour) and the social order that regulates our relationships to an economy’s organisation (legislation, family, culture, the state).
Sociologist Bernard Magubane’s work on the sources of racial inequality shines a light onto our dilemma today. In South Africa, as in all imperial territories, colonialism organised an economy around the accumulation of land and raw resources in tandem with capitalism developing an imperative to brutally exploit black labour.
The political defeat of apartheid, a tremendous victory for its victims, left the ANC with a contradiction it has yet to resolve: political freedom now exists in tense congress with an economy still centred around the exploitation of cheap black labour.
For millions this means the experience of their inherent human rights is limited. Citizens are free from the political oppression and restraints of recent history, but they are not free to realise their personal ambitions, not free to consistently secure their basic needs, not free to rejoice in life’s most meaningful pleasures because they lack the means to do so. Freedom as both right and capacity is a privilege distributed along class lines in post-apartheid South Africa.
The ANC’s compromises during the transition to democracy cemented this contradiction. Whether a result of external pressures (the fear of scaring off capital and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ANC’s largest benefactor) or as Fanon would suggest, the ANC lacking “a dynamic, transformative character”, what is clear 27 years later is that Mandela’s ANC agreed to far too many economic concessions.
Fanon predicted and was already witnessing how leaders of liberation struggles took over the colonial state, but were reluctant to restructure its economy in service of its people. He foresaw how the redistribution of wealth, the broad expansion of social security and sustainable economic productivity would be deprioritised.
History has vindicated these predictions. Since claiming executive power, the ANC has subscribed and never significantly diverted from neoliberal orthodoxy. Its economic governance reduced corporate and high income tax, supported low wages and privatisation, maintained an extractive minerals industry, hollowed out state capacity to deliver services and stayed committed to austerity measures.
The ANC functions not as a vehicle for a “national democratic revolution” as it claims, but rather, in the words of Fanon, as “intermediaries between capitalism and the post-colony”.
This attachment to an economic ideology that has ravaged societies worldwide is delusional and the results of its implementation are clear. Colossal inequality in the distribution of wealth, therefore power, manifests as escalating levels of crime and drug abuse, service delivery protests, deepening poverty, impunity for crimes by elites and elusive justice for their victims, and a burgeoning mental health crisis among the youth.
A shared class interest in maintaining our economic order does not mean there is consensus within the ANC on how this should be achieved. We have seen two major camps emerging: Ramaphosa’s so-called “thuma mina” faction and the radical economic transformation forces exemplified by Zuma.
The calls for radical economic transformation within the ANC are hollow, vague appeals to an economic radicalism the party has never embraced in its policies. Zuma was correct in his description of the economy as still residing mostly in white hands. But his presidency did nothing to challenge these racialised patterns of ownership.
Corporate monopolies, particularly within the supermarket industry, were not confronted, worsening food insecurity. Measures of wealth redistribution were not undertaken by any of Zuma’s finance ministers through taxation or attempts to constrain capital flight. The little wealth gathered through taxation was not reinvested in the economy but stolen. Land reform continued to be hindered by incompetence or mostly benefited a small elite of black commercial farmers and chiefs. The country witnessed the violent suppression of protests, the assassination and harassment of grassroots activists, and we can never forget the killing of miners in Marikana by the state under a Zuma presidency.
Instead, his rhetorical crusade against white capital functioned as a deceptive justification for accumulating wealth through the state on behalf of those who, due to the legacy of racial inequality, cannot find financial success in the private sector. Fanon describes this as “the transfer into native hands of those unfair advantages which are the legacy of the colonial period”.
The placement of black people in positions of power must not become the horizon of our ambitions. Such ambitions do not automatically usher in liberatory transformation.
If the basis of our economy is the exploitation of black labour, white monopoly capital is not the primary concern. The central problem is an economic system that allows power to be amassed by a minority of people through the private ownership of resources, forcing the majority to work for survival, without a fair share in the wealth their work creates.
The class project of corruption has enriched a few at the expense of the state’s corrosion. Twenty-one million people do not have clean water, healthcare facilities are overburdened, hundreds of thousands live in the dark enduring constant electricity cuts and our education system is not only dysfunctional but anchored to outmoded methods of learning and skill acquisition.
The ironic tragedy of systemic corruption is the ascendancy of Ramaphosa’s faction, which justifies austerity, privatisation and outdated models of economic growth led by markets (policies that have a legacy of hurting the poor and working class) due to the floundering of state capacity. We are not entangled in a battle between angels and devils. Rather our communities, livelihoods and futures are being destroyed by a class project that cannot look beyond its own self-preservation.
I’ll end with a slight adjustment of Fanon’s words: “The ANC, instead of being an all-embracing crystallisation of the innermost hopes of the people, will be in any case an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been”.