Delegates of the African National Congress (ANC), at its 54th National Elective Conference held in Gauteng province, elected current Vice President of the Republic of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, party-president of the ANC. In all likelihood, Mr. Ramaphosa will be the flag-bearer for the ANC come the general elections, in 2019, when the incumbent President Jacob Zuma (whom he has replaced as party-president) will be stepping down as state president.
The climate of domestic politics in South Africa has been inundated not just with recurring allegations about rampant corruption within the government but especially with the type of corruption which some commentators (particularly media pundits) have attributed to Mr. Zuma’s administration.
Prior to Mr. Zuma, corruption was often described as those elicit practices characterized by political favours, opaque public appointments, cronyism in strategic state and government offices, patronage in procurement decisions and especially in the awarding of lucrative government tenders, economic kick-backs and such kinds of activity in the public or government sector. The private sector, on the other hand, was often portrayed through this juxtaposition as an ethical, potentially innovative site of job and wealth creation, being frustrated by the lawlessness which had found roots in the South African government. Implicit in this juxtaposition also is the strange assumption that despite being a crime against humanity, the apartheid government had sufficient ethics to abstain from corrupt practices. This juxtaposition is very much within the rubric of what is lazily seen as African corruption – as a type of corruption which is positively debauched, shortsighted, greed-driven, callously opportunistic and uniquely corrosive.
During the Zuma era, however, this ordinary type of corruption has assumed at least from the political commentary widely available in the South African media an even greater degree of cynicism which is often conveyed through the term “state-capture.” This term contains within it the primary figures behind it, namely: a very wealthy family from India but now naturalized in South Africa called the Guptas; Mr Zuma, certain members of his cabinet and other public-sector cronies; as well as certain members of the black business community who are part of this higher tier of corruption. The general allegation – and quite a warranted one at that – is that the Gupta family are able, through their business empire and connections with President Zuma to directly fashion or shape South African government policy to best suit their economic interests while growing their political power. The Guptas came to public prominence when a chartered jet carrying members of their family landed at a national key point – a military installation called Waterkloof Air Force Base – in February 2013. Later, allegations would surface that the family had such influence as to pre-select or pre-clear individuals to head government ministries.
The private sector, as understood through the various struggle frameworks of South African resistance to racial apartheid and nation-building after it, is to varying degrees an old relic or a zombified bastion of white minority control of the South African economy, which now functions as a center for orchestrating counter-revolutionary political power. In this political perspective, the private sector helps to channel primarily white interests to frustrate, hurdle, split and splinter the revolutionary anti-apartheid movement towards economic equality. From this angle, state-capture is, therefore, a term which contains a different set of actors, namely: the liberal media, certain black elites (the so-called clever-blacks), the Democratic Alliance party, and even political functionaries who have become perennial one-sided critics of the South African government.
The counter-charge here is as follows: There is too much focus on black corruption and a reluctance to call white corruption what it is (aside from the use of obfuscating and sanitizing terms such as malfeasance, irregularities, tax loopholes, over-sight and so on); so that public sector corruption has become synonymous with black corruption which itself is no more sophisticated than intentional, ill-motivated theft. Whereas white corruption has become synonymous with “complexity, sophistication, innovation, and erudition” without nefarious intent and absolved of direct culpability: it is a crime suffered by invisible victims and without real perpetrators.
The wider economic climate in which these battles are being fought is wantonly neoliberal; so that private sector corruption is seen as an appendage or even an extension of neoliberal economic policies. There is a history of this, seen in the South African government’s rapid policy transition: Since the crafting of the socially sensitive Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) by the first ANC government in 1995 (a policy which created South Africa’s social security and welfare system for the non-white population); to the adoption of similar recommendations to those proposed to other African governments by multilateral institutions under the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs). By 1997, South Africa had shelved RDP and launched the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy, which was itself replaced by the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (ASGISA) in 2005, and then the New Growth Path in 2010. Finally, in 2012-13 the National Development Plan. A stagnant economy has in real terms undermined the government’s spending power which has put pressures to increase borrowing just to maintain a prevailing status of social services and welfare against the impacts of inflation.
The government finds itself here having embarked on a very tenuous balance involving semi-indigenized privatization and financialization (towards Black Economic Empowerment), economic liberalization especially for large multinational corporations who are South Africa’s mainstay in the mining and extractive sectors, and through wealth transfer programmes largely through public education and vocational initiatives, healthcare and a grant system providing a basic stipend for economic relief. If cynicism is to be held aside momentarily, the government effectively created a dual economy and polity, from which the government would assume two kinds of vocabulary: a pro-business neoliberal dialect for one set of patrons, and a socialist-egalitarian, occasionally pan-Africanist dialect for the other. Listening especially to former President Thabo Mbeki betrays this policy equivocation as he shifts from one format into another.
With the election of Ramaphosa to the ANC presidency, one finds a very interesting articulation of the political fault-lines I have described above. If Ramaphosa, who himself is a beneficiary of the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) initiative, recalibrates the nature of business in the public sector and is able to infuse an aura of merit into the government programmes aimed at empowering black and poor South Africans, the growth of a black economic and political elite could be received as a counterweight against neoliberalism especially among center-left commentators. This assertion is not without basis: A discussion conducted on The Big Debate, a show broadcast on the South African state-owned media outlet, SABC, attended by prominent activists, politicians, students, citizens, and businesspersons from various backgrounds alluded to this.
Members of the black business community argued that the allegations about state-capture involving the Guptas and Zuma were, in fact, political machinations by neoliberal actors and beneficiaries of white capital aimed at thwarting and undermining the growth of black business which could undermine their economic basis for political power (see here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UD37IyNDHKo). This criticism was not a denial of public sector corruption, but rather a charge at especially the media for not crusading against private sector corruption with comparable fury. In effect, the term corruption was cast as a racialized concept which made it primarily applicable to black South Africans.
Conversely, if Ramaphosa aligns himself with big business and the private sector (being that he also has considerable stakes in mining) allegations of state-capture on the neoliberal “white corruption-end” of the spectrum will grow, potentially leading to wider de-legitimations of the so-called “co-opted liberal media” coupled with growing discontent in the ANC’s urban and peri-urban African base. Here, the young Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party has found a ready and growing base for challenging the ANC on primarily this economic question.
My predictions, should Ramaphosa become president, are as follows: he will push harder to grow a strong constituency within the black professional class and the black business community. This group tends to be center-left and liberal (in the Blairite or Clinton sense), making them an important ideas fishing ground for the South African media which itself is similarly liberal: this is also an important site for identity politics which have important overlaps with non-black groups especially in Cape Town and other urban areas.
On multinational corporations, he is likely to allow minor tweaks in order to dampen the groundswell being conjured by the massive trade unions while maintaining the status quo. (Ramaphosa has a few but extremely powerful political opponents in the trade union movement.) Some battles aimed at rooting out public sector corruption might generate media noise and score him a few more points, especially among the urban and peri-urban populations who are crowded out by rent-seekers in public and social programmes, and who need effective service delivery in their communities, respectively—especially if cases are conclusively prosecuted in the courts. In recent years, these constituencies have been the main focus of the Democratic Alliances urban strategy outside of Cape Town and the Western Cape.
But beyond this, Ramaphosa will wait – hoping the economy responds to what some are calling the “business confidence” he might store. In the meantime, socialist rhetoric will abound as always, being the strange theme song that it is to the march of centrist policy. Political fissures should thus remain in place for a future day of reckoning. It is for this reason that the Malemas grow increasingly appealing as they dispel this cacophonous spectacle from the sidelines.
Mphatso Moses Kaufulu is a political and cultural sociologist from Malawi concerned with questions about social epistemology in Southern Africa. He is a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He is interested in the idea of culture as “play”, culture as history, and culture as power.
Featured image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons