Andile Zulu: The black elite will continue to fail us

Oppression, injustice, freedom and emancipation. Twenty-seven years since the demise of apartheid, these words continue to mobilise discontent, revitalise hope and animate imaginations yearning for respite from the “liberation” of post apartheid. But what concrete meaning do these hefty terms have?

For those white folk still clinging to ever soothing ignorance and scared to lose the bounties of colonial conquest, the ANC’s policies of affirmative action are “oppressive”. To some of the perpetually unemployed, migrants occupying jobs supposedly reserved for “native” citizens is an “injustice”. 

Free-market evangelists warn us, like zealots cautioning the apocalypse, that robust union power and reasonable regulations stifle the capacity of private enterprise to “emancipate” us from poverty and unemployment. 

Contentious as these terms are, they do have definitions — and they describe phenomena as old as civilsation itself. But the truth is dispensable to those in service or pursuit of autocratic power. For those seeking to transform society into an experiment for their destructive ambitions, empirical reality is clay to be twisted, stretched and endlessly distorted. 

A new elite has undertaken the task of distorting truth. Obsessed with gathering power, no matter the lives wrecked or blood spilled, the emergent black elite exploits the vocabulary of liberation to justify its parasitic plunder. 

The imprints of its nascent power, and its form of politics, are evident all over the country. Three months into 2022 and five senior ANC members have been killed in the lead up to and after the party’s eThekwini regional conference. Ayanda Ngila, a courageous leader of the Abahlali baseMjondolo social movement, was murdered during a raid in March, allegedly by local government leaders in Durban in co-operation with police. His only crime was refusing to bow to elite power while imagining a just world beyond our own. 

Meanwhile, former health minister Zweli Mkhize, who is alleged to have looted state funds as citizens starved during the height of the pandemic, now possesses the audacity to run for the ANC presidency. 

The expanded definition of unemployment persists at 46.4% and anti-migrant groups have been emboldened, not only by dire employment prospects, but through political parties, such as Action SA, that have cultivated a space for xenophobia in electoral politics. Trying to secure votes in the Eastern Cape during last year’s local government elections, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) bought a car for King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo — a convicted criminal and representative of a deeply undemocratic institution. 

As war decimates Ukraine, the red berets have aligned themselves with Russian oligarchs, all while still claiming to be committed socialists. In defence of transnational capital, Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe has spent months demeaning working class communities on the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape, who seek to defend their land and sea from destructive mining.

The new black elite is not a unified monolith. It does not speak with one voice. Its members do not emanate from one party or organisation. Situated in government, state institutions and the private sector, this emergent class is unified by an interest in defending and advancing its own power. 

For some members, power is gained through their rent-seeking as traditional leaders; others seek self-enrichment through corruption. For yet others, power is to be defended by appeasing foreign investment or to be advanced through electoral populism.

Writer William Shoki has accurately described this new elite as a Black (mis)leadership class. The term was originally used by author and activist Glen Ford to explain his thoughts on the US’s black leaders: “It is a class that sees its own personal, financial and societal interests as being synonymous with the progress of black people as a whole. This class does not seek transformation of society; it seeks only their own elevation within the existing structures … It is the politics of putting black faces in high places, and to hell with those of us stuck at the bottom, or those of us who are below the bottom.”

The critique of black elites is not a tacit defence of white supremacy in the past or present. Nor is it a flirtation with apartheid and colonial apologetics: the kind of discourse that attempts to dilute the evils of white domination by comparing it to the inequities of today. 

Sadly, it must be said, although one hopes it is obvious: the blackness of this new elite is not what inclines it towards exercising repressive power and proliferating reactionary politics. The black identity of Patrice Motsepe, Herman Mashaba, Ace Magashule, Julius Malema or Shauwn Mkhize is relevant because of its utility. The idea of race and the tenacity of racial inequality are deployed by elites to divert attention from their criminality, to silence critical dissidence and justify disastrous policy or legislation.  

The radical economic transformation faction in the ANC, the nationalism of #PutSouthAfricaFirst, the EFF’s abuse of black rage and the endless idolising of  black capitalists; these developments reflect the aspirations of a class unconcerned with making society work for anyone but themselves. In the hands of the black elite, race and racial inequality have become tools of mystification, cloaking the faces and functions of power. 

Alongside the truth, the “outsiders” of our society — the black poor, unemployed and working class — are the first casualties in the crusades and battles of the black elite.  The pivotal distortion has been in convincing the black majority (especially the black middle class) that the prosperity of black elites will one day pour down like rejuvenating rain, uplifting the destitute majority. This is one of the great, cruel myths of post apartheid. 

What has escaped our understanding is that shared racial identity does not automatically harmonise political interests. Not only do the interests of the poor black majority drastically diverge from those of black elites, their interests exist in irreconcilable conflict. Our attachment to reductive notions of race and a naive comprehension of power has aided the elite manipulation of reality. 

The market economy that has facilitated the rise of the black elite is not able to produce a just distribution of wealth, and the success of black elites depends on the dispossession and exploitation of the black majority. 

Black elites attempt to conceal this contradiction through their indulgence in race reductionism. To paraphrase Rekang Jankie, race reductionism is an over-reliance on race as an analytical tool for understanding and changing the world. By making race seem like an eternal essence of our identity, and not a construction contingent on certain historical and economic conditions, this new elite is able to convince some that its interests exist in harmony with the larger, poorer population. 

Through that distortion of reality, elites are able to elevate racial inequality and the pursuit of “transformation” as central objectives in their politics. And instead of questioning how inequality is produced, by examining economic and political relations, black elites demand we obsess over the racial composition of inequality, rather than its origins. 

Why? If we were to examine the origins of inequality, many would soon realise that many black faces in high places are complicit in the suffering of their own people. 

Black people who question, critique and resist this brand of politics are swiftly shamed as “sell-outs” or even “house negroes”. To think that black people cannot act independently of “white power”, to assert that our skin colour must determine our political opinions; to assume that those who do not share emancipatory (though ultimately performative) politics are race traitors, trivialises the agency of black people and cynically reproduces the racist presumptions.

But consciousness alone does not shape politics. Inequality has a cancerous effect on democracy. As the majority of citizens struggle to survive, politics is disproportionately influenced by the middle classes and ultra-wealthy. Beyond the ballot box, South Africa’s poor majority is a minor force in the shaping of government policy or legislation. 

Otherwise, protest and calls for accountability are smothered by brutality meted out by the police, private security or criminals impersonating politicians. Facing neglect, repression and a lack of alternatives, democracy, emanating from the ground up, is frail in the face of elite power. 

Through tragedy, many black South Africans are seeing through the deception of their leaders. Nearly 400 people died because of the recent flooding in Durban. As people lost their lives and homes, it became clear that this disaster could have been avoided if our (mis)leadership class practised power in service of people and not themselves. 

We should no longer simply wish for the ascension of a chosen few to new heights of wealth and power. All citizens should have both the right and capacity to mould the course of their lives, and this will require creating a society devoid of elites, black or white. 

The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or practice of the Mail & Guardian.

Andile Zulu writes regularly for the Mail & Guardian from Durban

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

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