A plague on both their houses

Neither the kleptocrats nor the liberals offer a viable or a just way forward. But we should not be fooled into thinking they are our only choices.

As we head towards the end of an arduous year, it is difficult to avoid the sense that we are moving in ever tighter circles that bore deeper and deeper into our crisis, rather than being on a road that leads us out of our crisis. 

There is a lot that we can blame on the different factions of the ANC, but there has also been a failure of society. This failure extends beyond the inability to generate credible political alternatives to the ANC and organise the oppressed at the sort of scale that could attain critical mass. There has also been a general failure of political imagination. But while history never repeats itself in a precise rhythm, and we are permanently in and moving towards the new, there are lessons that can be learnt from the past.

It has been argued that the two greatest books written on the African struggle against colonialism are The Black Jacobins and The Wretched of the Earth. The Black Jacobins was written by the Trinidadian intellectual CLR James and published in 1938. It provides an early account of the first great victory against colonialism: the revolution against slavery in Haiti that began in 1791 and ended with the declaration of a free Black republic on 1 January 1804.

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The Wretched of the Earth (more accurately translated as “The Damned of the Earth”) was written by another Caribbean intellectual, the Martiniquan Frantz Fanon, and published in 1961. Fanon’s book examines the settler colony, the evolving forms of resistance against colonialism, the betrayal of that struggle by the national bourgeoisie – the elite that emerges from among the colonised – and then the return to struggle, this time against the national bourgeoisie. 

Both writers were intensely aware that the struggle against colonialism was not a matter of one uniform bloc ranged against another, but that there were competing interests within the colonised. They knew that the elites who emerged from among the colonised would carry impulses to make self-serving deals with the coloniser, turn the new order to private advancement and adopt increasingly crass and repressive forms of rule to protect their wealth and power against society.

Straight talk

Neither James nor Fanon sought to deal with this in delicate prose. They both, as we say in English and isiZulu, grabbed the bull by the horns (ukubamba inkunzi ngezimpondo). James lamented “the waste of all this bravery, devotion and noble feeling on the corrupt and rapacious bourgeoisie”. Fanon, using the same phrase, wrote of the “rapacious bourgeoisie” marked by both “mediocrity and their fundamental immorality”, “a sort of little greedy caste, avid and voracious, with the mind of a huckster”. This, Fanon wrote, could end in the imposition of “a dictatorship of the national-socialist type … fascism”.

One lesson among many that we can take from James and Fanon is that neither our political imagination nor the work of politics should be confined to a binary choice between colonial power and the power of a new and predatory elite that have emerged through the struggle against colonialism. 

In South Africa today, after more than a quarter century of ANC rule, we face both the enduring presence of colonial forms of power as well as the destruction wrought by a rapacious bourgeoisie. Colonial modes of power – evident in everything from the structure of our cities and university curricula to the way that the mining industry is structured and operates and the algebra of whose lives matter and whose don’t – are often nested in and masked by the logic of liberalism. The bull must be grabbed by both horns: liberalism and kleptocratic elite nationalism.

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But there is a difference between attacking the venal, duplicitious and violent elements in the bourgeoisie because they don’t conform to liberal norms and organising opposition to them on the basis that they have betrayed the struggles that brought them to power, and the people in whose name they legitimate their project. 

The brazen plunder of common wealth for private accumulation is always vile. But a less corrupt form of rule organised as liberalism would still be liberalism. It would, in social terms, look like Cape Town rather than Makhanda, Pietermaritzburg, or any of the other towns and cities sinking into ruin under the weight of kleptocratic rule. It would leave most people excluded and impoverished.

The historical betrayal of the ANC – its capture by a “rapacious bourgeoisie” – is a betrayal of the people, of “the bravery, devotion and noble feeling” of the past, the mass suffering of the present – the millions who remain impoverished and without houses or land – and the future prospects for the more than three quarters of young people who are without work, and the millions who have been pushed into an atrocious education system that will confine them to the margins of the global economy.

Concrete alternatives

We do not have to measure this betrayal against utopian hopes that only exist in the realm of the imagination. There are many concrete examples of progressive governments that have simultaneously opposed important aspects of the colonial logic of their societies and effectively advanced social projects. Some of these overlapped with the period in which the South African state was looted, key organisations and institutions ruined and grassroots dissent violently repressed under the rule of Jacob Zuma.

In Brazil, the poverty rate dropped from 40% to 20% under Lula da Silva and the Workers’ Party. Extreme poverty in Bolivia was reduced by 60% and poverty in general by 42% under Evo Morales and the Movement for Socialism. The oil and gas industries were nationalised and 134 million acres of land redistributed from state or private ownership to Indigenous Bolivian families. 

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At the same time, under Zuma and what farcically came to be termed the “radical economic transformation” faction of the ANC, politically connected elites became fabulously wealthy while impoverishment worsened, striking miners were massacred and land reform was a joke. Fanon’s observation, now 60 years old, is apposite: “The treason is not national but social.”

Our opposition to Zuma, the predatory project that cohered around him and the crude mendacity of its propagandists – people like Carl Niehaus, Iqbal Survé and Andile Mngxitama – should be unwavering. We cannot allow them to use claims made in terms of nationalism to elide the social. But at the same time, we cannot leave the opposition to the politics of a repressive kleptocracy to liberalism. We cannot have Cape Town as the horizon of our social hopes. We don’t have to choose between kleptocrats and liberals. We need a third element, a third vision, a third project and, if we can rescue the term from the past, a third force.

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