/ 14 June 2022

Much more than the ANC needs to go to forge a better South Africa

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(Photo by Michael Cohen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The ANC is dying and most citizens do not weep at its death throes. Instead, the demise of former liberators bolsters the abundant and irrepressible yearning for change. Beneath this yearning are the tattered hopes of citizens whose expectations could not be met by the bleak reality of post-apartheid South Africa.

Cynical as it may sound to some, and there certainly is an excess of cynicism in the political terrain, the downfall of the ANC will not be enough to rescue our society from collapse or quell the righteous rage of the poor. In a recent opinion article, author Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh poured his insight into a valuable and urgent question: How do we reimagine South Africa after the ANC’s demise? 

Mpofu-Walsh is right to lament the scarcity of unreactionary, viable alternatives to the ANC and the lack of creative political imagination required to build beyond its corpse. The ruling party’s hegemony has contributed not only to the decay of public life but it has imposed restrictive parameters on discourse, on what we consider possible in the realm of politics. Another way to ask Mpofu-Walsh’s question is: After the ANC, how will political power be utilised and distributed? 

If we sincerely seek to reconfigure the uses and locations of power towards the collective upliftment of South Africans, we must recognise power in all its mutations. Historically a central component missing from this reflection is that the ANC is not the sole locus of power or  specifically, that government is not the ultimate zenith of power in our country. 

Behind the ANC, lurks another ruthless enemy of the people. It is a coalition of actors once described by the economist Adam Smith as “the masters of mankind”. A confrontation with this powerful coalition and the system which sustains their dominance, awaits us on the horizon. It is one of the confrontations that will determine the country’s future. To reimagine South Africa we must confront capitalism and its class structure. 

Simply put, capitalism is a system where economic production is privately owned by capitalists, who employ workers at paid wages and sell their produce on the markets. For this brief discussion certain aspects of this definition are crucial to keep in mind. Firstly capitalism enshrines the privatisation of essential resources, the means of economic production and the transformation of services, ideas, goods, animals and even people into objects that will be traded or sold on the market. 

Secondly, it creates a hierarchy which permeates social existence. Basically, a class of capitalists own the means of economic production and appropriate the majority of the wealth produced by said production. Then there is the majority of society: workers. Those who must trade their time, intellects and bodies in work for capitalists to earn a wage and participate in consumption within the market to survive. 

There is a bewildering reluctance to critically reflect or even acknowledge the predominant role of capitalism and class in bringing the country closer to the edge of collapse. It’s a strange neutrality; South Africa stands as the most unequal society in the world. Half the population lives in poverty, 75% of youth are unemployed, food scarcity has soared and yet in popular discussion of these crises, the economic system that organises daily life is rarely mentioned. 

We rightly bemoan how the ANC abuses power: its aversion to transparency and accountability, its brazen neglect of people’s basic needs, its use of surveillance and violence, via the police service, to brutally suppress the mobilisations of the poor and working class. Yet rarely do we contend with the colossal concentration and abuse of power within the private sector or the collusion of the private sector with the state in the selfish pursuit of wealth and power. 

In part this blind spot remains because the majority of those who lead and dominate political discourse are the minority of citizens who have found a level of prosperity within South African capitalism. This is not a moral condemnation or a silly shaming of privilege but rather to highlight how we view the world is predominately constituted and continuously moulded by our class positions and social status. 

What some of us have forgotten is that in a capitalist economy, the prosperity of a few is inextricably tied to the deliberate dispossession and exploitation of the many. 

The political ambitions of capital

The demise of apartheid was an indisputable victory for the millions subjugated across the country.  In the transition to liberal democracy, a battle was won but a war, one which had been raging across the globe since the 1970s, had been lost. It was a class war waged by the titans of global capital and their representatives within various governments. This war saw the ascension of neoliberalism. Author David Harvey defined neoliberalism as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can be best advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by private property rights, free markets and free trade”.

Former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher sold off national industries and strangled union power. Following the assasination of Chilean president Salvador Allende in 1973, under a US backed dictatorship, Chile liberalised the economy while privatising social security alongside hundreds of state-owned enterprises. 

In the 1980s then US president Ronald Reagan cut taxes on corporations, deregulated major industries and provided corporate finance with new freedoms. And in South Africa’s transition to democracy, the ANC chose — acting under pressure from capitalists, the National Party and a debilitating economy — to adopt a neoliberal framework for our economy. In other words, the great compromise of the ANC was not with white power but with capital.

Former ANC minister and South African Communist Party leader Ronnie Kasrils described what he called a Faustian pact: “We took an IMF [International Monetary Fund]loan on the eve of our first democratic election and had already 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.” 

As early as the mid 1980s, the kings of South African capital were discussing the country’s future with the ANC. After a meeting in Lusaka with ANC leadership in 1985, an Anglo American executive remarked that they could now work with the ANC to ensure that “we dare not allow the baby of free enterprise to be thrown out with the bathwater of apartheid”. 

But who elected the executives of Anglo American? What gave them the authority to influence politics at a national level for tens of millions of people? And why did such vital debates and discussions happen behind closed doors? The corporate capture of the ANC in the turn to liberal democracy demonstrates how hostile capital is to radical change. Not because capitalists are simply monstrous villains determined to cause suffering but because reform to capitalism, in the service of the public good,  or the abolishment of capitalism,  threatens the mode of production upon which their power depends. 

David Harvey adds another dimension to neoliberalism as “a political project to re-establish the conditions of capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites”. We are enduring the brutal consequences of being the test subjects of neoliberalism’s political project.

The ANC, by accepting neoliberal policies, trapped itself into a self-sabotaging dependency on capital. Believing that economic growth and human development were best pursued through private enterprise, the ANC has generally avoided implementing macroeconomic policy which would dissuade domestic and global investment, while maintaining industries that destroy the environment and exploit cheap black labour.

Moreover, this relationship between the state and the private sector is in part sustained because prominent members of the ANC themselves have found lucrative success in the business world. 

Major opposition parties are not free from the influence of private power. The disclosures of political party funding reports reveal that the  ANC and its major opponents such as the Democratic Alliance,  rely on funding from a small but incredibly wealthy group of capitalists within industries such as mining, retail and corporate finance. To think that such donations are unconditional or simply the efforts of the benevolent rich in their contribution to democracy is woefully naive.

Unsurprisingly the policy proposals of major opposition parties are encased within the thinking of neoliberal economics, none willing to look beyond the market and mild political reforms for solutions to SA’s crises. Even the supposedly socialist Economic Freedom Fighters is not shielded from capital’s capture. 

The greatest threat capital poses is in its willingness to use coercive measures and violence when its means of maintaining power are challenged. Working-class life has drastically deteriorated in part because when workers demand higher wages, comprehensive benefits, less working hours or sanitary labour conditions, capitalists — often in cooperation with the state — suppress such efforts because they have the financial, legal and political resources to outmatch a depoliticised class of workers. 

So if we imagine a post-2024 South Africa and that vision contains restraining capital flight, a wealth tax, universal basic income, land redistribution, worker ownership within major industries, we must realise that capital and its political representatives will mobilise against such ambitions. 

As noted by historian Benjamin Fogel “democracy provides a platform for mobilisation and movement building”. If such mobilisation and movement building ignores the corrosive nature of capitalism and its class hierarchies, a dystopian future worse than this will be waiting on the horizon.

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