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By way of an explanation for a belated article…
This article before you was written shortly after Cyril Ramaphosa’s victory at the ANC elective conference at Nasrec at the end of 2017, but before revelations came to light of how his road to victory at Nasrec was paved with millions of rands. This article was originally part of a much longer article on South Africa’s (white) bourgeois oligarchy – otherwise known as white monopoly capital (WMC). It sought to look at how since the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand this oligarchy has ruled South Africa through various parties, and how the ANC represented the 6th edition of parties through which this oligarchy has exercised its rule for over a century. In that piece I had intended to show that Ramaphosa was positioned in a long line of political actors who had been subordinated to WMC, and that Nasrec was not a struggle between “corruption” and “clean government”, but that for WMC it represented a choice between which of the two factions of the black petty-bourgeosie were least likely to be “troublesome”. In the course of the work it became clear that the task of explaining the evolution of South Africa’s white bourgeois oligarchy and its mode of political rule will need much more work than I could put in at the time. Marx’s proverbial ‘muck of the ages’ made demands on my time that I could not ignore, and so the incomplete article was left in the dusty drawers of computer circuits.
Recently, much has been made by the “commentariat” about Ramaphosa’s weak position in the ANC. Indeed, even those who thought Ramaposa was going to play the long game have fallen into despair about the state of the country, as there is no sign the “decisive” Ramaphosa is going to emerge out of the “smiling” version. Two years after Nasrec and Zuma’s recall, with Zondo’s soles now threadbare on the long search for the corrupt, the economy is spiralling downward and there is no solution in sight for the many problem facing the country.
If we leave aside the vitriol and hysteria of the right (RW Johnson and his hangerson), there is among the left no explanatory framework on the Ramaphosa phenomenon. After all, so many on the left had bought into the false narrative of “state capture” (some even have whole books and movies buying into this narrative!) and so we have no real explanation why the Ramaphosa’s rein has been a spiral to the bottom.
“This section [of the ruling class] hates and fears the idea of a revolutionary democracy in South Africa, just as much as the Malans and the Oppenheimers do. Rather than attempt the costly, dubious, and dangerous task of crushing the non-European mass movement by force, they would seek to divert it with fine words and promises and to divide it by giving concessions and bribes to a privileged minority (the ‘suitably qualified’ voters, perhaps)… They stand not for the freedom of the people but for the adoption of more subtle systems of oppression and exploitation. Though they talk of liberty and human dignity they are subordinate henchmen of the ruling circles. They stand for the retention of the cheap labour system and of the subordinate colonial status of the non-European masses together with the Nationalist Government whose class interests are identical with theirs. In practice they acquiesce in the slavery of the people, low wages, mass unemployment, the squalid tenements in the locations and shanty-towns.” Nelson Mandela, “The Shifting Sands of Illusions”
Now that the dust has settled on the soap-opera around the ‘recall’ of ex-president Jacob Zuma, and the whole ‘nation’ has heaved a sigh of relief at the Zexit, and now that the next stage of cleansing the nation has began (the impending trial of Zuma) it is time to take a sober look at the real outcomes of this soap-opera, the historical forces that drove these outcomes, and the trajectory that it sets in motion for the development of the ANC in the coming period.
Mark Gevisser, in his musings on the protracted attempts to get Zuma to resign, gave us some philosophic reflections on good and bad dying. Mbeki, he told us, died a good death when he was recalled. Zuma, on the other hand, died a bad death. Unlike Mbeki, by refusing to go quietly Zuma did not allow the country to heal, and in a manner of speaking has left a bad smell behind him. Gevisser lists all manner of people that are to blame for this, including all the usual suspects like Ace Magashule, Jesse Duarte and practically the rest of the ANC – except Cyril Ramaphosa himself. He, Ramaphosa that is, will ascend to the presidency and give “a plan of action in the country’s best interest rather than that of a corruption kleptocracy”. His literary eloquence notwithstanding, Gevisser here has allowed himself to fall victim to a sorcerer’s mirror. In fact, the social roots of Ramaphosa’s victory at Nasrec are deeply embedded in corruption. This is not a statement on Ramaphosa’s personal character, but a statement about the patterns of capital accumulation on which Ramaphosa’s current historical project is based.
Part 1: Ramaphosa’s road to power
To understand the historical, social and political roots of Ramaphosa’s victory at Nasrec, as well as the nature of the regime that he is putting together, we need to return to the beginning of his second life in ANC politics. In other words, we need to understand the path he travelled to Nasrec (historical), the social classes that underwrote his victory at Nasrec (social) and the organisational alignments that made his victory possible (political).
In the Mafikeng conference of the ANC in 1997 Ramaphosa died a good death, to borrow from Gevisser. Notwithstanding the often-repeated storyline that he was Nelson Mandela’s preferred candidate for succession, he capitulated without firing one shot in the ‘battle’ with Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki was elected unopposed. What followed were attempts by Mbeki to prevent the possibility of a comeback at the 2002 conference of the ANC. Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sekwale and Matthews Phosa continued to be hounded out of the ANC and were accused of plotting to unseat Mbeki. For a while Ramaphosa appeared to have died a good death, a death so good that it transformed him into one of the richest black capitalists in South Africa.
His resurrection from political death on his return in Mangaung (2012) was anything but clean and free of kleptocracy. Indeed, Ramaphosa returns to the upper echelons of the ANC to save non-other than Jacob Zuma from the fracturing of the bloc that had brought him back to power in Polokwane 2007.
The Polokwane Bloc that brought Zuma to power represented a black petty-bourgeoisie that had suffered economic hardship and political humiliation by Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki’s project of building a black bourgeois oligarchy on a neoliberal platform had driven all the different sections and organisational expressions of the black petty-bourgeoisie to revolt. Within the ANC, the petty bourgeoisie dependent on the state and tenders experienced his neoliberalism negatively, and viewed his anti-corruption rhetoric as a hostile act – Gwede Mantashe was the convener of these sentiments in the ANC. Within Cosatu, the upwardly mobile members who were becoming middle class experienced the massive jobs bloodbath as a direct consequence of Gear – led by Zwelinzima Vavi. The SACP was available as the ideologue of these anti-Mbeki sentiments – personified in Blade Nzimande, and the ANC Youth League were the Storm Detachments of the anti-Mbeki block, led by Julius Malema.
The Polokwane Bloc began breaking up as soon as Zuma took office in 2009. This bloc came into power with a list of demands and National Democratic Revolution rhetoric but no real programme of confronting white monopoly capital (WMC). Zuma began bowing to WMC and its international variants as soon as he was elected president of the ANC in December 2007. With accumulation through transforming the structure of the South African economy blocked, the only road left open was accumulation through corruption. The dialectic of inclusion and exclusion that lies at the heart of any corruption enterprise triggered the centrifugal forces that tore the Polokwane Bloc apart. It’s important to emphasise this point: it is not the existence of corruption on the part of Zuma that account for the fracture, but the fact that corruption generates networks that include and exclude – and these networks are organised around any and all differences including tribal, regional, personal ties, kinship, and so on. All the protagonists, to varying degrees, had their fair share of “smallernyana skeletons”. By the time of the Mangaung conference of the ANC, the disintegration of the Polokwane Bloc was well underway.
It is therefore instructive that by the time of his political resurrection Ramaphosa chose to join forces with Jacob Zuma against forces that had began to raise criticism of his leadership of the ANC. Zuma’s capture of Ramaphosa was a development that was important in the defeat of Kgalema Motlhanthe. Indeed, this capture was possible not in spite of Ramaphosa’s status as a billionaire dripping with the blood of Marikana, but because of it. Ramaphosa understood then, as he has shown once again at Nasrec, that bourgeois politics is not a game of morality. Having failed to get to power when the ANC could still pretend to some morality (1997), Ramaphosa’s ambitions to rise to the highest office in the land meant he could only make his first move towards the highest office when the ANC’s age of innocence was over.
If Ramaphosa’s resurrection in 2012 needed a bit of back-stabbing here and there, if it needed turning a blind eye to Fezekile Kuzwayo and the rape trial, and developing amnesia about the ‘generally corruption relationship between Zuma and Schabir Shaik – then the Nasrec victory needed a full scale Faustian pact with corruption. Ramaphosa’s victory at Nasrec, more than his toenadering with Zuma at Mangaung, shows the fundamentally corrupt nature of black petty bourgeois politics in South Africa – but it also reveals its real sources, which is the stranglehold and the corruption influence of WMC on South African politics.
Ramaphosa’s weak position and its sources
Ramaphosa’s road to Nasrec begins with two key developments. The first is that WMC finds a candidate that is acceptable to it in its struggle to recapture the ANC. Here we had the unusual but more untenable circumstance that a party of the ruling class – the ANC – had gone rogue and the ruling class had no party representative in its direction of the ship of state. Up to the end of 2016, the ruling class still had the control of the Treasury and the Reserve Bank, but Zuma and company had clearly gone rogue and could no longer be trusted with the ship of state. An untenable situation became outright impossible when Zuma dismissed Pravin Gordhan as Finance Minister, and in the language of the commentariat was about to ‘deliver the Treasury to the Guptas’. After this even Ramaphosa had to announce his candidature for the top job in the ANC – irrespective of the rules contest in the ANC. Ramaphosa’s announcement was however the easy part of the problem for WMC. The more difficult part was that the candidate of WMC had no hope of winning the Presidency of the ANC.
This little fact is so important, and has been a subject of so much misinformation that although it is an elementary fact, we have to re-establish it again. The Fourth Estate – which in many cases acted more like a Fifth Column within the country’s body politic – peddled the lie that Ramaphosa was ‘ahead’ in the race. Many of these journalists and commentators knew that what they were doing was to ‘talk up’ Ramaphosa’s stock price in the political market place. WMC, on the other hand, could not afford to fool itself about the position of their candidate. So while clearly declaring their preference, they were equally clear that chances of victory were very slim. Standard Bank, more than the captured commentariat, gave us a much clearer analysis of the electoral prospects of Ramaphosa. In the run-up to the December conference, the Standard Bank Group (SBG) released its analysis of the prospects for an NDZ victory in a paper titled “The Prospects for and implications of an NDZ win” (3 November 2017). After an analysis of various permutations SBG predicted that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma would win by 51% to 49%. According to SBG, “either way, the potential that Mpumalanga could tilt strongly towards NDZ campaign, coupled with clear resistance in the Eastern Cape to the newly elected (and pro-Ramaphosa) provincial leadership and Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s evident support network in Limpopo and, to a lesser extent Gauteng, is suggestive of the fact that the NDZ grouping remains firmly in the running in the succession race”.
It is important to note that even this analysis of the potential outcomes by SBG are already biased in favour of Ramaphosa: his stock price was already being inflated. Ramaphosa, and WMC, therefore understood that a normal democratic election in the conference will result in defeat. Other options had to be found. In their analysis, SBG wrote, “…we have recently surmised that senior ANC officials, even including Zuma and David Mabuza, prefer some kind of succession compromise to soften the effects of a potentially seismic post-December disruption should a winner-takes-all process prevail”
Beyond the statistical analysis, the SBG’s projected conference outcomes reflected the history of the way the Polokwane Bloc had disintegrated. When the Polokwane Bloc began falling apart the first to go was the ANC Youth League under Julius Malema’s leadership. In early 2012 Malema lost his appeal against his suspension in a process presided over by Ramaphosa, and resurfaced as the Economic Freedom Fighters in 2013. Second to go was the National Union of Metal Workers, who in December 2013 decided to leave the Tri-Partite Alliance. This was followed by Cosatu, whose central committee decided to support Ramaphosa for president of the ANC in 2017. The last to leave the bloc, in the darkness of night it must be said, was the SACP. After engaging its tradition of dissembling and confusing the public (‘we will put up our own candidates in 2019’, ‘ we don’t support any candidate’ etc) everybody knew that the SACP was supporting Ramaphosa. As the Polokwane Bloc continued to fall apart, the bloc shrunk to an important core that became known as the ‘premier league’, which represented ANC provinces concentrated around Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN), Mpumalanga, North West and Free State. While there were important allies in other provinces, it was this core of provinces of the ANC that ensured the various attempts by WMC and its various political incarnations. Although Cosatu had not tested its support for Ramaphosa in a congress, it was clear that Zuma’s support in this strand of the petty-bourgeoisie was waning. The core support therefore remained the tendering petty-bourgeoisie organised inside the ANC. The key feature of this bloc is that it represents that section of the petty-bourgeoisie that accumulates through corruption around the local state.
In its analysis, SBG notes that the Ramaphosa vs NDZ alignment of forces represented the “rural-urban divide” in the ANC. According to SBG, the ‘premier league is based on “…a cluster of provinces that, with the exception of KZN, are vastly subordinate to those that form the spine of Mr Ramaphosa’s campaign in terms of (a) their national demographic relevance; and (b) their centrality to the wider national economy. A simple comparison between Gauteng and Mpumalanga bears this argument out: while Gauteng contributes just 10% of ANC membership, it accounts for 35% of GDP and is home to 24% of the population. In contrast, Mpumalanga’s almost 16% share of ANC membership is vastly out of sync with the roughly 7% share it enjoys in terms of both the national population, and the provincial contribution to GDP.” This analysis and presentation of the issue hides more than it reveals, but it gives us a window into the real class forces at play in the alignment of forces in the ANC, and why it became so difficult for WMC to break the Zuma faction of the old Polokwane Bloc in the ANC, and why it became necessary to make a deal with elements of this faction.
The patterns of accumulation in South Africa post 1994 reinforced the reproduction of cheap black labour as the basis of South Africa’s economy. Importantly, it also reproduced another of apartheid legacy: it accelerated the concentration of wealth in the metropoles and accumulated poverty in the countryside. In various analyses it is generally accepted that post-apartheid South Africa has failed to reverse the devastating effects of apartheid’s impoverishment of the historical bantustans, but has instead increased poverty in these areas. The core of the provinces of the Zuma faction represent the historical bantustans or provinces that incorporate old bantustans, – and thus the most impoverished areas of the country. What about the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, you may ask (SBG simply avoided the theoretical complications presented by KZN)? In its summation of the prospects of the various candidates, SBG noted that an important fact that militated towards an NDZ victory was the “clear resistance in the Eastern Cape to the newly elected (and pro-Ramaphosa) provincial leadership and Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s evident support network in Limpopo and, to a lesser extent Gauteng, is suggestive of the fact that the NDZ grouping remains firmly in the running in the succession race”. We see that in all the provinces that incorporate the old banstustans and significant rural populations, the tendency was against WMC and its candidates, and this included significant sections of Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. Indeed, SBG admits that even in Gauteng, the underlying social malaise that fuels Zuma’s defences (the generalised precariousness of the petty-bourgeoisie) is present in significant enough amount to warrant mention. It is notable that SBG uses the concept of “demographic relevance” and “centrality to the wider national economy” as a euphemism for concentration of wealth. Of course, Gauteng will be an important area of population concentration, but this simply reflects the concentration of wealth in Gauteng.
We therefore have a situation in which the rural areas, impoverished by neoliberalism and before it by apartheid, and reinforced by the general social structure of the country-side, formed the most important social base of forces opposed to Ramaphosa within the ANC. Further, the historical bantustans are also areas where the petty-bourgeoisie has, from its formation under apartheid, survived on patronage and corruption. The blockages to the formation of a solid economic and social base for the black petty-bourgeoisie by post-apartheid neoliberalism simply reinforced this tendency to patronage and corruption. A petty-bourgeoisie that “did not struggle to be poor” now finds itself in a precarious state where poverty lurks behind the next pay cheque.
With the ANC representing the unified expression of the various sections of a precarious petty-bourgeoisie, it became impossible for WMC to win back the ANC without striking a deal with one or other faction of the patronage-based and corruption sections of the petty-bourgeoisie. When it came to the need to compromise with this social base that underwrites the ANC, NDZ understood the need for this compromise much earlier. Beyond big media’s shallow journalism and false-moralising (the Karima Browns, Eusebius McKaizers, Justice Malalas, their associated professors like Mcedisi Ndletyana and the rest), its not difficult to see that NDZ’s sober-minded position in accepting a running with the support of this bloc was the only real option in the ANC. This is no way implied that NDZ was corrupt. Indeed, WMC and its real representative always acknowledged that NDZ was not tainted with corruption. According to SBG, “It is important to emphasise that… Dr Dlamini-Zuma may not personally subscribe to the same patronage networks that have proliferated under President Zuma”; in his “Some personal reflections on NDZ”, Graham McIntosh makes it clear that his objection to NDZ is ideological not based on corruption; in his “Why NDZ will probably win”, Douglas Gibson raises many objection to NDZ as a potential future president of the ANC, but not one of them is corruption on her part. Only the journalists and the commentariat, and the ever-wild swinging Julius Malema, sought to campaign against NDZ on the basis that she was corrupt. The notion by this commentariat that NDZ was ‘Zuma in a doek’ not only shows lack of any capacity for analysis, but is sexist and shows the patriarchy and misogyny that is so endemic to South Africa.
After her defeat as part of the Mbeki slate in Polokwane by this same social base, NDZ knew that a compromise with the petty-bourgeoisie in the ANC is the only game in town. All other positions were sooner or later going to have to come to terms with this reality of South Africa’s history and social structure. If we take SBG’s position paper as a strong pointer to the broad position of WMC, we can also see that WMC understood that their candidate cannot win without a deal with the corruption petty-bourgeoisie, or at least some of its factions. SBG’s argument, already referred to, that “senior ANC leaders” prefer some compromise was a clear indication of this.
The critical difference between Ramaphosa and NDZ is not whether compromise was going to happen with the corrupt petty-bourgeoisie: the real difference lay in the respective attitudes to WMC. For SBG, “the more conciliatory and moderate “radical socio-economic” approach put forward by Mr Ramaphosa, as well as other senior ANC leaders such as former finance minister Pravin Gordhan, the party’s NEC head of economic transformation Enoch Godongwana, and even ANC Treasurer Zweli Mkhize, would naturally allow National Treasury the space to engage in this process of change in a relatively balanced and market-friendly manner.”
On the other hand, argues SBG, “a more aggressive form of ‘RET’, … would have a more damaging effect on the fiscal outlook, and would likely further deepen the levels of mistrust between government and business that have characterised President Zuma’s time in office… Further, some of Mr Gigaba’s close advisors – none more so than Professor Chris Malikane – have projected a shape of “radical economic transformation” which would more aggressively seek to dismantle the structures of “white monopoly capital” and dramatically alter the “composition of [economic] output”, which would again imply a less conciliatory and less “inclusive” path of progress…On balance, Dr Dlamini-Zuma appears to lean towards this latter, more aggressive, form of transformation – which it should be expected she would champion more robustly if she is elected ANC president.”
The fears of WMC notwithstanding, we all know that the well-meaning professor’s “radical” prescription were just so many words – there was no class force ready and capable of carrying forth his programme of ‘radical economic transformation’. Indeed, sections of the black petty-bourgeoisie in the ANC that formed the RET bloc turned out to have very soft ‘backbone’, and were available to the machinations of WMC. Didi ‘the Cat’ opened the road to the victory of the candidate of WMC at Nasrec.
Ramaphosa’s Nasrec victory and the position of the black petty-bourgeoisie
“The worst thing that can befall the leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over government at a time when society is not yet ripe for the domination of the class he represents and for the measures which that domination implies…Thus, he necessarily finds himself in an insoluble dilemma. What he can do contradicts all his previous actions and principles, and the immediate interests of his party, and what he ought to do cannot be done. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but […the interest of an alien class…]. In the interests of the movement, he is compelled to advance the interest of an alien class, and to feed his own class with talk and promises, and with the asseveration that the interest of that alien class are their own interests. He who is put in this awkward position is irrevocably lost….” [Frederick Engels, The Peasant War in Germany]
The switch by Mabuza to support Cyril at the eleventh hour at Nasrec cannot just be put down to corruption alone (this clearly did play a part, and we return to its role below), and neither will cries of “betrayal” suffice to help us understand the historical process that unfolded on that fateful night at Nasrec. The roots of the switch by “the Cat” must themselves be sought in the evolution of the black petty-bourgeoisie pre-and-post apartheid.
The black petty-bourgeois pre-1994
The history of the black middle class before 1994 is a history of gradual including into the political establishment up to the Union in 1910, followed by a violent exclusion and “levelling” between 1910 and 1994. Following the wars of conquest and the defeat of African pre-capitalist social formations, there begins a partial inclusion of the black population into the political systems of the colonies of the Cape and Natal on the basis of property ownership. In the Boer Republics blacks are not included in the political arrangement, although they continue to underwrite the economy of pett-commodity production through share-cropping and so on. The discovery of diamonds in 1867, and gold in 1886, sets in motion a chain of developments whose central feature was the transformation of the black population into a source of cheap labour for the new capitalist economy.
Up to the discovery of gold, the trajectory of the ruling class was to incorporate the emerging black middle class into the political system. From the 1853 Cape Province constitution blacks with property of £25 could vote on a common roll. From the 1880s there begins a concerted process of disenfranchising the black middle class and black property owners, and of blocking any prospects of enfranchising the black majority. At Union in 1910 15% of voters in the Cape were black and the struggle of the ANC at its formation was aimed at extending this qualified vote. The formation of Union – which is a state shaped in the image of mining bosses – begins a long process of reversing this trajectory until black are completely disenfranchised. By 1936 the so-called African section of the middle class is disenfranchised, and by 1970 the last of the black vote for what was a white parliament was abolished. It was therefore not accidental that it was in 1969, at the ANC conference in Morogoro, that the petty-bourgeoisie in the ANC finally accepted that the democratic revolution was to be led by the working class. This admission followed a series of brutal defeats by apartheid in the 1950s and 1960s. So thorough was the class levelling carried out by the National Party that the only black middle class allowed were teachers, nurses and clerks – and even these were increasingly being pushed out of the cities into the Bantustans.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, it was the working class that led the democratic revolution. Indeed, the class character of the leadership of the democratic revolution was so transparent, and the destruction of the petty-bourgeoisie so obvious that it became commonly accepted to say that in South Africa there was “no middle road”(Slovo), and that the struggle may well travel along “an uninterrupted transition from the democratic to the socialist” (Cronin). We all accepted that “socialism means freedom!”.
The black petty-bourgeoisie post-apartheid
Post-apartheid the black petty-bourgeoisie was resurrected through an act of political fiat. A political leadership that had been ‘frozen’ on the Island, a leadership that had been brought up on a diet of petty-bourgeois nationalist politics and had not gone through the “red” 1970s and 1980s – this leadership rewound the political clock and resurrected the political leadership of the black petty-bourgeoisie. The successful execution of this travel back in time was primarily facilitated by the brutal suppression of the working class and its organisation on the eve of the unbanning of organisations, and the seismic political shifts following the fall of the Berlin wall. I have explored this historical process in “The Long Shadow of the De Klerk Regime” [https://www.pambazuka.org/governance/long-shadow-de-klerk-regime] The destruction and weakening of working class organisations “from without” (by the state and capital), was supplemented by their weakening “from within” (by the leadership of the ANC). It is now commonly accepted that the leadership of the ANC systematically demobilised the mass movement that had spearheaded the struggle for its unbanning. For the ruling class, however, the demobilisation of the working class was the condition of the deal with the petty-bourgeoisie. By participating in the destruction of the mass movement, the black petty-bourgeoisie destroyed the very pillar – indeed the only pillar – on which it could lean in its impending struggle with white monopoly capital. By destroying working class organisations, the petty-bourgeoisie destroyed the only force that could extract the kind of concessions that the petty-bourgeoisie needed for its own advancement.
With no class power to force concessions out of the ruling class, the ANC could now only rely on pitiful measures in its attempt to graduate the petty-bourgeoisie into a big bourgeoisie. Faced with the massive historical power and capital resources of white monopoly capital, all the ANC could advance against this was ‘black economic empowerment’. The mountain had brought forth a mouse! Faced with this humiliating situation, the petty-bourgeoisie was forced to “accumulate through corruption”. Like Muntzer in Engel’s Peasant War in Germany, “the policies implemented by the government of Thabo Mbeki and Trevor Manuel blocked the emergence of a class of big black capitalists that could challenge white monopoly capital. The rich few blacks they produced were too dependent on white monopoly capital. Their policies also began to have a negative effect on the working class and the small and fragile black middle class” “The Corruption of a Dream” [https://www.pambazuka.org/governance/corruption-dream]. In the Corruption of a Dream, I outlined a number of ways in which this process of class formation was blocked by Mbeki and Manuel’s neoliberal orthodoxy. In turn, the black petty-bourgeoisie was, and is, left with no option but to accumulate through corruption.
All the factions of the black petty-bourgeoisie, however, understand their weakness in the face of white monopoly capital. They also understand their economic dependence on WMC. After all, political fiat conjured the leadership of the petty-bourgeoisie out of nothing, but this same political fiat could not create the economic and social basis for this petty-bourgeoisie. At Nasrec the petty bourgeoisie was well aware of the consequences of an NDZ victory. WMC would have thrashed the rand on the morrow of an NDZ victory, we would have seen massive capital flight, and WMC would have gone into overdrive to subdue NDZ and ensure that as with the victory of the Polokwane bloc in 2007, she too would bow down before WMC. WMC, however, was not sure about the cost of subduing NDZ, and the political fallout of such a battle with a euphoric petty-bourgeoisie and working class. The danger of an NDZ victory lay in precisely this: that it may have led to reenergising the working class, even for a short period. “Putting the genie back into the bottle” may turn out to difficult and messy.
From the SBG position paper one can see that Mabuza was always seen as the weak link in the ‘premier league’, and it was this link in the chain that broke. At Nasrec the petty-bourgeoisie walked to the precipice, and it was terrified by what it saw. Notwithstanding the grievances of the petty-bourgeoisie, notwithstanding the obstacles put by government’s neoliberal policies in the path of its growth as a class, it knows that it cannot face the big bourgeoisie in open combat – it is condemned to fight WMC in the dark alleys of corruption and unprincipled deals such as Mabuza made at Nasrec.
Towards Polokwane II
The victory of Ramaphosa cannot but be a poisoned chalice. That Ramaphosa came to be trapped in a terrain of politics tainted and underwritten by corruption was less a result of his ambitions (although these cannot be discounted entirely), but more the product of the unyielding class structure of South Africa post-apartheid – or as we have referred to it above, the patterns of capitalist accumulation in South Africa.
The important point here is that the tendencies to corruption in economy and oligarchy in politics – the tendency to hollow out democratic institutions – is embedded in South Africa’s class structure, and runs deeply in the economic and political culture of South Africa’s ruling class. South Africa therefore has a long-run ‘democratic deficit’ driven by the relationship of South Africa’s ruling class, WMC, i. to itself as a class, ii. to the mass of the population, iii. to the state and iv. to political parties as expressions of ‘popular will’. Lets us examine each of these in turn.
The victory of Ramaphosa at Nasrec in December 2017 – and in particular the precarious position of the class project he represents within the ANC – “rewinds” the historical process to the events of Polokwane in 2007. At that point in the history of the ANC, Thabo Mbeki had attempted to discipline the petty-bourgeoisie in the ANC, and to slow-down and reverse its dismemberment of the state. In 1996, Mbeki and Mandela had unleashed the demons of neoliberal capitalism when they declared Thatcherite neoliberalism to be official policy of the ANC. Already, the petty-bourgeoisie was unhappy about the creation of a black bourgeois oligarchy by Mbeki, which they rightfully saw as enriching a small group of connected members of the blacks petty bourgeoisie at the expense of the majority of the petty-bourgeoisie. What official neoliberalism set in motion was extreme pressure on the black petty-bourgeoisie as a result of relatively high interest rates. This was a class that was in the very early stages of its formation, it had no assets and no reserves, and depended entirely on credit. The early years of the GEAR and the effects of its politics of austerity led to a reaction by public sector workers (themselves in the process of transition to being a middle class), with a protracted 28-day strike in the year of the Polokwane Conference of the ANC. The strikes, led by Cosatu, became a political battle-ground as the petty-bourgeoisie sought to unseat Thabo Mbeki from Luthuli House and from the Union Buildings.
Since the ANC National General Council of 2005 Mbeki had been on the retreat within the ANC. The trials of Jacob Zuma in that context were seen as Mbeki using the organs of state to launch an attack on the Zuma faction in a context when he could not achieve this through the ANC.
If Thabo Mbeki was in a weak position within the ANC from 2005, his weakness (in which the commentariat played no small part) came on the back of a period (1994 to 2005) when he appeared unchallenged within the ANC. Ramaphosa, on the other hand, begins his tenure at the head of the ANC from a weak position. WMC therefore hopes that Ramaphosa is playing the “long-game”, in other words he will wait out his opponents in the ANC and slowly squeeze them out. This hope, unfortunately, is not based on any real alignment of social and historical forces in the ANC.
In the first instance, Ramaphosa had to do a deal with the corrupt petty-bourgeoisie in order to win the elections at Nasrec. Secondly, he has no real historical base within the ANC and he does not have the moral and political blessing of a Nelson Mandela as he tries to restore the neoliberal capture of the ANC. The ease with which he was brushed aside in his non-contest with Mbeki in the mid-1990s is testimony to this weakness. Ironically, Ramaphosa got the support from Cosatu and the SACP in a period of their steep decline as historical forces. Thirdly, Ramaphosa has not been able to create a leadership group in the ANC that is dominated by his own group and allies. Ramaphosa may well attempt to play a “long game” in the state – hoping that come 2019 he will be in a position to create his “own” cabinet. The problem is that he also has to create his “own” ANC, and here the way the inner-cabinet of the ANC has been set for the next 5 years is decidedly against him. The elections to the inner-cabinet of the ANC shows the continuing dominance of the historical Zuma bloc, the tendering and corrupt petty-bourgeoisie. To cite a few examples, DD Mabuza is the head of deployment; National elections is headed by Fikile Mbalula; Political Education by Nathi Mthwethwa; Peace and Stability by Tony Yengeni; and the DC Appeals committee by Nomvula Mokonyane. The apparatus of the organisation is in the hands of his enemies, Duarte and Magashule.
Given his weakness in the ANC, Ramaphosa has to rely on WMC outside the ANC – who act primarily through the courts, and on the use of the organs of the state – in particular the criminal justice system – to weaken his opponents within the ANC. Indeed, the prosecution of Zuma for corruption charges is the first salvo in this use of the criminal justice system to settle the scores. Further, the system will be used to flush out some of the leaders from the old Zuma group – people like Mosebenzi Zwane and so on. This is an old road well travelled by Mbeki, and he lost.
In the end the whole battle will boil down to the challenge of creating a social group, indeed a social class within the black population that has an interest in neoliberalism and austerity. In the context of real Thatcherism in the UK of the early 1980s, Thatcher, in one-fell swoop, created a new middle class that had a stake in neoliberalism. She did this by disposing of government assets and in particular by creating real estate assets through the sale of council housing. Thatcher’s policies de-industrialised the UK, but she also created a sharp increase in the service industry and rise of London as a global financial centre. The rise of a middle class tied to finance capital also helped create a social base for neoliberalism. At the heart of the possibilities for a Thatcherite transformation was the position of the UK in the world imperialist system. This positioning is the same reason for the relative success of neoliberalism in the US.
South Africa, on the other hand, is a subordinate country in the world imperialist system. It is therefore not in a position to resist global capitalism’s demands for structural adjustment programmes – as currently demanded by WMC through the rating agencies. Without the creation of a sizable and successful black capitalist class and a broad-based middle class, WMC has to continue capturing the ANC ‘from without’. As we showed above, the stability of the capture of the National Party was because on coming to power there was a class within Afrikaner nationalism that had an interest in capital accumulation, and that could use the state for its own accumulation project. In the ANC there is no such a class and therefore the ANC will remain unstable and continue to fracture as the pressure of WMC for it to conform to neoliberal austerity drives it to the right, and the petty-bourgeoisie’s imperative of survival drives it to resist. In the course of this resistance and by a necessity born out of its weakness, the petty-bourgeoisie will continue to make radical left noises and threaten the WMC with the wrath of the working class. The current attempts by the petty-bourgeoisie to create a class of black landowners by the grace of the state – the calls for “expropriation without compensation” – represents such left rhetoric.
The ANC house is therefore built on the ‘shifting sands of illusions’. Ramaphosa is forced to retain the cheap labour system and “to acquiesce in the slavery of the people, low wages, mass unemployment, and squalid tenements in the locations and shanty-towns.”
The ANC is again on the road to Polokwane. As in Polokwane just over 10 years ago, the ANC cannot resolve its crisis and South Africa’s crisis of poverty, inequality, violence against women and patriarchy, and a profoundly undemocratic society. It can only keep kicking the proverbial can down the road, until the deepening crisis of South African capitalism cries out for a new actor to enter history and cut the Gordian knot. As we saw with apartheid, only a militant and organised working class is capable of this task.
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