Masses lulled by South Africa’s wealthy and powerful

It would be both pitiful and absurd for a slave to adore their master, right? One would be reasonably astounded by a miner who celebrates the shareholders who thrive on his exploitation or a domestic worker who weaves apologies for the abuses of their boss. 

Counterintuitive as it may seem, history has demonstrated that oppressive classes have a cunning ability to convince those they dominate to identify with and defend their power. In post-apartheid South Africa the minds of the oppressed remain a mighty weapon in the hands of old and new oppressors. 

Last week, Shauwn Mkhize, businesswoman and Durban socialite, appeared on the cover of TrueLove magazine. She posed beside her son, Andile Mpisane, both commanding an air of regal opulence. In societies where extravagant wealth guarantees access to avenues of power, multi-millionaires such as Mkhize enjoy the status of royalty. 

Strangely, unlike the aristocracies of Europe, and somehow in an age of unprecedented inequality, South Africa’s elite are adorned by naive praise and their supremacy is sustained by the ill-informed support of those they rule. 

Mkhize was convicted of fraud in 2011. Her company, Zikhulise Cleaning, Maintenance and Transport, had failed to provide quality RDP homes to thousands of people in Umlazi, despite being awarded a tender of R219-million by the eThekwini metro municipality. In October 2020, because of her debt of R204-million to the South African Revenue Service, her company was liquidated and Mkhize still battles accusations of tax evasion.

Despite this, Mkhize was the star of her own popular reality TV show, where she constantly displayed the decadent glamour and excesses of her wealth. She has also been on numerous radio stations, podcasts and news channels, who portray her as an ingenious entrepreneur and allow her to use the rhetoric of black economic empowerment.

The generally uncritical exaltation of individuals such as Patrice Motsepe, Pieter Groenewald, Herman Mashaba, Ace Magashule, John Steenhuisen, Jacob Zuma, Julius Malema represents a threat to South Africa’s future. Parasitic elites — economic and political — have conducted a grand seduction of the South African people. Deterred from comprehending the nature of power, its use and distribution, citizens have been deceived into acting against their own interests. 

This subtle deception works towards multiple ends. It reinforces volatile divisions through scapegoating and the creation of false enemies. 

Second, it meticulously conceals the roots of our various socioeconomic crises. Third, it diverts attention from those issues towards unproductive cultural wars while fooling millions into thinking that those in pursuit of power share the interests of most other citizens. 

Perhaps the most insidious work of this deception is in how it stifles the radical potential of democracy by bleeding people of their agency, promising that South Africa can be renewed only if more power is given to Machiavellian masterminds and not directed towards the masses of people. 

One may accuse me of hyperbole and populism by using the term elites. Such a criticism emanates from the delusional belief that we live in a social order free from an unjustified and unsustainable hierarchy. Power can be understood as the ability to make meaningful choices and actions that affect society. 

For power to be effectively practised not only must external conditions be hospitable but one needs some form of leverage. In other words, one must possess the means to exercise power in the image of their interests. Unfortunately external conditions do not favour most people. Mass unemployment, pervasive poverty and the growing storm of financial precarity plunge millions into relentless struggles for survival. 

The structures of popular mobilisation, once subversive, vibrant and determined, have been disassembled. And those few that remain must constantly combat brutal repression from the state and private security forces. 

These conditions mean that politics is deprioritised for many and it is diluted into theatre acted out by the privileged. 

It is undoubtedly clear that the majority of citizens are powerless, living in demoralising environments and don’t have the means to make key decisions in our social order. But the minority, who privately command our economy, and their political counterparts, who debate, design and implement policy alongside legislation, do indeed use such power. 

The recent local government elections displayed how elites deceptively use their power. Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA gained significant victories. 

The party projects an image of rational centrism, claiming they can unlock the country’s true potential through market friendly policies and effective, principled leadership. 

But it was Mashaba’s infamous xenophobia that catapulted him onto the national stage. Aware that citizens are desperate and enraged by economic dysfunction, the likes of Mashaba preach that only when we banish undocumented migrants (who are blamed for all our social ills) can the country undergo renewal. The scapegoating of migrants is an old tactic of right-wingers lusting for power. 

In a country with history of routine xenophobic violence, anti-migrant rhetoric is a lethal game. Moreover, the scapegoating of migrants overlooks the true causes of our various crises. It was not Nigerians or Pakistanis who looted state funds this past decade; it was a regime of systemic corruption led by state bureaucrats, private sector actors and career politicians. 

Unemployment is not the fault of migrants who are accused of stealing jobs, but the outcome of a capitalist economy that was never designed for full employment and the unresolved legacy of Bantu Education. Xenophobia misdiagnoses our problems and justifies the violent persecution of people who come from nations and lived experiences similar to our own. 

Realising that some in their voter base did not appreciate the liberalism supposedly embraced by the Democratic Alliance, the party has, in the past year, indulged in hollow identity politics. While the residents of Phoenix in KwaZulu-Natal were trying to heal tensions unleashed by anti-black violence in the July riots, DA leaders erected two posters that loudly implied that those who harassed, assaulted and killed innocent civilians were heroes. 

Insulting the victims, the DA exploited racial animosity to gain votes. Like the Freedom Front Plus, the DA’s leadership seem determined to go on a crusade against the relatively progressive policy proposals and ideas necessary to move South Africa into a just and prosperous future. 

By opposing affirmative action, condemning the bogeyman of “wokeness” and advocating a weak non-racialism, the DA fools some white citizens into thinking our society can move towards a better future without confronting racial injustice, in its social and economic form. 

The Economic Freedom Fighters speak the language of socialism when it is politically expedient. Leading up to the local government elections, the party gave abaThembu King Dalindyebo a Mercedes-Benz SUV worth R1.8-million and in return the king promised the voting support of his nation. 

Besides the fact the king is a convicted criminal (charged with attempted murder, kidnapping and fraud), it is incomprehensible that a socialist party would lend support to a thoroughly undemocratic institution such as the monarchy. 

Socialism seeks to radically expand democracy, not subvert the will of people to autocratic leaders. Considering that traditional leaders in numerous rural areas exploit their power to abuse their subjects, many of whom are locked into poverty, it’s deeply disappointing that a supposedly socialist party would waste millions appeasing a despotic institution. 

It must never be forgotten that those who possess power must justify their right to wield it over others. Observing the actions of South Africa’s elite, one must ask whose interests they serve. 

If our leaders consistently prove themselves to be ineffective, self-serving, dishonest and void of progressive vision, South Africa must remove them as an obstacle to a better future. But such a process can only begin when people reclaim their minds and transform their consciousness. 

There are active enemies of our society. But they are not other racial groups, nor are they migrants, protesters in townships, students energised by social justice and women who refused to be terrorised by male dominance. 

One can argue with confidence that most South Africans have similar interests: job security, good schools for their children, safety in their homes and neighbourhoods, freedom from exhausting and exploitative labour, and to have the means alongside opportunity to develop their full human potential. 

Recognising that most of us share the same aspirations and suffer under the same economic order — managed by a class of insensate politicians — can be the foundation for mass solidarity.

The external conditions are dire but, through collective organising and mutual support, South Africans can build power and reclaim their agency. 

It has always been the great masses of people who, in responding to harsh and seemingly insurmountable conditions, alter the course of history.

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Andile Zulu
Andile Zulu is a political essayist who runs the Born Free Blues blog.

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