/ 16 January 2022

Radical economic transformation ‘bullshit’ won’t change lives of poor

Anc National General Council
Former president Jacob Zuma and Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu Lindiwe Sisulu during the ANC National General Council on October 11, 2015 at Gallagher Convention Centre in Midrand. (Photo by Gallo Images / Thapelo Maphakela)

Two days after the release of the Zondo commission’s first report on state capture, Minister of Tourism Lindiwe Sisulu wrote a perplexing article published on IOL. In it she lamented the persistence of poverty for millions of people decades after apartheid’s demise and harshly questioned the legitimacy of a Constitution that had failed to eradicate the country’s socioeconomic dysfunction. Loudly implying that the Constitution is a blunt instrument in the struggle against injustice, Sisulu argued that “there is a need for an overhaul of a justice system that does not work for Africa and Africans”. 

The opinion piece stupefied many, revealing the delusions of a ruling party whose leadership had alienated itself from reality. The minister writes as if she is a powerless spectator, possessing neither the tools, authority or ability to solve the issues overwhelming her society. And yet, Sisulu has occupied positions of executive power in the government for 20 years. 

She possessed both the capacity and political leverage to influence policy construction that could have effectively curtailed the destitution she now self-righteously condemns. Moreover, anyone with a basic grasp of how the government is structured and mandated would know that the judiciary is not tasked, unlike the executive, with producing solutions to socioeconomic issues.

It is the ANC’s lack of political will and imagination, its troubled marriage to capital, combined with its embrace of systemic corruption, which have been the primary obstacles to tackling poverty, not the judiciary or constitution.  But this truth is irrelevant to Sisulu’s presidential ambitions. 

This cavalier indifference to the truth is not unique to Sisulu or the ANC, but it has found its most menacing manifestation in the ANC.

 Many citizens would be tempted to condemn the ruling party as an organisation led by liars. But the deception of the ANC is of a different category. A liar is still intensely invested in the truth, specifically in concealing or distorting the truth. Then there are those who speak with unshakable confidence, who seek to seduce millions with words while simultaneously having no serious regard for the truth. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt describes such people as “bullshitters”.

To illustrate what Frankfurt meant by bullshit, recall the disastrous the invasion of Iraq led by the United States in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. The invasion was endlessly justified by the supposed threat of Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction. Such weapons were never found and the evidence for their existence was scarce at best. But the existence or non-existence of these weapons was inessential to the interests of the US government. These interests could not be realised without the approval of Congress and the fervent support of the American public. With the truth relegated to irrelevance, George W Bush and his administration proceeded to regurgitate bullshit to persuade Americans into supporting a war that would produce hundreds of thousands of innocent corpses and decimate Iraqi society. 

The ANC is now bloated by those who have no regard for the truth in their frenzied pursuit of power. Radical economic transformation (RET), both as a policy framework and rhetorical device, is a manifestation of this tendency. To banish the phantoms of apartheid and resolve post-94 injustices, RET will “change the structure systems, institutions and patterns of ownership, management and control of South Africa’s economy in favour of all, especially the poor, majority of whom are African”. Does the governance of the ANC and its policies implemented in the past 27 years reflect the objectives of RET? No

Unfortunately, RET is a vacuous racial populism that renders empirical reality redundant. Why?  To curtail the disappointment and exploit the rage of black citizens the ANC has failed. Even if it lives beyond rhetoric , it’s neither radical nor transformative because in all articulations of RET, the  fundamentals remain the same — capitalism and liberal democracy remain intact with the inequalities and instability they produce.

Capitalism keeps the economy under the undemocratic influence of a few extremely wealthy people and leaves us dependent on their industries and businesses for our wages, food, housing and our very survival. Liberal democracy aggravates our dependency by turning important decision-making into a spectator sport played every few years, limiting the ability of citizens to shape society. Radical economic transformation does not propose a change to these fundamentals.

Political scientists Benjamin Moffit and Simon Tormey define populism not as an ideology but rather a style of politics used to create political relations. 

A pivotal feature of populism is its “appeal to the people”. Populists view society as antagonistically divided between “the people” and an “other”. This “other” is perceived to be responsible for the decay and debilitation of society or the exploitation and deception of “the people”’.  Populism is a thin ideology, so who “the people” and the “other” are depends on the specific contexts in which populism rises. For former US president Donald Trump and ActionSA’s Herman Mashaba the “other” is job-stealing immigrants. To Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in India, Muslims are the rightly despised “other”. For US politician and activist Bernie Sanders, the threat to “the people” is unrestrained capitalism and the establishment politicians who enable its excess.

Understandably RET identifies black citizens as “the people”, the majority of whom are working class, poor or unemployed. This faction asserts that the levers of economic power remain in white hands. White capitalists, seeking to perpetuate their domination and possessing little regard for black lives, sabotage and undermine the struggle towards economic freedom. The great enemy of the people is therefore white monopoly capital, the media outlets that act as its mouthpiece, the sell-out politicians who do its bidding and a judiciary captured by white power. 

This is where the bullshit begins. One can’t forget that under immense pressure and low on revolutionary resolve, the ANC compromised during negotiations in the transition towards democracy. Securing important human rights and the end of political oppression, it conceded the economic makeup of South Africa, ensuring the vitality of a capitalism which had disenfranchised millions.

 Since 1994 the ANC has governed South Africa in partnership with and in service to capital. Nelson Mandela embraced International Monetary Fund loans and elevated property rights. Former president Thabo Mbeki liberalised trade and further shackled the economy to the interests of foreign investment. President Cyril Ramaphosa re-introduced and sustained austerity. And former president Jacob Zuma colluded with the private sector to conduct a grand campaign of corruption. 

It’s important to note that the ANC’s leadership had considerable agency when making these choices. After the elections of 1994, the party possessed the executive authority, state capacity and the vibrant mass support to wield as leverage against capital and its political representatives, but it chose not to do so. If white monopoly capital is an enemy of the people, then so is a government that has consistently aided and abetted its destructive accumulation. How can RET forces be sincerely trusted to lead a battle against the very system their leaders have managed for nearly 30 years? Why would Lindiwe Sisulu or suspended ANC secretary general Ace Magashule transform an economic system that has brought them alongside their colleagues opulence and prosperity? 

Both the mild and ambitious articulations of RET do not offer anything effective or transformative. The RET promised by Zuma in 2017 is merely an effort to reduce racial inequality for the middle class by producing black mining moguls, corporate executives and black elites in the state bureaucracy. Class inequality would persist, the essentials of life would remain commodified and inaccessible but now managed by a few rich black faces. 

The RET recently proposed by Carl Niehaus envisions a state-led economy owning and managing strategic industries on the behalf of citizens. Somehow people must believe that a governing party that has routinely displayed administrative incompetence and misuse of state resources for self-enrichment in the justice system, education or social services can now be trusted with such expansive power. 

Notice how RET attempts to obscure where power is located and how power is used. Its prominent leaders speak like oppressed revolutionaries and not the government itself, most notable being Zuma comparing his recent arrest with the real injustice of Pan Africanist founder Robert Sobukwe’s persecution by the apartheid regime.

RET emphasises the need to seize and manage economic power through the state. Inherently this is not a bad idea and it should invite productive debate. But RET enthusiasts never question how power will be used by an ANC government functioning with more capacity and less legal restraints. Far too often the ANC has wielded power either carelessly or in an authoritarian manner. It is a government that spent a R100-million on spyware used to target student leaders during the #FeesMustFall movement in 2016 to 2017. It is a government that has neglected to care for many public schools, hospitals and infrastructure, which denies citizens valuable opportunities and basic needs. The ANC methods of governance and internal culture would not suddenly change if it were to implement nationalisation or land expropriation without compensation. One can support these policies without reproducing the bullshit of RET.

Populist leaders will always attempt to frame themselves as committed allies of “the people”. Others will portray themselves as authentically of “the people”, working within the establishment but not tainted by its deceit. All factions in the ANC use such manipulation, but the RET faction especially presents itself as the authentic advocates and defenders of “the people”. Yet its prominent faces are inclined towards authoritarian expressions of power and actions which demonstrate a cruel insensitivity to the lives of the people they promised to serve. Zuma’s presidency was a cycle of righteous protest action met with brutal state repression. From the Marikana massacre to #FeesMustFall and the prevelant assassinations of activists in the 2010s, it was clear the state demanded docile subjects who would be shy to exercise their more potentially subversive rights. 

Compounding these contradictions are leaders of the RET grouping who are deeply implicated in systemic corruption. Parasitic looting of the state has corroded its ability to deliver consistent and quality services, further impoverishing the existence of our society’s poorest people. The chasm between the masses and the elite leadership of the RET faction was further demonstrated in the July riots. 

Lashing out against the possibility of Zuma facing justice for his alleged crimes, RET forces orchestrated an attack on the republic, which stole more than 300 lives and thousands of jobs. It is the working class, the unemployed and poor black people of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng who have had to endure the worst outcomes of this destructive crusade. Seeking to sustain their regime of corrupt accumulation, RET forces showed the nation that they would rather let the country burn than face accountability, revealing that their allegiances are to their own narrow self-interests and not “the people”. 

The July riots were the worst example of what scholars refer to as “Bad Manners”. Populists will often coarse political discourse and behaviour by disregarding the norms and procedures of a democracy. This move is undertaken to distinguish themselves from the dull, stagnant politics of the establishment. Recall how some Americans were excited and impressed by Trump’s vulgarity or how Mzansi was enthralled by the Economic Freedom Fighters’ fiery rebellions in parliament. 

For years Zuma displayed unpresidential behaviour while espousing values that contradicted the egalitarian principles of our democracy. His unapologetic sexism. His homophobic pronouncements. His evasion of the law and frequent strawmans of the judiciary as “captured” undermine the very structures that must protect the weak against the powerful in such an unequal society. Zuma’s “Bad Manners” did indeed earn him the resentment of many but it also made him endearing to others. And as Zuma garnered support and even praise, the state continued to be excavated. 

But bullshit is not the ANC’s exclusive domain. Across the political landscape are actors who approach reality with indifference, keen to persuade and to amass wealth and power. 

Resisting the illusions of RET, xenophobia and ethnic chauvinism requires that citizens organise and build power, gaining the leverage to not only critique but act against those cursed by an obsession with power.

Andile Zulu writes regularly for the Mail & Guardian from Durban