Spies Tell Lies.

May 19, 2016

Police spies have, historically, been deemed the most contemptible of people. The “copper’s nark” of Britain was traditionally seen as an enemy not only of the criminal fraternity but even of the working class, and richly deserved the savage kicking he received in prisons. In Paris, police spies were on the same level as pimps, but not as valuable members of society. In South Africa, of course, the police spy was necessarily tied in with the apartheid state, and to be called an “impimpi” was as much as one’s life was worth (provided that one was weak, unprotected and unarmed — ideally an elderly female whom the brave young lions could boldly burn to death).

The exception in the West is the middle-class perspective on the political police spy. Of course Verloc in Conrad’s The Secret Agent is an unattractive figure — but then he is an agent provocateur, and working for the Czarist government whom Konrad Korteniowski necessarily disliked. But in a lot of cases the attitude is more that of I Was a Communist for the FBI — focussing on the courage of the political police spy in betraying the spy’s friends and allies on behalf of the centres of power. The same was true under the apartheid regime in South Africa, when police spies were honoured (except by those against whom they were used) — except that some felt that there was something a little problematic about them, not that anybody in authority minded.

Olivia Forsyth’s Agent 407 is, thus, interesting as being a voice from within the problematic stuff. The question is whether anybody will admire it, and also, of course, whether anybody will believe a professional deceiver.

Forsyth was mildly famous at one stage. She was a campus spy — a fairly lowly form of life, but extremely common; it was particularly easy to recruit conservative white people and get them to pretend to be left-wingers in exchange for a free university education. Such people, if they were caught, would not be necklaced or shot, but would simply be embarrassed and might have to go to some other institution. So they risked little and all they had to do was deceive the people who surrounded them, which was usually easy, and pleasing for them because conservative whites naturally despised white left-wingers even more than they despised blacks.

Forsyth comes from a fairly familiar background — part colonial, having been partly brought up in Zambia, part official, since her biological father worked for the government, living some of her time in conservative white Natal, some of her time in conservative white Pietersburg (now Polokwane, of course). So it is not very surprising that someone of this schizophrenic reactionary origin should have sought out a job with the government, first supposedly with the Foreign Service, then with the National Intelligence Service, and then with the Security Branch of the South African Police. Or maybe she was always angling for an SB job — who can say for sure?

What one can say for sure is that this is not a person whom one would trust under any circumstances. You twig this on the first page, when she is talking about how she was getting ready to be sent off to Russia for training, and how she was being escorted out of Luanda by some MK troops, thinking that they were there to defend her against FRELIMO bandits. FRELIMO were, of course, the government of Mozambique at that time, and so had they been there in Angola they would not have been bandits but allies. Also, they were the government which the South African government was trying to overthrow by sponsoring RENAMO guerrillas. In fact the people she is talking about was UNITA, who were certainly bandits, but who were enjoying the full and unqualified support of the South African and United States governments at the time. So someone who can’t tell the difference between her friends and her enemies, who gets her acronyms wrong, can hardly be trusted to know when she is telling the truth — and very probably she is being sloppy anyway because she assumes that her audience is a bunch of ignorant and politically gullible Britons.

Anyway, after a reactionary life and a brief bit of university training she was recruited as Agent RS407. She claims not to know what the initials stand for, but wonders if it meant “Republican Servant”. Unlikely, since it would have been in Afrikaans, and in Afrikaans that would be “Republikeinse Bediende”. More probably it stands for “Republikeinse Spioen”, and the fact that she didn’t think of that suggests how she is completely running away from the realities of her actual trade of treachery and falsification.

Why should she? Why should she be so inaccurate regarding details where she could check the facts with a single act of Googling? Presumably, because the truth does not matter, because what matters is something else. But what?

She started out, with apparently very limited training, as a simple spy on Rhodes campus, the most interesting campus from the perspective of the secret police in the 1980s because it was an extremely right-wing university in an extremely right-wing area, and therefore the destruction of NUSAS, the principal leftist organisation, was always a possibility; the university had already disaffiliated from NUSAS once. (NUSAS depended heavily, and ironically, on the subsidies of institutions, in return for NUSAS members largely keeping students quiet in respect of the corruption and mismanagement of academics and university authorities; it was, thus, a pensionary of the power-structure.)

However, she wanted more. She says this was her own initiative, but it seems likely that the secret police were grooming her for more. It was always assumed that white people rose rapidly within the ANC because black people had an intrinsic respect for whiteness. (While there may have been some truth to this, a reason which the racist secret police failed to consider was that whites who joined the ANC tended to be people with much more initiative and political understanding than the average, and were thus better qualified to rise.) So a white leftist inserted into the ANC might be expected to get into a significant position.

Forsyth also seems to have had one significant advantage. She was young, pretty and would fuck any man within reach. This apparent utter lack of self-respect naturally made her attractive to the thoroughly sexist males of the leadership of the white left, protecting her against exposure as a police spy — for by making herself absolutely available she proved her political virtue. It also distinguished her from the women of the white left who were usually more subordinate dogsbodies and generally had a distaste for such abjection, as a result of exposure to feminism which never troubled Forsyth. (Also, just at the time when Forsyth was becoming active, sexualised “post-feminism” was beginning to raise its head, which could have been used by Forsyth had she so wished.)

Another advantage was that since Forsyth was simply playing a part, and had no liking or respect for any of the people who surrounded her (she claims otherwise, but provides no evidence for why she might have evolved liking or respect for the people she betrayed to prison or death under the increasingly repressive politics of the era) having sex with any of them was of no more significance than the sexual activities of a porn actress; it simply didn’t count as real sex because her partners were not human.

So, having successfully betrayed NUSAS and the End Conscription Campaign at Rhodes, there was nothing for it but to go on to fight against the African National Congress, using her contacts in the white left to gain access to the ANC underground and thus make her way to Luanda and become part of the external ANC, with the possibility of a huge betrayal of the liberation movement — which, of course, for her, was not a betrayal, but simply undermining the enemy. However, unmentioned in the background of one of Forsyth’s trophy photographs of all the young people whom she was informing on to the apartheid police force is the cheerful face of the sprightly, bumptious, self-centred aspirant journalist Gavin Evans, who unbeknownst to people like Forsyth was one of the main ANC counterintelligence officers inserted into the white left. It seems quite likely that Evans was the man who recognised that Forsyth was an actor, and was probably at best a stooge and, most probably, a traitor.

Forsyth was playing in a whole new game, again unbeknownst to her; the white left inside South Africa had long ago given up all hope of curbing the vast flood of police spies (they were considered quite useful for stuffing envelopes and making platform-parties seem larger) whereas the ANC took spies seriously, partly because they were useful in maintaining an atmosphere of paranoia which benefited many of the more repressive leaders of the organisation.

So when Forsyth arrived in Luanda she was monitored, and then scrutinised, and then chucked into Quattro, a.k.a Number Four Camp, the prison camp where ANC dissidents and spies were held, abused, re-educated and sometimes debriefed. And this is the point at which the narrative really goes off the rails.

Forsyth claims that she did a deal with Ronnie Kasrils, the head of MK Intelligence (as opposed to Mbokhodo, ANC Security, which ran Quattro and was generally of much higher status and lower quality than MK Intelligence). Under this deal, she would eventually be swapped for some or other captured SWAPO or MK guerrilla, but she would really be working for MK, and would therefore be an ANC intelligence agent at the heart of the white establishment. In fact, she hints that while she had been busy betraying NUSAS at Rhodes she had undergone a complete change of heart and thereafter wanted nothing more than to be posted to spy on the ANC so that she could betray the apartheid establishment to them.

This is, of course, entirely her claim, which no conceivable evidence could substantiate. It is naturally what she might be expected to claim thirty years after the fact, when virtually everyone who could refute her claims is dead or senile. Of course it is possible that she might have so fallen in love with treachery and become so detached from reality and moral good sense that she might have pursued such an agenda for its own sake. (It is inconceivable that she might have somehow developed actual moral sense; nothing in her entire career suggests this.)

However, she obviously did some kind of deal, presumably under pressure, for she was taken out of Quattro again and placed under house arrest in Luanda. Conceivably Kasrils, who was always rather gullible and something of a grandstander, although honest according to his lights and more competent than most of those around him, was fooled by her line. Of course this would not have been a great accomplishment — she was an insignificant part of the South African espionage machinery and would not have known much more than gossip, nor been able to learn much — but MK and its allies were desperate for some modest success at this stage, their machinery in South Africa having been heavily penetrated or broken up. She then escaped from her safe-house to the British Embassy in that city. (Supposedly, the British government was highly indignant that the Angolans did not fast-track the rapid and easy repatriation of a spy from the South African government, which was then occupying and bombarding large parts of their country.)

Of course this escape makes nonsense of her claim to have wished to be a double agent for the ANC. There was no cause for such an escape unless one assumes that she remained loyal to the regime. After that she participated in a ludicrous pretense undertaken by the Security Branch under which she would pretend to have been a top agent who had successfully penetrated the ANC’s heartland and made it back with vital information, a pretense which fooled nobody who didn’t want to be fooled. Part of the deal was an arranged marriage with another secret policeman (probably the lick of truth in Forsyth’s narrative is that the Security Branch no longer trusted her) which, like the rest of her career and life, gradually faded away into the obscurity and misery which she had always richly deserved.

Why bother to write the book? Perhaps for the money, but who thought that the disingenuous fantasies of a dishonest reactionary would sell? Or was it sponsored by someone seeking to sanitise the odious history of the apartheid regime’s police spies? There are a few vague hints in the book that Forsyth would like to present herself as an anti-Communist – although this is ill-constructed and also decidedly implausible. Arguably, this is the kind of political stance which modern reactionaries try to take, and perhaps the wish to sanitise its own record on behalf of the old apartheid regime matched Forsyth’s desire to justify herself and possibly confuse the public enough to escape too much historical odium – for in the end Forsyth’s apparent lies and distortions are as likely as anything more honest and accurate to get into the history books.

Sad, really, but hardly surprising.


May 19, 2016

The last few years have seen a number of U.S. foreign policy initiatives, all of which have been disastrous. The U.S. government has avoided taking responsibility for these disasters by claiming in retrospect that it had nothing to do with them — the “Arab Spring” calamities, the invasion of Libya, the assault on Syria, the attack on Russia, the invasion of Yemen, the deliberately raised tension with China, the political and economic chaos in Brazil, the political, military and economic chaos all across West Africa. All of these were problems which could have been avoided, but the U.S. government and its allies in NATO determined to promote the problems as if they were solutions. This, on top of all the calamities which arose out of the Afghan, Iraqi and Somali invasions, has generated the greatest global refugee crisis in history (which is a pretty impressive accomplishment given the bloody history of the past couple of hundred years) and a scale of political chaos almost unprecedented; vast areas of Africa and Asia either have no effective government, or no legitimate government, and the march of disaster continues ceaselessly.

So we have grown accustomed to bad political conditions in countries which cannot defend themselves. What is a little unusual about this is not only the scale of the problem, but also the fact that some countries, it would appear, can defend themselves. Syria and Yemen did not just roll over and submit to the Wahhabi aggression of Saudi Arabia. Russia resisted the attempt to seize her military bases in Crimea. Iran was not bullied by American warmongering. China was fazed neither by the American blustering attempt to bully them out of the South China Sea, nor by yet another risible American attempt to seize control of the faltering economies of the Pacific Rim. (The Trans-Pacific Partnership, if successful, will deftly eliminate competitors to China, since American economic domination of a country invariably means the collapse of manufacturing there, and hence the countries involved will be more dependent on China and financially weaker in relation to it).

It would appear that not only is America a gangster who can only effectively rough up toddlers, but that some of the toddlers have called in their big brothers, or invested in steak-knives. That is why the American gangster is now obliged to rough up babies in pushchairs (Honduras, the Central African Republic, Burundi and so on) because it dares not take on anything that can even feebly fight back — a logical extrapolation of the Powell Doctrine.

All this is bad, but it’s not very bad for those not directly bombed, shot, burned or robbed. It does little harm to that part of the world which is able to defend themselves against imperialist aggression. Admittedly, it means that those countries where imperialist aggression is most effective are growing steadily economically weaker. This might be quite beneficial for those who can defend themselves (basically, Russia, China and their friends). The big problem is, however, that economic activity is global, and those who are able to defend themselves against bombers and gummen might not be able to defend themselves against bankers.

Why is the global financial system behaving so oddly? The DOW is up to levels which were only fantasies in the 1990s — a book called DOW 18,000 was jeered at when it came out, but now the DOW has reached that level. European and NATO-supporting Asian stock markets are at record highs. The US unemployment rate is down from where it was five years ago. It appears, according to the financial trade papers, that we are booming, and yet those same trade papers are telling us that there is a crisis, the exchanges are jerking around wildly, currencies are bouncing up and down as if they were on bungee cords, and Solemn Utterances from Lenders of Last Resort are delivered to Inspire Confidence, which of course causes panic because everybody knows that the lenders of last resort, the privatised entities which were once national banks, have no money worth the paper it is printed on or the electrons it was created with.

The general issue seems to be twofold: the collapse of the oil price, and the collapse of the Chinese economy. Together these are sending the world into a tailspin. The collapse of the oil price is of course nobody’s fault because that is the inscrutable working of the invisible hand in the free market. But the collapse of the Chinese economy is the fault of the Communists, and the solution to that problem is to overthrow the Communist Party and have the IMF install a free-market dictatorship in Beijing (possibly Chiang Kai-Shek could be disinterred and propped up with cushions), a policy which worked so well in saving the economies of Italy, Greece and above all Ukraine.

Now that we’ve all had our little laugh at the explanations in every newspaper in the world, shall we consider what is actually happening?

The big hidden issue is that national treasuries, mainly the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the European Central Bank, have been creating money and using it to buy bonds from various financial institutions which were in trouble, so that those institutions could have liquidity and could lend money without fearing that they might be caught short without cash and go bankrupt. This has been going on since 2008 in some cases, and it involves vast amounts of money, none of which has anything to do with productivity.

If the money had actually been lent to producers in the form of investment, then it would have generated massive economic growth (and also quite a lot of inflation). This is the theory behind the concept of monetarism, of supply-side economics; create enough money and the economy will automatically look after itself. It has been repeatedly disproved, but it remains alive because it puts financial institutions, which are highly centralised industries with few employees, at the centre of the national economy, relegating all productive activities to the margins. Anyway, once again the theory was disproved. What the banks did was to plough the money into the stock markets all over the world, which duly soared, although the money was not used for productive investment there either; it was mostly recycled into web-based and financial companies.

What all this means is that the global economy is now more of a Ponzi scheme than it was in 2007; the bulk of economic growth in the NATO countries and their allies is in financialised systems which depend heavily in cash generated by national treasuries. This money is virtual, however; if anybody starts to sell seriously, the value of the stocks and bonds will fall precipitately, as began to happen in China before the Chinese government stepped in to stop the game of musical chairs (the Chinese National Bank is not a private entity and the Chinese stock exchange is under government control). In other words, the moment the mythical gold actually needs to be produced, it will turn back into straw — which is what you expect from fairy gold. Meanwhile, the US government has stopped pumping money into the system, and although the Japanese and the Europeans are pumping money into the system it is not taking up the slack, partly because the US government has also raised interest rates and is expected to do so some more.

Basically, everybody is waiting for a huge financial crisis which will probably make the 2007 crisis look puny (since the global economy is more fragile than it was, and since the financial system is less resilient and more endebted than it was) and the Americans are pursuing policies which seem likely to precipitate the crisis, believing (almost certainly wrongly) that they are better able to ride out a crisis than their competitors in Europe and Japan. In other words, while NATO is engaged in a shooting or a cold military war with the rest of the world, the U.S. is engaged in a financial war with the rest of NATO.

Meanwhile, the Chinese economy has slowed down. We are told that this is a crisis, but in fact the Chinese economy has slowed from a growth rate of 7.7% to a growth rate of 6.9% per annum — in other words, instead of growing three and a half times faster than the U.S. economy and eleven times faster than the South African economy, it is growing three times and ten times faster respectively. A recession that ain’t.

What is more significant is that the Chinese financial economy is in trouble — a real estate bubble and various related financial scams has taken severe toll on the Chinese stock exchange and banking system, although there have been few substantial failures and of course there is plenty of money sloshing around because of China’s rigid exchange controls and nationalised central banking system. Many of China’s billionaires working in hot money and derivative scams have lost their shirts — which pleases the Chinese government, because financial billionaires are much too independent for their liking, and they don’t want to have to kowtow to them. However, the West ploughed a lot of money into those silly schemes, and so a lot of Westerners have lost a lot of money and are worried about it. Hence they are blaming the Chinese in order not to blame themselves.

Maybe that isn’t a big enough disaster to trigger a financial crisis — although given the feeble state of the European and Japanese financial economies, and America’s destructive financial policies, it might be. But the fall in the oil price is an ostrich delivering its plops on the head of Wall Street’s bronze bull.

The oil price has fallen because the Americans wanted it down. Having so much money, they could easily manipulate the futures price in oil, and that would spook investors to bring the current price down in line with that. Meanwhile, when they told the Saudis that they wanted the oil price down, the Saudis were happy to oblige. The Saudis were flush with cash, and they were busy eliminating two of their enemies by overthrowing the Ba’ath Party in Syria and persuading the Israelis and Americans to invade Iran. Cutting the oil price wouldn’t have to be a long-term thing, and once the Wahhabis were in power in Damascus and Iran had collapsed into civil war and chaos, the Saudis would rule the region.

But the other big thing was to hammer the U.S. fracking industry. Fracking in the U.S. is to some extent another Ponzi scheme — it doesn’t produce nearly as much oil and gas as the propaganda pretends, it’s grotesquely expensive and environmentally devastating, and in the long run it makes it harder to get the bulk of the hydrocarbons out because they get lost in the cracks. However, in the short term it was the biggest growth industry in the U.S. and the thing which was going to make Barack Obama’s Presidency look good in its last year. But that was when oil was $60 a barrel and set to rise. Now that it’s below $35 a barrel, no sane person would invest in fracking. So the industry has lost its investments and is frozen — actually it’s set to collapse. So why did the Americans permit this? Because they wanted to see Russia, Iran and Venezuela collapse first, and because the fracking industry is insured against losses.

So the American insurance industry is having to bail out the fracking industry. But this has been going on for a long time, and the heat is on the insurance industry and on the fracking industry, both of which look in a bad way. At a time when the possibility of a financial crisis looms large, this is not a good thing to see. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran have shown no sign of collapsing — the American-promoted sanctions against both countries have meant that they don’t need all that much foreign currency to survive, and both countries have developed strong manufacturing industries. Venezuela is in a bad way, but that doesn’t really matter. And also meanwhile, the Saudis have spent vast amounts of money in the Syrian quagmire and their dream of a Wahhabi regime in Syria is nowhere near fruition; meanwhile they overstretched themselves by invading Yemen and are in another quagmire there, and so they are blowing vast amounts of cash which they don’t have, based on income they aren’t getting, and are screaming for help. As is Nigeria, America’s closest ally in West Africa (and an economic basket case).

So, basically, the next few months could see a calamitous global financial collapse. But not just a financial and banking collapse; a serious decline in the purchasing power of Western currencies, and a substantial crisis of overproduction in Asia and Germany which will throw people out of work in those regions — problems which didn’t come up in 2007. That will combine with the bursting of the bubbles which have been inflated by massive money-creation over the last few years, and with the decline in trade caused by the devastation of so many minor countries in recent years. This looks like a perfect storm — and given that there are so many politico-military flashpoints which the Americans have engineered between themselves and their allies and their competitors, and given that the NATO countries will be the big victims in any such collapse, the consequences could be a global war.

Invest in candles and cans of beans!

Same Game, Different Rules.

May 19, 2016

The last decade has seen a dramatic deterioration in South African economic and political conditions. In this modern world very little attention is paid to memory, so the world of 2005 seems misty and vague, but in retrospect it was a national Utopia; we had a strong and popular government which was working to solve problems like inequality and HIV and foreign affairs with vigour and efficacy, we had a booming economy, and the nation was cohesive; the poor expected that someone would look after them, the rich expected to be left alone with their wealth, blacks and whites were gradually moving away from the hostilities of the apartheid era. In contrast, nowadays things seem to be falling apart; even the Parliamentary opposition has fallen into desuetude.

But in 2005 many were convinced that South African economic and political conditions were simply not good enough — which was a fair enough claim if anybody had been able to prove that they had a better alternative. There was a strong groundswell calling for radical change within the Tripartite Alliance, as if this long national nightmare of peace and prosperity needed to be brought to an end, to make room for strife and poverty. And, lo, that was exactly what came to pass. Now, in 2015, there seems to be another groundswell within the Tripartite Alliance, calling, if not for radical change because nobody would believe in that any more, at least for regime change.

Basically, the SACP and COSATU are threatening, as they did between 1998 and 2007, to withdraw support from the ANC until their demands are met. They are also, increasingly, criticising the government’s policies, and are throwing their weight behind a candidacy for the Presidency of the ANC not favoured by its current President. This all looks like a re-run of the Mbeki-Zuma struggle of 2005-8, but it is actually very different in practice although the actors and agendas are very similar.

The SACP and COSATU are aware that their influence within the ANC must decline with the departure of Zuma, who leaned on them and their capacity for manipulating elections very heavily in order to seize control of the party. Now the rest of the ANC leadership at provincial level is as good at rigging votes and faking credential challenges as anyone in the alliance, and they don’t need the SACP and COSATU. Therefore, the formerly indispensible cheaters are naturally looking for other allies. However, the process of looking for other allies makes them behave unreliably from the perspective of Zuma supporters. Therefore, increasingly, the SACP and COSATU are distancing themselves from Zuma – and thus makes others eager to step into their shoes as the gofers and hit-men for Zuma. In other words, they are making themselves dispensible, and meanwhile, since they have until recently been the utterly unthinking supporters of Zuma, nobody imagines that they are in any way principled.

Their weakness might not seem to be a problem. When they attacked Mbeki in 2005, he was completely independent of them, since they had withdrawn support for him for the previous seven years. Yet the hostility which they showed overthrew him – so can’t this be done again?

In 2005-7, however, the SACP and COSATU operated in alliance with the sleazeballs and derelicts who’d been flung from power, and with agents of Zuma who had hidden their real allegiances until it was too later for Mbeki to act against them in any principled way. There are still plenty of sleazeballs and derelicts, but the ones who opposed Zuma, or didn’t support him enough, have been turfed out of all positions and made a horrible example of, and that doesn’t encourage anybody to follow their example. So the SACP and COSATU may not have as many allies as they need, even though obviously think they have them.

The SACP and COSATU can no lonber pretend that they stand for anything positive. Both are so tainted with their unquestioning support for Zuma’s antics, especially where it contradicted everything they pretended to stand for, that they can’t get much in the way of disinterested public support any more. Therefore it’s harder for them to fool people into supporting whatever clown they decide to support, except for those whom they can bribe with cash (of which they don’t have much these days) or offers of jobs (and they have difficulty being trusted even with that.).

Much of the big business community supports the same person that the SACP and COSATU support — namely, Cyril Ramaphosa — so it is possible that the SACP and COSATU might be able to garner their support. However, the alternative to Cyril Ramaphosa is not a figure like Mbeki, whom the neoliberal elite hated and feared; it is, instead, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, whom the neoliberal elite know that they can do business with. So, although the elite might like Cyril, they don’t like him so much that they feel the need to do any favours for the SACP and COSATU. Moreover, the neoliberal elite ultimately does not like Communists or the organised working class, and would like to see them both eliminated; they were happy to offer them rope with which they could hang themselves, but now much of the big business community thinks that it’s gallows-time.

The general situation is also very different. Under Mbeki, the economy was doing tolerably well and the illusion of success was widespread in the global economy as well. Administration appeared to be functioning. It seemed easy to throw everything into chaos without long-term consequences; it seemed so easy to run South Africa, once one assumed that Mbeki was a corrupt and incompetent windbag; even a disaster like him could accomplish much.

But now the economy is deteriorating weekly, the world a combination of bloodbath and banking crisis, the administration of the country is inept on so many levels, leaderless and bankrupt. We know that bad times are coming. Therefore, disruption and disaster no longer seem like fun episodes without consequence, but rather seem like things liable to precipitate the catastrophe which even the ruling class is a little worried about, for fear that they might not get their cash out before it is looted or becomes valueless. Therefore, the ruling-class struggle against Zuma is not playing out in the same way that the ruling-class struggle against Mbeki played out.

There is not going to be a massive uprising. There is not going to be a mobilisation of the ANC’s leadership against Zuma. This is partly because Zuma has been there before and knows how it is done; in this sense he is more shrewd than Mbeki because he does not suffer from any illusion about how the members of his party or of the alliance might be motivated by any idealism. Like Stalin, he knows that politicians are motivated by greed, spite and fear, and therefore Zuma prevailed over Mbeki as Stalin prevailed over Trotsky, and any competitor to Zuma who does not have everything in the ANC sewn up in advance will fail as Bukharin and Zinoviev failed against Stalin after Trotsky’s fall.

But in that case, the ruling class attempt to overthrow Zuma will necessarily fail, because it is half-hearted. The ruling class doesn’t really care who rules South Africa so long as they rule whoever that person is. They know that the difference between Zuma or Dlamini-Zuma or Ramaphosa or even Maimane is not all that significant — certainly much less significant than any South African journalist would like people to believe. But meanwhile, Zuma very desperately doesn’t want Ramaphosa to take over, and meanwhile, a lot of Zuma’s supporters, and even his opponents, very well remember the slights and bullying and backstabbing which the SACP and COSATU perpetrated back in their days of glory. The fact that they want Ramaphosa to win is almost, in itself, a reason to oppose Ramaphosa. Wouldn’t it be nice, they ask themselves, if the SACP and COSATU went down to hell, dragged down by the concrete lifebelt of Ramaphosa?

As a result, current South African politics is strangely content-free. The savage and well-justified attacks on Zuma late last year, the frantic wish to have him removed for his temerity in deposing the ruling-class’s own man in the Ministry of Finance, blazed up but then died down again as soon as Zuma had appointed the ruling-class a new man in the same Ministry. Nobody cared that the new new man had a track record of incompetence identical to the old new man’s. The fury was just stage fire, created for the purpose and sustained by the incoherent and inchoate hatred which a politically ignorant media establishment is obliged to feel for anyone against whom their masters tell them to turn their hatred. When the ruling class walked away from the fire they had started, of course it guttered out; there was no fuel for it at all.

So we are stuck in a meaningless political transition between alternatives, none of whom are of any use to us. It is like the American Presidential elections, a mass of sound and fury and fanatical declarations that this empty suit or that empty suit represents the greatest hope or the vilest betrayal that ever existed in the history of what was once a Republic. Truly, our politics are now normal, driven, like everyone else’s, by Twitter and Facebook.

And without hope, of course.

Dowling’s Good Bad Book.

May 19, 2016

Finuala Dowling is one of the more interesting writers working within the white community in South Africa at the moment, largely because she is working for her own amusement rather than seeking to fulfil the expectations of a market in return for cash. Therefore it is possible to read her work without devoting too much time to identifying the familiar political buttons being pressed by the writer so as to manipulate the reader, and which are so irritating when one reads, say, Deon Meyer.

But since she is serving herself rather than market, it is natural that she should draw on her own life. Although Dowling’s life has been interesting enough to be worth writing about, it also leads to a certain repetitious self-consciousness — even self-indulgence — in her works. Also, where she is making use of painful memories, there is a certain manifest difficulty in what she is producing, a degree of blockage and distance between the creative writing and the material being utilised. This blockage is probably not artistic but is likely to be produced by Dowling’s own sense of hurt and loss.

This was already present in Home-Making For the Down-At-Heart, where she was writing about the dementia and death of her mother. She had already written most of a volume of poems about this, and the novel seemed to be a way of addressing the issue in a sustained way. The poems were usually short vignettes depicting her mother’s bizarre behaviour or utterances. The novel was a sustained depiction of decline and death (seen from the perspective of a person who had her own problems with coming to terms with daily life.)

However, both of these volumes managed to evade the essential horror of the issue by exploiting the dark, ironic humour which could be derived from living with someone who has lost touch with reality. As a result, although Dowling was managing to make the painful episodes of her life appear entertaining for the reader (and not so painful as to be difficult to read, which would have been commercial suicide) it’s a moot point whether the end product was therapeutic. Perhaps art shouldn’t be therapeutic.

So is this true of her most recent book, The Fetch?

Well, the work is interesting because it is an attempt to break out of the Hout Bay Bohemian-suburban environment which is the setting for her earlier novels. Instead it is set in Slangkop, an imaginary village across False Bay from Hout Bay, making it the mirror-image of her hometown. Daringly, in a sense, there is a tough, no-nonsense, elderly black person who acts as foil to the central character, a naïf librarian who stumbles into the inner circle of both the village’s only aesthete and the village’s only hippie.

But these characters are distinctly stereotypical and their interactions are not coherently motivated; nobody seems to have any real desire to do anything other than fulfil their role as defined by their status in the book. They bounce between each other like billiard-balls, remaining completely unaffected by being bounced (as when the hippie is obliged to adopt an abandoned baby). It is not really possible to engage with these characters as people; the problem isn’t so much that Dowling is trying to appeal to her audience, as that she needs these characters to provide a background for the central feature of the story which is the relationship between the librarian and the aesthete. Therefore, although the characters are supposed to be human, they are actually mechanical dolls.

The trouble with Slangkop itself is that it is not a realised place. There are occasional references to location and to events, but it is not a community; there is none of the subtle interaction between people which exists in small towns. Everybody is isolated, but this is not social commentary, it is rather a lack of development. Again, a place was needed to provide a background for the relationship between the central character and the aesthete, but it is not described in a way which would make the reader want to visit it, let alone believe that it exists.

The narrative is a series of vignettes, often stylised (as with the lone baboon which has lost its troop, which is obviously a metaphor for the doomed male homosexual character). The book is similarly fragmented into episodes which appear arranged to show the innocence of the central character and the way in which harsh reality crushes it. She does not understand the world, but the more she tries to engage with it by falling in love with the aesthete and then becoming his dogsbody, the more she is setting herself up to show that the world is not prepared to conform to her expectations.

This is a fair enough point. Of course, it is a very old story, the story of the romantic young person who imposes her own values on the world and thus manages to kid herself that she has attained her goal, when she is simply living in a fantasy. The person who tries to risk all for love — and it is always tempting to give in to the deliriums of desire — is going to be disappointed in the object of the love, because nobody is as perfect as a fantasy partner. The more the lover gives to the object of desire, the more the lover surrenders, the greater the eventual disaster is likely to be when reality breaks in. It is well resolved in the book; the aesthete is (of course) bisexual and runs off with a beautiful boy, and the beautiful boy is (of course) a psychopathic manipulator who steals all the aesthete’s money. It is a familiar white middle-class Cape Town story, and the bulk of it is the story of Dowling’s own disastrous marriage.

And then what? Dowling makes the librarian a rather hapless figure (actually everybody in the book is rather hapless, but she stands out in this respect), easily threatened by dangerous urban women her age in expensive outfits which they are more willing to take off than she is. This is slightly Jamesian (and in a way perhaps Dowling is trying to be a bit Michiel Heyns). For a contrast to this we therefore need a corrupt but fascinating central character, which it seems likely that the aesthete is meant to be. But in the book, he isn’t; unlike the corrupt milieu figures in Heyns’ Invisible Furies, Dowling’s aesthete isn’t sufficiently strongly constructed to bear the weight of being a tragic hero.

It seems likely that he is loosely modelled on some of the figures at the English Department at UCT where Dowling studied, some of whom tried to fulfil the role of being life-artists and big frogs in tiny artistic ponds. Slangkop, however, cannot provide a background like this because nobody there cares about aesthetics or life-artists, and the aesthete is thus suspended in a void; only his parties and his journalism exist to impress anybody (and what pitiful accomplishments these are, getting an article published somewhere or getting some pretty people to come and drink your whisky). Nothing that happens seems unusual or interesting enough to justify making this person the centre of attention. Therefore his fall, and his subsequent death from AIDS, appear both inevitable and insignificant; since the central character is no longer in love with him and nobody cares about him, and nothing he has done suggests that the planet is losing a giant talent or intellect, however much compassion Dowling pours into the last part of the text it still amounts to very little impact.

Again, perhaps this is part of the problem. Dowling seems, on one hand, to be offering a kind of tribute to her ex-husband. On the other hand, her ex-husband was himself a master of illusion, creating the impression of being a giant talent on the basis of very little accomplishment, so this is a fair representation. But it’s in a sense sad and squalid, and it’s never quite clear in the text whether the aesthete is indeed a no-talent, delusional loser, or whether he is indeed a great talent gone to seed and ultimately to waste.

Perhaps, then, Dowling is torn between the artistic need of the text and the truth of the material which she is dealing with. But still more important is the problem that she is dealing with her own sense of pain and loss, making it difficult for her to engage with anything; on one hand the other characters in the work are foils for the aesthete and the librarian, yet on the other hand if the aesthete and the librarian’s interaction is made too powerful then this opens all the wounds of her marriage. Thus if the book had been more of a success as a narrative, it might also have been horribly painful for its author — and maybe she wasn’t ready, or even able, to go there.

Maybe the moral of the story is that Dowling made a mistake in trying to do this in the first place. It’s an honourable failure; the book is reasonably well-constructed and written with Dowling’s customary skill and there is a lot of potential there, even if it has its trivial and manipulative side. But it does seem to be a failure, and the failure does seem to arise from trying to exorcise a ghost who simply won’t go away however much Dowling tries to drive him out.

The Force is the Last Refuge of the Incompetent.

January 12, 2016

Matthew D’Ancona, the dishonest right-wing journalist, says that the Star Wars narrative is a myth, or mythos, or legend, or whatever, for our time. Although this sounds like the kind of drivel which is always said about anything which looks remotely like fantasy, and although the source is almost guaranteed to generate bullshit, let us not dismiss this instantly. Let us examine it for a moment, and then dismiss it instantly.

A myth is a way of accounting for the mysteries of the world. Usually it is in some way actionable — either as a warning, or as an example to be followed, although usually not completely literally. It is never completely banal or meaningless.

So, assuming that Star Wars is a myth, what does it constitute? Well, there are heroes and villains. This is not like the Iliad, where there are no such simple differences. Instead, the heroes are impossibly good, although occasionally outfitted with clunky minor negative qualities in an unsuccessful attempt to stop them from being saccharine. The villains, meanwhile, have all the tropes of evil apart from one — namely, motivation. The villains are evil for the sheer joy of being evil, a collection of Saurons obsessed with power for its own sake. This does not really provide us with any example for acting in the real world — instead, what it does is to confirm the propaganda mythos of the Western imperialist states, most particularly the United States, under which everybody except “us” is evil, and it is not necessary to comprehend evil because they must simply be blown up.

The universe is exciting, but in a wholly innocent way; it is there to be explored, but (except when the evil Empire is involved, when menace is always present) there are no consequences arising from this exploration. There is little to be learned from this exploration. Rather, what must be learned is a simple series of techniques (somehow not available to everyone) by which one may use the “Force”, along with a few talismans like “light sabers”, to become invincible. Of course this “Force” may be used for evil, and that is what the Empire is doing, so therefore by conquering the Empire one is also purifying the basic nature of the universe.

All this sounds childish — in the most precise sense; it is the fantasic response of a bullied eleven-year-old boy to his objective circumstances; if only I had a gang to join, if only I weren’t picked on, if only Dad understood me more, if only Mom were a little more indulgent, if only I didn’t have to go to school, hey, look at that pretty frog sitting on that log! It is no accident that the original Star Wars was consciously aimed at prepubescent children (though with a few nods to older people so that their parents — and the reviewers — could sit through it) and that is why the central characters are so young, and consciously presented as even younger than the ages of their actors. And that is why so much of the second trilogy (which is the first trilogy in the narrative — like some Soviet technology, Star Wars is crude but far from simple) also features children. (However, the second trilogy is much more sexualised, not because this is integral to the plot but because of cultural changes among Western youth over thirty years.)

An important point here is that the story being told in the original Star Wars was very much a Cold War narrative. The story being told to the U.S. public was that a gigantic and loathesome Soviet Union had nearly taken over the world, and that the United States stood as a lone and feeble paladin against this vast, expanding monster. It was a crock of shit borrowed by Harry Truman’s spooks and thugs from the Second World War narrative developed by the Roosevelt administration (and even then it was deeply flawed). It was intended to scare the people into obeying their leaders, and it succeeded and the result was the Miltown-tranquillized 1950s, and this is the period to which Spielberg and Lucas were referring, a time of placid, unthinking obedience and confidence in one’s own rectitude.

As such, then, Star Wars is not a myth or an epic. It is an appealing but false story told to children to make them docile and perhaps educate them to comply with their parents’ commands. It is, thus, a fairy-tale.

This is not to condemn it. Fairy stories are not necessarily degraded or despicable. However, they have their limitations.

One of the most positive things about the original Star Wars, a feature which to some extent survived in the sequel but gradually disappeared over time, was that the backstory was told only through brief and casual allusion. The point about a fairy story is that you have to suspend disbelief except in certain crucial cases where elements are introduced to generate plausibility. If the story is of such a kind as to make the child ask “But why did that happen? Why did she do that? What did he want?” then the story is failing. (This, by the way, is different from a slightly young child asking “Why?”, where this word is code for “I’m bored and want to change the subject”.) There is nearly nothing of this in the original Star Wars because the action is carried along at speed with minimal explanation and therefore minimal demand for plausibility, and above all, minimal opportunity to ask why something is happening. More to the point, the gaps in the plot are plugged with references to a backstory in which one may assume that someone out there is in charge without being expected to ask who, or to what end.

Unfortunately, this backstory came to dominate the narrative. Just as while the Galactic Emperor was simply a flicker in the distance he was a genuinely scary figure, but shrank into pathetic pretense when he appeared in the flesh, so the crass, ill-conceived bricolage of the story of how the bad guys overthrew the Old Republic detracted from the fairy-story without providing any genuine mythology to take its place. Clumsy Oedipal imagery didn’t help much, and the ghastly racism entailed in the treatment of aliens like the Ewoks and Jar-Jar showed how little real taste Lucas, and to some extent even Spielberg, really possessed when they were not guided by masters like Eisenstein (whose genius in Alexandr Nevski Spielberg plagiarised to create his storm troopers). The problem is that when Lucas was working within a childish framework his project functioned well; outside that framework, the attempt to turn fairy-story into myth failed.

Moreover, when adults, who should have discriminatory capacity, are told that they, too, should believe in fairy stories, there is something wrong. It is perhaps no accident that Star Wars appeared at the beginning of the neoliberal era, when the whole of society began to rely, ideologically, on complete claptrap instead of partial claptrap. It is certainly no accident that Ronald Reagan immediately took up Star Wars imagery for his campaign to remilitarise and depoliticise American society, in his “Evil Empire” speech, going full circle back to the roots of the movie in Truman-style politics.

This is the basic problem. The most recent Star Wars work is, in a technical sense, simply a collage of imagery from the earlier Star Wars movies. There are vaguely interesting ideas — part of the story is set on a planet littered with the wreckage of the previous war, for instance — but none is developed, nor are they related to the action in the way that the fragmented backstory was in the first Star Wars. For no apparent reason, the current bad guys (who are allegedly a sort of fascist movement) have adopted all the trappings of the previous bad guys, the Sith regalia, the storm trooper armour, and even Darth Vader’s silly shuttlecraft.

There is no backstory here, or none worthy of the name; just unmotivated evil which must be fought against. It is the triumph of stupid authority; do what we tell you, fight against the enemy, although without having to make any obvious sacrifice yourself (but respect those mercenaries who are paid to sacrifice themselves on your behalf). We have seen this in the various wars launched by NATO countries against demonised enemies from the Taliban to the Islamic State, and the fascist tropes of the most recent enemy are similar to the Islamofascist tropes used to justify the invasion of the Middle East in pursuit of oil.

This introduction to a fresh trilogy has nothing fresh about it — except for one thing; it is no longer intended for children. Or, to be precise, in the modern American visual culture, it is no longer possible to discriminate between works intended for children and those intended for adults. (The most popular movies in America, and some of the most popular in the world, are based on comic strips for teenagers, and it is solemnly pretended that these pitiful pretexts for garish computer-generated special effects are serious, message-laden narratives.) The central characters in this work are young adults in their late teens or early twenties — immature, of course, but not dependent on others and not willing to learn from anything except their Jedi and Sith masters. The heroine is sexy, the hero is hunky, the villain is rather reminiscent of a youthful, callower version of Snape in the Harry Potter movies. There are vague sexual tensions between the three, never properly explored, of course. So the narrative is no longer a fairy-story — or else it is a fairy-story for what passes for grown-ups in the modern world.

And this is the problem: the narrative is not a narrative for grown-ups. It is a child’s story, a battle between a good which has no merit and an evil which has no credibility, with evil bound to lose because it is supposed to in the comic-books, and with no real plausible representation of the world at all, not even the distorted and symbolic representation of a child’s vision. The logical contradictions and farcically inept emotional manipulation are not excused by any merits on any other level, nor can you write it off by saying that this is not intended for grown-ups. It is the triumph of the people whom Hunter S Thompson rightly defined, in his depiction of the Clinton years, as the New Dumb.

Perhaps the coming of a fresh Clinton provides the perfect background to this horridly ill-conceived, clumsy, brutalising and wretchedly unimaginative movie.

Na-na-na-na-na Nene, nê?

January 12, 2016

Nyaaaaah. So the President has sacked his Finance Minister. Big, fat, hairy deal. Presidents sack Finance Ministers all the time, don’t they?

Well, not really, comes the refrain. Finance Ministers are frontline soldiers in the global war against the working class. Sacking your Finance Minister is like sacking your boss general in wartime. The French did that in May 1940, when they fired General Gamelin for losing the Battle of Sedan and brought in General Weygand, who proceeded to lose all of northern France, Paris and Bordeaux, after which he blamed the politicians and handed power over to the French Fascists who set up a Commission of Inquiry which exonerated them and explained that France had been stabbed in the back by Communists, Jews and Freemasons, who were all handed over to the Nazi occupiers as soon as convenient.

Um, maybe that’s not a very comforting analogy.

What did Nhlanhla Nene do wrong? Not really anything much — in fact, Nene hasn’t done anything. He was made Deputy Minister after Manuel was purged, when Gordhan was dragged out of SARS and shoved into Finance. When Gordhan, after half a decade of comprehensive failure, was kicked sideways into Local Government (where he has made a dog’s breakfast) Nene rose without trace into Gordhan’s ballet-boots. Of course he has presided over the decline of the economy. Five years of declining economy gradually erased all the accomplishments of the previous ten years.

But, as Dali Mpofu of the EFF observed, this isn’t simply Nene’s fault, or Gordhan’s either. Of course, as neoliberals and agents of the ruling plutocracy, they are complicit in the immiseration of South Africans and the degeneration of our economy. However, because the government and the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance are in league with the local and global ruling class in pursuing policies which further those objectives, nothing else can be expected. As Mpofu happily said, you could appoint Jesus Christ as Finance Minister and you’d get the same result; the moneylenders would still be in full control of the temple.

So there isn’t an obvious logical reason related to Nene’s performance which accounts for his dismissal. Nor does his “redeployment” to the South African branch of the BRICS Development Bank make any real sense; the South Africans are an insignificant element of the Bank even though it is based in South Africa, and there were already quite enough competent people involved in it. So there must be some other reason, and since Zuma hasn’t bothered to invent a plausible one, speculation is, as the saying goes, rife. (What else is rife? As the Chinese would say, rife is for the riving.)

One logical conclusion is that it’s all about Dudu Myeni, Zuma’s lass at South African Airways. (It is claimed that she’s his mistress, because newspapers need to be sold.) Apparently Nene refused to recapitalise SAA again (as it has been recapitalised so often before). So naturally the argument is that Zuma fired Nene because Nene was nasty to his chick.

Now, obviously this is possible. Myeni appears to be a strikingly incompetent person to run SAA and is certainly not the right person to run the airline. On the other hand, she is clearly not the only person to have run the airline into the ground.  So why particularly focus on her? Is there any other reason why certain people, especially in the corporate-owned media, should want to attack her stewardship of SAA at this particular time? Obviously there is; there is a concerted campaign to call for the privatization of SAA. The incompetent management of SAA is not essential to SAA; it is a product of the distortion of South African politics and economics by Zuma and his cronies. However, by pretending that nothing more can be done to save SAA, it is possible to claim that the only solution is privatization – which will probably be for asset-stripping purposes and thus will make a lot of money for the patrons of the corporate media, as well as setting a promising precedent for the profitable privatization of other state-owned enterprises. Yippee!

Now, Nene has been quite emphatic about not being willing to offer SAA money. This is fair enough, so long as Nene was saying that the Treasury was not willing to do this without a sensible business plan administered by a person who could handle the task. Not really hard to envisage. (Actually a little hard to envisage under the current climate – airlines are in fairly desperate circumstances and the South African economy is in the proverbial tailspin anyway.) But there’s no real sign that he was going to make such conditions, so presumably Nene was in league with whoever wants to privatise SAA. Maybe not a bad thing. Maybe even a good idea. But violently opposed to government policy, like his hostility to the nuclear deal (which was opposed by the ruling class before it was even arranged, let alone decided on.) In other words, it seems likely that Nene was trying to use his position to shove Zuma even further to the right than he has already moved – which surely helps to explain why the ruling-class media and propagandists generally responded with such preposterous outrage to Nene’s removal, and why they panicked when someone unknown was brought in, fearing that Zuma was about to nationalize everything, impose exchange controls and Africanise the economy.

He won’t ever do that, but that won’t stop the right-wing loonies who dominate debate on economic matters from shitting their breeches. Therefore they set up a vast clamour that the economy was declining too fast — apparently if the value of the currency, and the value of the stock exchange, and the rate of economic growth, and the rate of employment, all decline steadily, that’s a good thing; the Bad Thing is when it all happens so fast that even the middle class notices it.

What this did, of course, was to telegraph to the speculators all over the planet that the South African economy was vulnerable, and therefore to announce that those speculators could make some money by betting against it, and in doing so they precipitated the collapse of the rand, a massive spike in bond interest rates (because to keep people holding South African bonds they have to be bribed with higher returns) and a general financial panic in the country. This was Zuma’s fault, of course, but it was also the fault of the system which permits this to happen — but since the right-wing loonies who precipitated the crisis are totally invested in preserving the system, this will never be mentioned.

So Zuma, with the cowardice with which he has consistently performed in government, sacked the nonentity with which he had replaced Nene. Of course, he couldn’t put Nene back, for that would be to declare that what he had done was utterly wrong. Therefore he brought Gordhan back, and the economy immediately went into another nosedive while the media sang hosannas about how the economy was now booming thanks to this safe pair of hands on the tiller. If you were writing a fantasy about an utterly corrupt society where nobody had any integrity and no action was ever taken for altruistic motives while nobody told the truth under any circumstances except by accident, you would be depicting what was happening in this horrible case. Since Nene’s replacement couldn’t simply be turfed out of the Cabinet, he was sent to replace Gordhan in Local Government — a field in which he has at least some experience and a track record (though, alas, not a good one).

Does any of this matter, really? Isn’t Mpofu’s point still valid? Indeed it is; the ruling class is determined to keep ruling, and it rules because it wants to make a truckload of money. Gordhan and Nene’s job was to keep on making them that money, and they will continue to do so regardless of what happens to the economic indicators, up to and until the point at which the economy implodes, which will probably take several years. Zuma had to back down because he was interfering with the interests of the ruling class, or at least they could pretend that he was. However, now that the ruling class has pointed out to its friends all over the world that the South African economy is vulnerable and will not be protected, we can expect our economy to decline much more rapidly.

This is, of course, partly Zuma’s fault, but we shouldn’t forget that Zuma is only the patsy here; the real incompetence is the incompetence of the ruling class who are trying to game the system (including trying to replace Zuma with someone even less competent and more subordinate) and are, more or less by accident, finding themselves obliged to ruin our country.



January 12, 2016

So what are those inscrutable Orientals really up to, and what are they doing in Africa?

The answer seems to be fairly simple. China wishes to expand its economy over the next five years by about 35%. Most of this expansion will be in manufacturing, since the Chinese government is rightly suspicious of the financialisation which drives the expansion of the Anglo-American economic nexus. Such an expansion also requires a massive investment in infrastructure, to provide the power, transport, educational development and social cohesion required. All this requires an immense amount of raw materials, more than China alone can produce. Hence China must expand its imports of basic raw materials, and also, quite possibly, of partly finished goods which can be obtained relatively cheaply from abroad, assembled or finished in China, and sold on to the world market.

Africa can provide raw materials, and can also provide partly finished goods in some cases because of its very low labour costs and high unemployment, making African governments willing to accept the building of Chinese factories under conditions which countries outside the continent would view as exploitative.

So, what Africa stands to get out of this situation is a reliable market for minerals and agricultural produce and a limited amount of capital investment for beneficiation of minerals and agricultural produce and also investment in (perhaps) low-level manufacturing. Also, in order to get the goodies out of the continent, China is willing to invest in transport infrastructure — roads, railways and ports. This all provides, potentially, a small expansion in employment, and a fairly large expansion in trade which might help African countries overcome their chronic trade deficits.

All this sounds pretty good, of course. It’s a bit embarrassing, the rounds of applause at the summit, the droolingly supportive rhetoric from Mugabe (not that anything he said was wrong — periodically it seems he’s the last sane political leader left in the continent) and so forth. And we should, obviously, be suspicious that the Chinese will either not cough up with the investment or that there will be all sorts of hidden strings attached. Plus there’s no guarantee that the Xi faction in the Chinese Communist Party will be able to stand up to the corporate oligarchs and prevent them from financialising the system and wrecking it — only a few months before those oligarchs nearly brought down the Chinese banking system Xi was talking about making things more oligarch-friendly.

In other words, it’s good, but it’s not going to bring the millennium. Even the full US$60 billion, divided up between several African countries, amounts to well under $100 per capita over three years — not totally insignificant, especially for the highly impoverished states, but not gigantic. But a useful kick-start, potentially, and something which could possibly be leveraged further.

What the Chinese expect to get in return, apart from the raw materials and parts, is a network of contacts with African politicians, most of whom are pretty much up for sale. So it’s entirely possible that the Chinese deal will corrupt African politicians. To which one could say, big, fat, hairy deal, they’re already corrupt and the Chinese are not going to make matters worse. They might even make matters better, because the Chinese have things which they need to do and will not want African corruption to get in the way.

So, this being the case, why should it be that so many people are panicking and complaining and whining about all this?

One reason is, surely, that the Chinese project might, to some extent, benefit the ANC government, which most of those who are complaining about the Chinese dislike. The ANC naturally basks in the reflected glory of the Chinese involvement in Africa, since South Africa is one of the BRICS countries and can plausibly (although untruthfully) claim that it has played a significant role in inviting China to Africa. Indeed, China plays along with this by allowing South Africa to behave as if it is China’s gateway to Africa. (In fairness, South Africa is certainly a more congenial place to do business than Ethiopia, Kenya or Nigeria, the alternatives which China might use; also, although the South African government is deeply pro-American it is not so supinely so as those three countries which are little more than American puppets.)

Another reason is that people are naturally suspicious, which is fair enough, but it’s worth asking why the same people are so much less suspicious when anybody else invests in South Africa, or indeed elsewhere in Africa; foreign investment by Europeans almost always seems to be front-page news as if it were a kind of charity, and the more rare foreign investment by the United States is welcomed as if the Pope had come to town, but substantial Chinese investment is viewed with narrowed eyes and scrunched-up noses. (For the benefit of Middle Kingdomites, this is not an unsuccessful attempt by Caucasians to look Chinese; it signifies distaste.)

In fact, however, the big reason for the complaining is surely that the Chinese are in competition with the Americans, and in this instance as in so many others, are plainly winning the struggle for hearts and minds. The Americans have more military bases, but if the Chinese have more financial and political clout then they will be more likely to succeed in the long run — especially because the Americans seem incapable of using their military power for any productive political purpose. And this upsets the South African elite, who naturally side with the Americans against the Chinese. And, when the white elite sneeze, the black hangers-on under them rush forward bearing hankies, and that’s why so many black pseudo-pundits are delivering various levels of Sinophobia — that is, racism — against alleged Chinese imperialism.

This also obviously explains the hostility to teaching Mandarin in South African schools. The Chinese understandably would like some South Africans to be able to speak their language, and rather than hire only South African Chinese translators — after all, the South African Chinese are often pro-Taiwan — they’ve offered to teach Mandarin to South Africans who aren’t Chinese. Well, we can’t have that, can we? No indeed, if the Democratic Alliance has anything to do with it, which, perhaps fortunately, they don’t.

In the end none of this matters. China will continue becoming a global power whether Africa participates or not, and probably will begin to dominate Africa whether South Africa has any input in the process or not. The only difference is whether we manage to get out from under the yellow bulldozer and perhaps can make some productive use of the levelled playing-field (which, though the bulldozer may level it, will always be tilted in favour of China) or whether we just get squashed. The Americans and their hangers-on in South Africa would prefer us to get squashed. Unfortunately, however, they are not the ones who will be left a gory pulp in a muddy plain.




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