Andile Zulu: Sisulu obfuscates the true nature of power in South Africa

Now more than ever, it is abundantly clear that post-apartheid South Africa has been a daunting disappointment. Every day, millions endure the despair this disappointment provokes. Poverty is pervasive, brutal violence permeates our daily lives, inequality has nurtured explosive social antagonisms, politicians have become adept at criminality and incompetence while decay ensnares almost every vital institution of the state.

Who or what is to be blamed for our society’s dysfunction? A captured judiciary? Sell-out politicians? The deferral of decolonisation? White monopoly capital? In a series of opinion pieces published in January, Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu tried and dismally failed to provide an honest and useful answer to this question. 

Twenty years ago, Ronnie Kasrils, former uMkhonto weSizwe commander and cabinet minister, offered an illuminating insight that can guide us towards understanding why liberation has been stalled. “We [the ANC leadership] took an IMF loan on the eve of our first democratic election and had already imperceptibly succumbed to the guile and subtle threats of the corporate world which had been chipping away at revolutionary resolve for some years … We walked into that in the misguided belief that there was no other option … Doubt at the time had come to reign supreme: doubt that there was no other way … Moving to control the heights of the economy would have placed us in a position to truly turn things around … to lose nerve, go belly-up, was neither necessary nor inevitable … Instead we chickened out.”

Ten years after Kasrils made this important admission, in an address to the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce, former president Jacob Zuma assured the private sector that “in regards to the political landscape of the country, no one should worry”. Replying to Zuma, the chamber’s president, Mark Nowitz, said: “It’s clear we are talking the same language.” The ANC’s submission to, and close cooperation with capital had endured,” the Cape Argus reported on 6 March 2008.

Unlike his comrade, Sisulu, Kasrils knew the heart of power in post-apartheid for what it was and admitted the ANC had long ago betrayed its revolutionary mission. Witnessing the decay of the party and unable to compromise his principles, Kasrils resigned as minister of intelligence on 23 September 2008, following the resignation of then-president Thabo Mbeki and the election of Zuma as the ANC’s president in December 2007.

In her op-eds Sisulu, like many ANC ministers since the 1990s, manipulated the stirring rhetoric of emancipation to camouflage the true nature and function of power in post-apartheid South Africa. Sisulu correctly identified some of the shameful flaws of our political order but misdiagnosed what produced issues such as mass poverty, landlessness and inequality. To her, mentally colonised judges alongside a Westernised and ineffective Constitution are the significant obstacles to eradicating socioeconomic dilemmas. 

This will not solely be a critique of Sisulu’s clumsy polemics; such analysis already exists. It will be an exploration of political power in post-apartheid South Africa. In the support for Sisulu’s hollow argument and within the negative reactions to criticism of the minister’s rhetoric, it’s clear that many righteously frustrated citizens do not have a comprehensive understanding of power. 

But the critiques of Sisulu also reveal that far too many prominent commentators are trapped in an ideological chokehold which limits their own analysis. They critique from an ideological prison of liberalism, imagining that the death of the ANC and the implementation of reforms will rescue the nation from collapse. Undoubtedly the ANC has become a colossal obstacle to egalitarian progress. 

Limits of the law

The principal error in Sisulu’s assessment, shared by many lazy constitutional critics, is to think laws are the primary sources of power in a political order. The apartheid regime was able to practise authoritarian power through its monopoly on violence as well as influence over the economy and the media apparatus. With nearly unrivalled military power, a well-financed and expansive police state, ubiquitous surveillance structures, a media machine of propaganda, alongside a cooperative relationship with capital (such as the minerals-energy complex), the National Party amassed leverage to enforce white supremacy for decades.

Without such extensive control over these various sources of power, apartheid legislation would have been a blunt, inanimate instrument for Afrikaner nationalists. One’s reluctance to obey laws was not because the law in and of itself compelled you, but because if you didn’t, the vicious might of state power would beat you into submission or even rob you of your life. 

Legislation that is not underpinned and propelled by power becomes a collection of unattainable ideals, disregarded rules and stale ink on paper, constrained in its ability to influence the shape of society. 

Another analytical pitfall of those who support Sisulu’s critique is embracing the naive assumption that Sisulu or her party — be it the Thuma Mina faction that supports President Cyril Ramaphosa or the radical economic transformation brigade — have any sincere interest in upturning our economic system or political order in favour of the destitute masses. This will be further explored but evidence for this total lack of revolutionary zeal in the ANC is littered throughout its 27 years of governance. 

To understand why South Africa finds itself in a state of perpetual crisis and why the dreams of liberation have yet to manifest, we need to unveil power in our post-apartheid country for what it is. In other words, we must ask where power is located, the forms power takes and how it is used to serve particular interests. If we fail to accurately comprehend the manifestations and uses of power, we drastically limit our ability to solve the issues that plague our society. Moreover, not reckoning with power leaves us vulnerable to the abuse, exploitation and oppression by those who do possess it, leaving us frantically swinging at phantoms in the dark. 

Assessing power

Simply defined, power is the capacity to influence and or implement change in society. And although societies are complex and at times chaotic, their structure is the outcome of deliberate design by those possessing power. But we must always remember that power is never absolute. It is always exercised within the constraints of economic conditions, historical processes and social or cultural forces. With this definition, we can begin to explore the nature and function of power in post-apartheid South Africa. It may seem tedious but it’s crucial to unravelling the deceptive rhetoric used by Sisulu, a deception not exclusive to the minister but often used by the ruling party at large.

In his 2017 book, South Africa’s Corporatised Liberation, activist and scholar Dale T McKinley identifies the nexus of power in our post-apartheid dispensation: the party, the state and capital. With executive power and a large majority in parliament, the ANC wields the legitimate authority to construct and implement policy within the guiding framework of the Constitution. Moreover, the ANC’s parliamentary majority allows the party to craft and change legislation, something that Sisulu seems to have conveniently forgotten. 

One can think of the state as an instrument used by the government to enact its executive power through various bodies and institutions such as the police service or the public education system. Here it’s vital to remember that the state also possesses a monopoly on “legitimate” violence and provides the government with access to a deep pool of financial and human resources. 

Finally we have capital. In South Africa the epicentres of capital are the minerals-energy complex and the retail, manufacturing, tourism and agricultural industries alongside corporate financial services. It must be said that the racial configuration of capital is irrelevant to its objectives. It is a misleading error to assume a black chief executive or shareholder of a national corporation would concern themselves with the plight of the poor or working class merely because they share the same racial identity. For the rich, class interests transcend racial identity.

Ramaphosa shared the same racial identity as the miners at Lonmin in Marikana. But, as a minority shareholder at Lonmin in 2012, his loyalty was firmly with the company’s owners. He had to ensure the continuation of operations and maintenance of profits, even if it meant the dignity and lives of other black people would be callously denigrated in the process. “White monopoly capital” is an unproductive term; it doesn’t point to the engines that produce poverty or inequality, it merely tells us the composition of the country’s economic elite. It tricks us into conspiratorial thinking instead of rigourous research and analysis of how capitalism in our post-apartheid society actually works.

Our economic system allows for individuals and minority  shareholders, for example, to privatise and commodify resources. This entails private ownership of the means of producing goods and services and entitlement to large portions of the profits gained. Notice that this inherently means the majority of society, who are not a part of this ownership class, is dispossessed, locked out of access to life’s necessities and pleasures. Accentuating this dispossession is that those who work for the capitalist class, or are affected by its operations, have little to no say in how business is conducted. Those not within this class are coerced into a dependency on their work and wages to survive. 

Economist Adam Smith once described capitalists as “masters of the universe” and it is an appropriate description. The vast riches of the Earth, most of society’s technological and scientific capabilities, are in private hands, granting capitalists tremendous influence over our lives. This economic power translates into political power that is often undemocratic, unaccountable to citizens and in service of accumulating more profits, new markets and resources despite damage to society. 

Party, state and capital. These are the zones of real power in post-apartheid. Now we must ask, how does the capital, the state and party wield power? Moreover, if the ANC has had executive power for 27 years, why has it not used it, in most although not all instances, to make tangible the liberation it spent nearly a hundred years pursuing? 

The ANC’s demise

In 1961, and with an almost prophetic clarity, Frantz Fanon described the tragic future of African liberation movements in a chapter of The Wretched of the Earth: “National liberation, instead of being an all-embracing crystallisation of the innermost hopes of the whole people, will be in any case an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been.”

This is a painful but accurate description of what the ANC has become. We bear witness to its decay every day. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that those who carry the burden of the ANC’s failures are the Africans it once fought to liberate. 

Even if one were to concede that the Constitution obstructs the government from dealing with landlessness or poverty — which it does not — the ANC in its concessions to, and cooperation with capital since 1994, has lost interest in being a transformative body that could alter our socioeconomic landscape; it is no longer a revolutionary organisation. When the ANC did display energetic interest in being a truly transformative body, it made strategic blunders that drastically hindered its ability to “make a better life for all”. 

A tragic marriage to capital

To claim the ANC “sold out” is both true and reductive. Rather, we need to reflect on the economic conditions, historical factors and ideological biases that compelled the ANC towards compromise and concession leading up to the birth of political democracy. 

Visions of a post-apartheid society had been anchored by a yearning to overcome both economic and political subjugation. The bedrock of white supremacy, since the advent of settler-colonialism, was authoritarian control of economic resources and the exploitation of cheap African, coloured and Indian labour. Leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle and the masses of oppressed people knew that building a post-apartheid society required a drastic redistribution of wealth and the realignment of the economy in service of the millions who’d been dispossessed, not in service of elites. 

What a post-apartheid economy would look like in exact terms was a contentious debate in the anti-apartheid struggle. For some it would be the democratic socialism of the Freedom Charter, for others it would be a vigorous welfare state or a strident march towards communism. 

Without the consultation and consent of its mass membership, the ANC gradually abandoned these radical ambitions as early as the mid-1980s. From the early 1970s capitalism had undergone a tremendous transformation. Neoliberal policies, as practised in South America, South East Asia and the United Kingdom, had renewed the power of global capital, providing it leverage to mould the macroeconomic policies and political trajectories of nations around the world. 

To secure their dominance in South Africa, the titans of corporate and industrial power initiated consultations with the ANC as early as 1985. In that year a delegation representing Anglo American, Premier Group, Sanlam, Barclays and Barlow flew to Lusaka to confirm the ANC would not pursue revolution or socialist economic policy. Both capital and the ANC agreed apartheid was a disaster that had to end, so long as free enterprise endured. 

With the demise of the Soviet Union starting in 1989 the ANC lost a pipeline for resources and political support. The end of the Soviet Union created an ideological vacuum, signalling the certain victory of capitalism and the total failure of radically redistributive economics. These precarious conditions were aggravated by the ANC leadership lacking clarity about the economic blueprint for a post-apartheid society. Such a detailed blueprint — the Reconstruction and Development Programme — would only be produced and then swiftly abandoned in the 1990s. By then, the party had walked into a lion’s den. Unlike Daniel, no supernatural force could tame the beasts encircling the ANC. Unarmed, surrounded by the National Party and capital, it’s leverage in negotiations was brittle. 

Economic systems have rarely been upturned through negotiation. Simply because those who dominate an economy would not willingly give up their vast gains unless they lack the capacity to protect them or if external conditions destabilise their grip on power. The political instability of the transition certainly compelled the apartheid government and capital to make certain compromises. Still, economic power remained firmly within the hands of these actors.

But the ANC, by abandoning popular mass struggle, severing the pursuit of economic power from political power and putting negotiations solely in the hands of a small leadership, diluted the strength of its position at the negotiating table. 

Kasrils has detailed that while there was external pressure that narrowed the ANC’s options, the party still possessed the agency to pursue alternatives and realise the egalitarian vision of the Freedom Charter: “… Perhaps more inexcusable for us than that was losing faith in the ability of our own revolutionary masses to overcome, in united action, with correct theory and reliable leadership, all obstacles. With those masses, who were so fundamental to destroying apartheid we would have arguably had had the means and resources to press home the huge advantages the revolution was gaining at the time.” 

The birth of democracy was, as described by political economist Patrick Bond, an elite transition. Apartheid died and invaluable freedoms were won but capitalism, and all its corrosive inequities, remained. 

Primary corporate taxes were lowered, sustaining the cycle of white privilege and corporate power. A 1993 International Monetary Fund loan came with harsh conditions such as cuts in state spending and a decrease in public sector salaries. Mandela paid off apartheid-era debt ($25-billion), which could have been used for social welfare. Export-led growth and liberalisation provoked rapid industrialisation and unemployment. Labour market deregulation decreased worker bargaining power and precarious work while also opening up workers to further exploitation. 

This marriage to capital, sustained by successive ANC cabinets, thwarts the party’s proclaimed objectives to overcome poverty, inequality and unemployment. Prioritising the interests of capital subverts uplifting the needs of citizens. The objective is not to develop a society’s citizens but rather to boost economic growth, under the flimsy assumption that this produces material well-being for all. Worse, the close connections between the ANC and local corporate capital has produced a class of political elites whose financial prosperity is attached to the current economic system, casting aside any substantial political will for the redistributive politics South Africa needs. 

To borrow the prophetic words of Fanon, the ANC has become an intermediary between the post-colony and capital. Failing to combat inequality has bred a political culture in which emerging black capitalists, unable to penetrate the private sector, turn towards the state for accumulation. What results is the widespread politics of corruption and patronage which has withered the capacity of the state to not only deliver services but enact developmental and redistributive programmes that could uplift millions from socioeconomic suffering. Those in the ANC sincerely concerned with effective, transformative governance have either left the party or been cast aside because they are unwilling to play the game. 

South Africa beyond the ANC

The ANC is a tale of squandered potential. Kneeling to capital, dismissing popular struggle, plagued by patronage and corruption, the party has sabotaged its ability to use executive power in service of not only Africans but all of society. Sisulu’s arguments are a tactic used to gain popularity ahead of the ANC’s elective conference, scapegoat the Constitution and mask her complicity in bad governance. If South Africa is to survive, the epicentres of power must be displaced and reformulated to rest firmly in the hands of the people. Citizens, not elites such as Sisulu, Ramaphosa, Julius Malema and Helen Zille, must work together to shape the destiny of this country.

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

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