The Press and the Power

February 26, 2008

The South African newspaper industry is, no doubt, not really much worse than other newspaper industries. However, since it is South African, it seems worth taking a look at. Unfortunately, what there is here is the product of a very quick Googling on the Web, which probably provides a lot less than a more detailed search, which would have taken a lot more time, could provide.

In the old days there were essentially four news companies in South Africa. Afrikaner newspapers were run by Perskor and Naspers; English newspapers were run by the Argus Group and Times Media. In the case of the English newspapers this sometimes led to competition; for instance, in Cape Town, Times Media ran the Cape Times whereas the Argus Group ran the Cape Argus. In Durban, Times Media ran the Natal Mercury while the Argus Group ran the Daily News. Johannesburg only had the Star, however, Pretoria had only the Pretoria News, and Port Elizabeth had only the Eastern Province Herald. There were a couple of independent papers too; the Daily Dispatch in East London, the Natal Witness in Pietermaritzburg.

In general, though, the Afrikaans newspapers were not competitive; they were city organs; Die Burger for Cape Town, Volksblad for Bloemfontein, Die Vaderland for Johannesburg, Die Transvaler for Pretoria. Note the fairly authoritarian tone; “The Citizen”. “People’s Journal”, “The Fatherland”. This was not because the market was saturated; Afrikaners made up a bigger slice of the white population than English-speakers. However, the Afrikaner newspapers were propaganda organs for the ideology of the ruling Afrikaner elite (and felt a little threatened by English corporate power) whereas the English newspapers were predominantly money-making ventures. Many Afrikaner leaders, such as Hendrik Verwoerd, got their ideological start on the Afrikaans papers

Things haven’t changed all that much for the Afrikaans press, except that it has become a great deal smaller and more concentrated. Virtually all the papers appear lumped into a corporation called News24, which doesn’t indicate who really owns it. The surviving papers are the dailies — Die Burger, now incorporating the Eastern and Northern Cape as well, Volksblad in the centre of the country, Beeld handling Gauteng, and Rapport, the national Sunday paper. It’s pretty likely that these are very similar papers in most respects. Judging by News24’s website, it is fairly conservative.

The English-language newspapers have changed a lot in ownership since the 1980s. English-language papers tended to be oriented towards the United or Progressive Parties (increasingly Progressive, since both media groups were owned by big English capital which grew increasingly sympathetic to the PP/PRP/PFP, which eventually became the Democratic Alliance). The only real exception was the Sunday Times, which turned sharply to the right in the early 1980s and came to support the National Party. Now, however, the Times and Argus dailies have all joined together under the Independent Group, which is owned by Tony O’Reilly, the Irish media tycoon. Thus in all South African cities where there are morning and afternoon English papers, the papers are owned by the same company. There is a lot of sharing between them; the Times and Mercury are quite similar. Meanwhile, if you have read the Saturday Star or Saturday Argus, you don’t really need the Sunday Independent which uses the same material.

So, when it comes to most city dailies, you can have any colour you like as long as it’s white. (This doesn’t include the black papers, such as The Sowetan and City Press, of course.) The point is that the newspapers are virtually all owned by vast corporations and hence likely to be bland.

There is an oddity, however, and it is multi-sided. In 1985 the Rand Daily Mail was shut down. Instead of just accepting the death graciously, the staff drifted into two new newspapers, Business Day and the Weekly Mail. The former provided quality corporate journalism along the lines of a South African Wall Street Journal, the latter provided actual news for several years, breaking most of the important news stories of the apartheid era.

Nowadays, Business Day, the Sunday Times and a majority of the Daily Dispatch are owned by a company called Avusa. Avusa is a bit shadowy; it’s web page doesn’t say what the holding company is. The company was previously called Johncom, which was Johnnic Communications, which was the media subsidiary of a mining company. It appears, although this may just be a nasty suspicious mind, that this is what remains of Times Media and that this is similarly backed by big business. Avusa has lots of black and white directors and doesn’t go into much detail as to who actually controls it. Perhaps this is paranoia; in the murky world of South African corporations, to be obscure is not necessarily to be evil. This is the only major English-language South African news group which doesn’t appear to be owned by foreigners, and perhaps South Africans should be grateful for small mercies.

But perhaps not. The Daily Dispatch editorial page is dominated by Business Day editorials. Meanwhile, the Sunday Times is heavily corporate-centred (with an enormous Business Times) and is extremely conservative. This despite having a black editor, Mondli Makhanya; the Daily Dispatch editor (Felicia Oppelt) is coloured, Business Day‘s editor, Peter Bruce, almost inevitably white. Certainly the two national papers are distinctly conservative in tone (the Dispatch is less so — but then, the Dispatch once had Steve Biko for a columnist, so it had further to fall from grace).

What happened to the “alternative press” about which so much was heard in the late 1980s? South, the Cape Town alternative paper, was too crappy to survive, and was shut down by its last editor, a man named Berger. (He is now Professor of Journalism at Rhodes University.) Die Vrye Weekblad, the alternative Afrikaans newspaper edited by fearless drunk Max du Preez, gradually lost funding and disappeared. The Weekly Mail lasted until 1990, when its editor Anton Harber drove a brilliant plan under which the paper would become a national daily along the lines of Business Day. Within a few months he had run through all the newspaper’s capital and destroyed its credibility. (Harber is now Professor of Journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand — it’s as if the universities were appointing Professors of Agriculture who can’t even keep a pot-plant alive in their windowbox.)

Unlike the other two, the Weekly Mail had a good enough name to buy, and it was bought by Guardian International. The Guardian brought in people to run it, including managing editor David Beresford who eventually appointed a neoliberal named Howard Barrell, who had previously worked as Independent correspondent in Europe, to edit the paper. The new Mail and Guardian adopted an increasingly right-wing line (supporting a planned military coup in Lesotho and the Ugandan/Rwandan invasion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo abroad, while backing the neoliberal Democratic Alliance at home). After 2000 it became increasingly concerned with smearing the ANC’s new leader, Thabo Mbeki; Barrell seems to have more or less invented a number of smears regarding AIDS. On the other hand, there were unpleasant rumours that he was running stories under fake bylines and generally manipulating the black staff to do his will, and the sheer hysteria of his attacks on the ANC and Mbeki seem to have damaged the newspaper’s support in the black community (where it had been important) while support from conservative whites picked up only slowly. In 2002 Guardian International decided to sell the paper again, as it was making a loss.

This was a very interesting event. The removal of Barrell (and later of Beresford, who was ill) was followed by a replacement — by a man named Trevor Ncube. Ncube was a Zimbabwean who had started as a journalist with the Harare Financial Gazette in 1989 at the age of 26, becoming executive editor in 1991. In 1996 he was involved in founding two anti-ZANU newspapers, the Zimbabwe Independent and the Standard, both of which he was put in charge of by 1998. This is impressive; within two years of starting out in journalism he is running a paper, five years later he founds two more and two years later he is running them — this is not your normal journalist’s record. Where did he get the money from?

Perhaps an unfair question. But soon after the opposition press in Zimbabwe is closed down, his company takes over 87,5% of a South African newspaper. Given that the Zimbabwean dollar was already a currency which could not be changed into any other currency in 2002, where did he get the money from to buy the Mail and Guardian from Guardian International? Interesting question. One turns to his company, Newtrust Company Botswana Limited. Why Botswana? One looks for its website. It doesn’t appear to have a website. It doesn’t have a presence.Is it a shell company?

Another puzzling question is what Ncube is doing with the paper. Having worked solidly in newspapers for thirteen years one would expect him to obtain it for a purpose. Yet, apart from replacing Howard Barrell with Ferrial Haferjee as editor (after a short, unhappy experiment with Barrell’s protégé Mondli Makhanya, who went to the Sunday Times instead) Ncube doesn’t seem to have done much. The paper hasn’t even been more active or more informed in its criticism of Zimbabwean affairs than before. On the other hand, the Mail and Guardian and the Sunday Times have both been strongly pro-Zuma and anti-Mbeki — but not more so than under Barrell. Granted the paper was running at a loss — but why not just fire the editor, why change the corporate structure? Especially if you don’t want to change the editorial policy?

Can one draw a conclusion from this? No, but there are intriguing grounds for speculation. For one thing, Ncube’s career might be that of a brilliant journalist (though he has done nearly no journalism since 2002), but it was almost as if his work was done after he had facilitated the taking over of the Mail and Guardian. Was it the work of a facilitator, working for someone else? If so, who actually owns that newspaper? As with the Avusa newspapers, the answer seems obscure.

Here we enter the realm of conspiracy theory. We know that in the 1990s Zimbabwe enjoyed the rise to power of an anti-Mugabe organisation which eventually became the Movement for Democratic Change and enjoyed enormous, uncritical support from the British government. Indeed, we know that the former British Prime Minister has expressed a wish to invade Zimbabwe to save it from the Mugabe government and, presumably, install the MDC instead. Let us suppose that Ncube was actually not merely a sympathiser for the MDC, but was actually running MDC newspapers using (for instance) the famous British gold. Before this is regarded as absurd paranoia, it is natural to do this kind of thing, it is standard practice for the wealthier secret services.

But not only did Mugabe prevent the MDC from winning the election, he shut down the pro-MDC press (which was a very extreme move — although the MDC was harassed and elections rigged, Mugabe never shut down their operations altogether). Is it possible that Ncube’s operations were actually a foreign operation? Might it then be possible that he shifted his operations to South Africa because a South African propaganda operation promised decidedly richer pickings, given that the massive influence which the Mail and Guardian has over the rest of the media (which generally follows its lead) made it much more valuable than a mere newspaper; it was a former of opinion, a thought-leader (to cite the name of the newspaper’s strikingly reactionary blog).

Well, it’s only speculation. Maybe Ncube had some foreign currency from somewhere (though where a Zimbabwean journalist would get it is hard to conceive). Maybe, too, after taking over the Mail and Guardian he just lost interest in running things. But it is a little uncomfortable to think that, far from being the triumphant guardian of the truth that it pretends to be, as opposed to the reactionary, corporate-centric and stodgy papers generated by Media24, Avusa and Independent — the Mail and Guardian may actually be the least truly free part of the whole South African press.

Beginning Notes on Racism

February 25, 2008

Racism is a surprisingly difficult topic to address in South Africa. This is because it is unconstitutional and frowned-upon by the hegemonic discourse. By “hegemonic discourse” is here meant the illusion of public opinion constructed by the corporate propaganda system, mainly the white-dominated media. The fundamental line is that racism is an embarrassment; therefore the argument runs that before 1994 (or perhaps before 1988, when F W De Klerk took over the apartheid state and everything became good) there was sanctioned racism, which was bad. But after 1994, definitely, racism ceased to be approved by the mass of the population. Instead, it became the characteristic of a tiny minority — a handful of Afrikaner farmers who ill-treat their workers is the standard trope.

It is worth mentioning here that racism, according to this same hegemonic discourse, is indeed sanctioned in South African society today. This is black racism against whites, which leads to oppressive and indeed viciously totalitarian systems such as affirmative action, the establishment of racial quota systems in management structures, black economic empowerment and similar things. Since white racism no longer exists, the hegemonic discourse says, all of these things are oppressive because they force white people to allow blacks into their white-dominated structures. Meanwhile, since racism does not exist, the white would naturally allow blacks in as a matter of course. In short, the hegemonic discourse says that there are no institutional structures today which are white-dominated.

Since virtually every institutional structure which has managed to evade affirmative action is white-dominated, and since whites control something like 90% of the country’s corporate wealth and something like two-thirds of the country’s media (having strong influence over the remaining tenth of the wealth and third of the media), this is an outright lie which serves the objective of legitimating white power — in fact, it is itself a strong indication of the persistence of racism. But you have to think about it a bit. It is subtler than before.

But not so subtle. A recent, very interesting weblog post by a conservative white person was particularly striking. This person had been whipped up into a frenzy by the existence of an organisation called the Forum of Black Journalists. The notion that black journalists might wish to get together to discuss matters of mutual interest was both terrifying and disgusting to this person, so he called them secretive and racist (although the Forum was in the newspapers and on the radio, and addresses to the forum were to be found on the web). What particularly disgusted him was that the President of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, had addressed the Forum. It appeared that he believed that this was some or other sinister conspiracy. Presumably he was afraid that Zuma was issuing dictats which the secret black moles in white newspapers would go forth and spread.

Now, this is a potentially rather racist structure of thought, but what was particularly concerning was way in which he expressed his hatred of Zuma. Zuma had recently been interviewed by the BBC journalist Fergal Keane, as part of the usual BBC documentary focusing on how South Africa is collapsing and the South African government is evil, reducing Pilger’s two-dimensional propaganda to a one-dimensional absurdity. Keane had, with the stupidity which is sadly characteristic of the post-Hutton BBC, asked Zuma if he was a crook. Zuma brushed him aside like a horsefly, saying that he didn’t even know what the term “crook” meant.

This conservative white commentator (middle-aged, it should be added, lest one think we are talking about someone too young to remember apartheid) seized on this comment and declared that it was equivalent to Jimmy Kruger’s “It leaves me cold” observation in response to the police’s murder of Bantu Steve Biko.

Now that is very interesting. That is much more interesting than the shallow racism of hating the Forum of Black Journalists, which was in itself just echoing what the white press was saying. What this man is saying is that, when a black leader of the ANC refuses to confess to fraud (of which he is probably guilty, but nothing has been proved), then that is as bad as a white leader of the National Party informally endorsing the murder of a political opponent by men under his command, a murder which he had ordered (although he was not admitting to this).

Perhaps the context should be highlit. Zuma, of course, has been repeatedly charged for his crimes by the police and judicial structures under the control of the ANC. He was dismissed by the then-leader of his party because of these crimes. While he may be covering them up, neither the party nor the state has done this. Kruger, on the other hand, had Biko murdered, publicly praised the fact that he was murdered, was cheered for this by his party and approved by the other leaders, eventually retired respectably and died loaded with honours by his party and community.

Since no sane judgement would consider the two cases equivalent, one must ask what is wrong with the person’s judgement. Given that the person is plainly racist, one possibility is that he genuinely feels that blacks should be treated more harshly than whites for their crimes; white murder thus should be treated as equivalent to black fraud, and presumably white fraud should be treated as equivalent to blacks taking the Lord’s name in vain. This is a not uncommon attitude amongst the creators of the hegemonic discourse. Blacks, after all, are viewed with deep suspicion, as liable to sudden and irrational outbursts (thus the Democratic Alliance’s Tony Leon explained his party’s persistent comparison of President Mbeki to President Mugabe as being because, after all, the two were black, and therefore felt solidarity with one another, and Mbeki was liable to suddenly become Mugabe; the notion that Mugabe might suddenly become Mbeki could not be countenanced, because according to the hegemonic discourse, blacks tend to degenerate rather than progress).

This is thus a credible possibility. It also shows that we are not talking about one single man and his absurd racist outbursts here, as with the racist Afrikaner farmer with his sjambok. This person is essentially channelling the hegemonic discourse, even if he is putting his own spin on it. (Nevertheless, this is not the first time that white right-wing media commentators have claimed that Kruger’s phrase and behaviour is comparable to something which an ANC person has said or done.)

This point suggests an alternative analysis — that the commentator doesn’t really believe what he is saying at all, but is rather using it to insert an argument by stealth. This argument is that the present post-apartheid regime is as bad as the apartheid regime. One way to do this is, of course, to identify areas in which the present regime is indeed so bad and make comparisons, but that is actually impossible; such comparisons would never stand up. Hence, a much better way is to exploit the general ignorance of the crimes of the apartheid state, by taking one of the few such crimes which are widely known in the white community and declaring it, by fiat, to be equivalent to something done by the present regime.

What one is actually doing here is not merely fraudulently denigrating the present regime (which is of course beneficial for those who support the white-run Democratic Alliance or the white-run but coloured-fronted Independent Democrats). What is also being done is to legitimate the apartheid state. Those nostalgic for apartheid, and violently opposed to black rule, are thus brought on board by the hegemonic discourse. Meanwhile, however, it is possible to pretend that you are not doing this — for you can say that your comparison is valid, and anyone who denies this is, surely, trying to minimise the crimes of Jacob Zuma. Who would want to do that, except someone who supports corruption?

Who indeed. This is rather worrying stuff. What white racists have done, has been to build a wall between themselves and the apartheid state, to protect themselves from being accused of supporting apartheid, which, of course, they did do. (Virtually all criticism of the present state made by whites is accompanied by tacit declarations that the past state was better.) However, this wall is permeable; it has in it a kind of pipeline for transmitting the notion of the splendour of white rule into the post-apartheid ideological landscape.

One sees this in the focus on crime (the apartheid state was not soft on crime!), in the focus on Zimbabwe (Smith was a much better and more caring ruler than Mugabe!), in affirmative action which is equated with apartheid racism (as if whites were compelled to live in homelands and carry passes when they visit black-zoned suburbs). It is even there in the focus on AIDS (the insistence that the apartheid state would never have allowed so many people to die — although they did — an insistence which necessitates ignoring everything that the post-apartheid state has done and tried to do around AIDS).

Now, all this is generated by racists and couched in racist terms. This is largely because the racism of white culture remains unexamined. We are happy that white youths sleep with black youths and we assume that this means that they are not racist, but this is obviously not proven. The only serious attempt to examine institutionalised racism in white culture — the Human Rights Commission’s attempt to investigate racism in the media — was blocked by the white authorities. Nobody pointed out that a powerful force’s refusal to allow outsiders to study it, and its violent smear campaign against the potential investigators, suggests that the powerful force is concealing a wealth of corruption.

But it is nevertheless important to remember that racism is not necessarily the origin of all this. Or, rather, that the racism is being consciously used by people who may or may not be racists themselves. Instead, perpetuating white racism is extremely convenient for the white capitalist power-structure.

For one obvious thing, so long as whites consider themselves oppressed by blacks, they will not look too closely at the oppression generated by capitalism. In Trevor Manuel’s recent budget corporate tax was cut yet again, even though it is universally agreed (including by Manuel, no doubt sincerely) that the country faces massive problems, including wealth redistribution problems, which require more spending. Almost certainly this was because big business demands favourable treatment, and the rest of us can go to hell. Yet we are told in the press that this is a pro-poor and a pro-black budget. The press would not be able to get away with this if South African analyses were not skewed towards racialised approaches.

Thus, for instance, many ANC intellectuals denounce the growing band of black pundits hired by the white media or the white power-structure to recite white talking-points, as “coconuts”. Supposedly they are black on the outside and white on the inside, and there is much learned rubbish talked about Fanon (who would never have been fooled by such rubbish, any more than that Biko would have been impressed by these black pundits hired by the white power-structure!). Now, it is true that these people are black people working for whites (or on behalf of whites, at second- or third-hand) and reciting talking-points not only invented by whites, but which usually, when analysed, turn out to have racist implications.

Therefore, say these ANC intellectuals (such as Ronald Suresh Roberts) these people have betrayed their black essence. But this is not really the case. The racist content of the utterances of figures such as Xolela Mangcu and Mondli Makhanya is latent, well-camouflaged, and they can therefore wriggle out of such accusations. It is designed to be deniable (and it is perfectly possible that many such figures do not even realise that they are serving racist agendas, although it is unlikely that they would stop doing it if they realised, because they are mainly motivated by money). Hence, by focussing shallowly on the accusation that such people are betraying their race, these ANC intellectuals actually undermine a more fundamental analysis of what the hegemonic white system is up to, and why such racist attitudes persist in the first place.

For although there is a degree of racism from blacks towards whites, it is a far less significant degree than the reverse. Blacks tend to be nervous of whites; the dominant discourse in our culture remains one in which blacks are on the defensive. Whites are unified and hegemonic; blacks are fragmented and fissiparous. The split in the ANC is the most recent and obvious example, but it is only the most extreme of the ways in which black politicians have been co-opted by the white-dominated capitalist power structure. Racism is handy for unifying the whites (and to a lesser but significant extent, the coloureds and indians) and sustaining them as pliant tools of the power structure. Thus the pathetic white racist correspondent cited above (a man who worked as a propagandist for Afrikaner banks) may think he is serving a racist past, but he is actually building a plutocratic future — and one which may well include the black capitalists he hates and fears.

Israel’s slow rise to Western pariahship.

February 25, 2008

An interesting question is whether it is right and proper to disapprove of Israel. (One may squirm and say that one means “the Israeli government”, but frankly the support for the Israeli government (which is not identifiable as a single party) and its Zionist practices are so universal in Israel that it is foolish to distinguish it and say that there could be an Israel as it is now, without the kind of government it has enjoyed since its foundation.)

Israel is a democracy, in that it allows opposition parties to win elections. However, it is a democracy which discriminates quite severely against a large minority of its electorate (in much the same way that the USSR discriminated against its own minorities). This is, of course, the Palestinian Israelis, who are made to know that they are not true citizens because they are not Jews. Meanwhile, foreign Jews are not given such a second-class treatment. This is bad, but not appalling.

What is appalling is the treatment of the other Palestinians in territories either occupied or surrounded by the Israeli army, who make up roughly half the population of Israel-plus-occupied-territories, and who have no rights whatsoever as Israeli citizens, because they are so numerous. The long-term Israeli goal appears to be to drive these Palestinians off the arable land which they occupy. (The Israelis abandoned Gaza because it is not truly arable.)

Not only are these Palestinians denied the democratic rights enjoyed by Jewish and (partly) by Arab Israelis. They are also subject to extraordinary treatment, which includes detention without trial, collective punishment, torture and political assassinations, often explicitly carried out by terroristic bombing. The behaviour of the Israeli state in this regard is conspicuously bad because it is so generous towards Jewish Israelis’ civil and political rights. Indeed, this is what makes people draw parallels between the Israeli state and the South African apartheid state.

Very well; but in the present world, are the Israelis so very bad? They hold thousands of Palestinians in detention, they kill hundreds every year, and they have placed millions of Palestinians in subjection. How does this behaviour stand up against other states? It seems to me to be comparable with the behaviour of Turks towards the Kurds, and the treatment of the inhabitants of Darfur by the Sudanese government is probably worse than that of the Israelis. While there is no minority being ill-treated there, the terrorism and undemocratic brutality of the Colombian government is, arguably, comparable with the treatment of the Palestinians by the Israelis. Burma treats its minorities at least as badly as the Israelis treat the Palestinians. Central Asia is a human calamity about which I know very little, but it is possible that some of the kleptocracies there are worse than Israel.

That’s interesting. Of the states mentioned, Sudan is an official demon of the West, while Burma is a sort of petty whining-point of the West, while Turkey, Tadzikistan and Colombia are valued allies. (Iraq might also have been mentioned, but since its vicious and tyrannical government is kept in power only by foreign occupation it is not fair to do so.) In other words, Israel is a pretty bad state in world terms.

There are countries which do not even have minority democracies, such as Saudi Arabia or Equatorial Guinea. Many of these countries are extremely repressive, and indeed most of the countries in the vicinity of Israel are governed along these lines. However, by and large these states manage to survive without the kind of tyranny which Israel imposes on its colonial territories. In short, these states’ governments do not arouse the kind of resistance to their authority which Israeli rule does, and so these states do not have to use so much force — although, as in the case of Syria, they are quite capable of doing it on occasion.

So on the whole it does seem that Israel is one of the worst countries in the world, in terms of human rights, and the democracy and justice which it bestows on its Jewish population merely serves to throw a virulent light on this fact. Indeed, a helpful term for this kind of state, much disliked by Zionist scholars for obvious reasons, is “herrenvolk democracy” — like South Africa under apartheid, or the Confederate state during the Civil War.

What is omitted from this is the argument that Israelis and Zionists invariably present; that Israel is obliged to maintain tyrannous rule because of the implacable nature of their enemies. This is omitted because it is extremely silly. As is well known, Israel has nuclear weapons, which none of its neighbours possess, and this alone makes Israel invulnerable, even setting aside its gigantic military. In addition, Israel has a peace treaty with two of its major neighbours, namely Jordan and Egypt. Saudi Arabia has not attacked Israel in sixty years. This leaves only Syria and the Lebanon, neither of which is particularly powerful. Israel is, in short, one of the most secure states in the world. The only challenge which it faces is internal terrorism, which is extremely spasmodic, ill-led, ill-trained and disorganised, and besides is riddled with informers controlled by one of the most powerful and ruthless secret police in the world, the Mossad/Shin Bet alliance. The idea that this poses a threat to Israel is an absurdity. Israeli tyranny is not justified by circumstances.

Now all this is true and must be acknowledged by anyone who is reasonably well-informed about the situation. The fact that it is so rarely acknowledged is, very largely, because so many people in positions of power are absurdly dishonest when it comes to Israel. This dishonesty is very difficult to account for; it is hard to believe that there is a gigantic Zionist conspiracy which pays off so many non-Jews. Instead, it is worth looking at the record of the Western and world attitude towards Israel.

This attitude is instructive. Israel was a colonial project; European Jews paid the Turkish colonial power in Palestine to allow them onto Arab ground. Later they did the same thing with the British colonial power in Palestine. When the Arabs rebelled, the British hired Jewish mercenaries to police the Arabs; the blowback from this British practice was that the ruthless force the British set up, which practised appalling atrocities against the Arab population, eventually became the terrorist organisation which drove the British to flee from Palestine in 1947.

In 1947 a tiny minority of the population of Palestine was Jewish people who wished to stay in a country called Israel. This minority was given half the territory by the United Nations, acting out of post-Holocaust guilt, anti-Arab racism and American imperialism. The Arabs disliked this, but having been crushed and disarmed for ten years they had no capacity to defend themselves when the Israelis moved out of their enclaves and began seizing the whole of Palestine. Neighbouring Arab states tried to grab territory, but half-heartedly, and were (except for Jordan) defeated. However, the Israelis concealed all the crimes they committed against the Arabs, claimed that they had been the victims of a huge nefarious aggression, and thus painted themselves as the heroes of the piece.

The Israelis continued to present themselves as heroes for thirty-five years. During this period there was scarcely a single honest piece printed about Israeli-Arab relations in a Western newspaper. The Arabs were bad, the Israelis were good. One could tell this because when the Egyptians nationalised the Suez Canal, the Israelis helped the British and French take it back by force. One could also tell this because when the Egyptians pretended to close the straits of Sharm el Sheikh and (without mobilising their forces) threatened Israel on the radio, the Israelis proceeded to attack Egypt, Jordan and Syria and defeat them all, seizing the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights and the West Bank of the Jordan, killing huge numbers of Arabs and expelling vast numbers of Palestinians. Nobody said anything about the absence of any pretext for this aggression. It was enough that the Israelis said that the Arabs were about to attack and so they attacked in “self-defence”. The fact that this was exactly what the Nazis had said when they invaded Poland, and that it had approximately the truth-content of what the Nazis had said when they invaded Poland, was not mentioned by anyone. Instead the emphasis was on the bravery of the Israelis and their skill in killing so many Arabs while suffering so few casualties.

The “Yom Kippur” war of 1973 was different. This was the first occasion when the Arabs attacked the Israelis, but since the Israelis had pretended otherwise in every previous war, they were not able to pretend that this was unusual. On the other hand, the Egyptians initially scored some successes while the Syrians held their own briefly and then defended themselves energetically — in other words, while the Arabs did not win, they did far better than the racist West had pretended. What followed, even more interestingly, was the American decision to align itself with Egypt, which eventually made the Israelis withdraw from the Sinai, a tacit admission that they had been wrong to seize it in the first place. Public opinion was no longer unquestioningly on the side of the Israelis.

The big change, however, surely came in 1982, with the invasion of the Lebanon. One rather ironic point is that any newspaper map showing the Lebanon had to be fairly detailed, so that all the maps showed a huge Israel attacking a tiny Lebanon. Moreover, Israel’s attack was unprovoked and was aimed at Palestinians rather than threatening Arabs; nobody had been able to claim that the Lebanon, still wracked by civil war, posed a threat to Israel. Israel’s invasion was also much less successful than earlier blitzkriegs; the “plucky little” trope here passed to the Palestinians, who defended Beirut with determination. Finally, the war crimes committed by Israel’s Falangist allies at Sabra and Shatila, all too obviously facilitated by the Israeli commander Ariel Sharon, made it very difficult for Israeli apologists to focus attention on the alleged crimes of Palestinian terrorists.

This, of course, set the stage for the 1987 Intifada, which seems to have finally wrecked the automatic public assumption in the West that Israel was always right in everything. The “break their bones” strategy, the massacres of children, the mass detention camps, and the relatively reasonable response of the PLO and its internal allies — coupled with the simultaneous anti-apartheid campaign which showed striking parallels between Israeli and apartheid tactics (unsurprising since Israel was the chief intelligence and military ally of apartheid South Africa) — all shattered the facade of Israeli decency.

It took time. Also, the appalling misconduct of the PLO did its little best to prevent the Palestinians from taking advantage of the Israeli behaviour. For a brief period, indeed, the Oslo Accord and the great betrayal of the Palestinian people it entailed left the Israelis in a very strong position. However, the Israelis gradually threw this away. Eventually, by the new millennium, the Israelis were one of the lest popular nations among Western intellectuals. The way that the U.S. right wing embraced the Israeli world-view after 9/11 merely reinforced this, as did the demonisation of Palestinian resistance by the new anti-Muslim and anti-Arab right.

So, basically, there are grounds for disapproving of Israel. (The country is morally on a par with the worst in the world, even though numerically it kills, tortures and jails fewer than most of those which promote comparable conduct.) Disliking Israel has also become acceptable in the West — and is, if anything, made stronger by the long history of excessive endorsement of Israel, something which Western political leaders still promote. Also, Israel is seen as linked with the excesses of the modern neoliberal reactionary politics in the West. It’s a no-brainer — perhaps unfortunately so, but inevitably so.

But then how did Zuma get there? (The Argument developed)

February 22, 2008

This question requires a lot of speculation and unfortunately, there is very little information about it. The reason for this is, plausibly anyway, that the media covering the episode was so delighted at the prospect of humiliating, weakening and replacing Thabo Mbeki with someone more appealing to big business (and more promising for the long-term goal of getting rid of the ANC) that there was little desire to address the issue.

The South African left, and especially the Communist Party, made some serious errors in the past. In the 1980s they seized virtual control of the ANC’s military wing, and much of its underground too, but instead of triumphantly marching to Pretoria, they managed only a handful of not very effectual attacks; meanwhile the apartheid state negotiated largely via the ANC’s diplomats, which put enormous power in the hands of Thabo Mbeki.

After the unbanning the left made similar errors. It was in 1992 that the SACP promised a “Leipzig option” of mass mobilisation which they proved incapable of actually producing. Again in the post-Codesa negotiations the SACP was forced to gradually abandon its left-wing commitments. All it could do was assist with the trade union COSATU’s drafting of a vaguely developmental wish-list which eventually became the Reconstruction and Development Programme. Meanwhile the power in the ANC shifted more and more into Mbeki’s camp.

After the elections, the RDP turned out to be inadequate, and the left lobbied to have it expanded. Unfortunately (for them, anyway) they were defeated; the RDP was downgraded from a Ministry to a programme, and the new chief goal of the ANC turned out to be reducing the budget deficit at all costs — including a massive privatisation programme and a desperate dash for foreign investment to promote growth, which failed dismally (partly because of the global economic turbulence of the time). Gradually not only the SACP but also COSATU became marginalised, perceived as constantly complaining without providing much support for the ANC’s electoral goals.

Some of these problems were apparently resolved at the 2002 ANC Conference, where Mbeki magnanimously offered high positions to SACP leadership figures. By this time the ANC’s attempts to woo white big business had failed disastrously; white big business was too wedded to the growing right-wing Democratic Alliance. However, it seems clear that the SACP and COSATU continued to feel resentment at being once again marginalised and patronised.

As a result, when Zuma began having serious troubles with the law and began casting about for allies, the SACP and COSATU were his logical choice. They responded very positively; from 2004 Zuma suddenly was presented as a viable alternative to Thabo Mbeki, and was celebrated on the left on these grounds. This was not a new tactic; in 2002 the Treatment Action Campaign had gone to Zuma to seek support, presumably trying to divide him from Mbeki. (That did not work so well.) However, on the face of it, these parties were endorsing a candidate with very limited potential; Zuma was implicated in corruption and was eventually forced out of high office.

Later, when Zuma’s rape trial began, Mbeki put it to the NEC that he should actually be removed as Deputy President of the ANC, not just of the country. This would have been an extremely sensible move; it was hugely embarrassing for the party to have its Deputy President in the witness-box admitting to having had unprotected sex with an HIV+ woman who claimed that she had not consented to the sex, and having him then make repugnant sexist remarks about her and having his lawyers intimidate her (in the time-honoured way of rape defendants’ lawyers). But the NEC decided not to sack Zuma — obviously Zuma commanded a good deal of support in the NEC. Part of this was undoubtedly the presence of some SACP people in the NEC (ironically, because of Mbeki’s 2002 olive-branches). Part was probably a desire not to rock the boat, and expect too much personal morality or probity from NEC leaders.

So this indicates the roots of the Zuma coalition. On one hand leftists who felt a sense of entitlement which had not been fulfilled. On the other hand, people who were a little afraid of too much honesty. In both cases, Zuma was seen as a fairly pliable person who would do what he was told, and who did not have too many principles. (His negotiations with Inkatha had required a series of concessions to that organisation which at the time was the ANC’s most implacable enemy — even though this was surely necessary).

Mbeki is often presented as unpopular within the ANC. Self-evidently this is not so; unpopular people do not become two-term presidents. However, it is probably true that Mbeki was not liked. He was approved-of because his policies worked, but many were uncomfortable with his hectoring, managerial style. He was prone to punish poor performance; weak members of the government were often weeded out. Mbeki, however, particularly hated disloyalty (which is why he took the attacks by the SACP and COSATU on his government so much to heart; as he frequently pointed out, these were organisations which endorsed his policies in his presence, and then denounced his policies to their constituencies). He was not unforgiving (Pallo Jordan, for example, was sacked but later reinstated) but this created an impression of weakness which was not, perhaps, totally unfounded. As a result he had a lot of enemies who pretended to be opposed to his policies, turning the personal into the political.

So between a modest amount of dissent within the ANC and some strong potential supporters, Zuma had a beginning. Meanwhile, he had the advantage that, as Deputy President of the ANC thanks to the NEC’s support, he was the administrative heir apparent even though he was obviously not Mbeki’s choice. This put Zuma in the running, but it did not put him in a winning position. How could he prevent Mbeki from using his own power and authority against him?

The answer is interesting. Firstly, remember that Zuma’s allies included the crooked mogul Schabir Shaik, running his R300 million commercial empire from his prison hospital, and with plenty of contacts in the corporate fraternity. Another ally was Brett Kebble, the fraudster mastermind of RandGold who, as it turned out, was the bankroller for both the ANC Youth League and the Young Communists’ League, both of which organisations housed a number of corporate wheeler-dealers; Kebble’s murder, allegedly engineered by ANC crony and alleged drug kingpin Glenn Agliotti, no doubt cut the funds for these organisations, but they both continued to have their corporate connections, and both organisations were essentially Zuma fronts; when Young Communist celebrity Mazibuko Jara raised questions about support for Zuma, he was unceremoniously purged; the Youth League lacked anyone with the intellectual integrity to follow Jara’s kamikaze approach.

All this means that Zuma was an extremely business-friendly person, meaning subservient to corporate interests, but also extremely useful to those corporate interests because he could be represented as a left-winger and a populist, even though no evidence has ever been presented to suggest he was either.

What is also interesting about Zuma’s supporters was that they immediately began a campaign of personal attacks against Mbeki. The gist of this campaign was that Mbeki was personally corrupt, that he was dishonest, that he was power-hungry, that he was misanthropic, and even that he was racist (Zuma assiduously courted not only white business but also the white right wing). In addition, the old lies about Mbeki’s AIDS denialism, his involvement in the arms deal and his supposed sympathy for Zimbabwe were trotted out. There was also the claim that Mbeki hated the poor. With the exception of this last claim, every one of the personal attacks on Mbeki made by ANC members supporting Zuma, were claims which had originally been made as attacks on the ANC by white-oriented parties; most of the core claims dated back to the apartheid era, and most of the detailed claims had been invented by white journalists, such as Mail and Guardian political editor Howard Barrell, in the late 1990s, usually in pursuit of their support for white-led political parties.

Now, this seems extremely self-destructive. Why should ANC members be echoing the propaganda invented and promoted by their enemies? The answer is simple: the press lapped it up. While the press often criticised Zuma as a person, the vast bulk of coverage of Zuma entailed repeating the accusations made against Mbeki by Zuma’s supporters. (Not, of course, by Zuma himself; he had his image to think of, and a direct attack against Mbeki would have been suicidal for his popularity in the ANC.) This all gave new life to the old lies which had become stale through repetition, for now they were being repeated by people with black skins.

It is not clear whether there was a deal between the corporate media and Zuma’s corporate backers, or merely a convergence of interests between the two. However, the result was that between 2005 and 2007 the press became effectively a propaganda instrument for Jacob Zuma — and in return, Jacob Zuma’s supporters became effectively supporters of conservative corporate propaganda in South Africa. It seems likely that this must have helped Zuma’s covert fundraising, for all that his front-organisation, the “Friends of Jacob Zuma”, seemed to constantly teeter on the verge of bankruptcy. At any rate, Zuma’s campaign never ran short of money.

Obviously the press does not control opinion in South Africa — but it remains quite influential in ANC circles, especially in affluent, urban areas. More to the point, the ANC was treated again to the spectacle of a President being viciously and dishonestly vilified and unable to fight back. His Minister of Health was similarly vilified, as was his Commissioner of Police (in the latter case, not so unfairly, although the press did not know this). This did not exactly encourage people from coming out of the shadows to support him; those who did, like Mosiua Lekota, faced the full wrath of the private propaganda machine. It seems very likely that Mbeki’s supporters were afraid to confront this; as a result, Mbeki was the only person who, with nothing to lose, could safely run for a third term as President of the ANC, the only strong candidate against Zuma. This meant that Zuma’s campaign would not be a walk-over (although the press systematically pretended that Mbeki was running illegally for a third term as President of the country, thus tarring him with their customary Mugabe brush).

In the run-up to the 2007 provincial ANC Congresses a new idea appeared in the media. This was that there were flaws in both Zuma and Mbeki. Therefore a third candidate was needed. A responsible candidate of the people who could be trusted. Who could this person be? Two names were quickly put forward: Cyril Ramaphosa, who had abandoned his responsibilities in the ANC after losing the Presidency race in 1997 in order to make money for himself, and Tokyo Sexwale, who had abandoned his responsibilities in the ANC after losing the Premiership of Gauteng in 1999 in order to make money for himself. In other words, the two press candidates were people who put private greed ahead of public service — a little like Zuma.

The much-touted Ramaphosa did not, eventually, stand. Sexwale did; his name was on the slate, particularly in Mbeki-sympathetic provinces, picking up potential delegates. Immediately after the provincial elections, Sexwale threw in his lot with Zuma (whom, it turned out, he had already been supporting financially). He had, in short, been a stalking-horse whose role had been to disrupt Mbeki’s position.

The provincial results were interesting. The Youth League, of course, supported Zuma. The Women’s League, less of course, supported Zuma in defiance of their own constitution (the slate they voted for was almost entirely male, although later a few females were inserted in the Zuma camp as a sop to their consciences). The Zuma side took KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, arguably a sign of Zulu tribal identity. They also took Gauteng (where the ANC’s membership is incredibly small) and the Free State and Northern Cape (where the ANC is extremely urbanised and narrow). The provinces which went for Mbeki were the poorest provinces in the country — Limpopo, Eastern Cape and North-West — plus the Western Cape, where the ANC’s support is strongest in the rural areas and weakest in Cape Town. In short, the rural poor went for Mbeki, the urban rich for Zuma. This was probably a side-effect of the fact that the SACP and COSATU have their strongest support in the cities and in middle-class black areas where the ANC dominates. But one should also note that Zuma support correlates with strong media presences and, very largely, with affluent whites, who had no vote but perhaps had a lot to say.

And so Zuma got his three-fifths at Polokwane, despite being an unsuitable candidate. A close race, and one which the good guys could have won had they worked harder. However, there was too much apathy, and too little concern for the future. Not an unusual situation in today’s South Africa.

Zuma: Bad Guy, or Misunderstood Saint?

February 20, 2008

The crisis in the ANC stems from a simple question: is Jacob Zuma fit to be President of the ANC (which puts him in direct line to becoming President of South Africa)?

There is fairly strong evidence that Zuma is guilty. This evidence arises out of the trial of Schabir Shaik, the multi-millionaire businessman who acted as Zuma’s financial adviser. (Since when do big businessmen act as politicians’ “financial advisers” out of altruism?) Shaik was found guilty of having paid millions into Zuma’s bank account, and having solicited millions more to be paid by the French arms company Thint, at the time when the contracts for a major arms deal had not been completed. At the time, Zuma would have been bankrupt were it not for Shaik’s payments. After Shaik’s payments, Shaik’s company received the contract to provide South Africa with drivers’ licences. The Minister of Transport at the time had been, like Shaik, a former member of ANC Intelligence, which had been headed by Zuma in his last years of exile. Thus there could have been cronyism as well as nepotism involved in these criminal dealings.

In law, this doesn’t prove Zuma guilty, but it is a mountain of evidence which fatally blackens his name. The only way for him to defend his position, or else to help his long-standing friend and comrade Shaik, was to allow himself to be called into the witness-box during the trial. He said, before the trial began, that he would welcome the opportunity to clear his name in court. He chose not to do this. It would have been risky — Zuma would have needed a powerful defense, but he has been retaining some of the most expensive lawyers in the country since well before Shaik went on trial. The fact is that when he had the chance to protect himself, he decided not to. This strongly suggests that he did not go into the witness-box because he was afraid that he would only come out of it in handcuffs.

The end of Shaik’s trial appeared to be the end of Zuma’s career. President Mbeki had refused to speak against Zuma or to act against him in any way during Shaik’s trial, but when Shaik was found guilty, under the circumstances, President Mbeki had no choice but to remove Zuma from his office, for it was clear that Zuma was in danger of indictment. The interesting thing about this was that it was a removal; Zuma refused to resign, claiming that it would have been an admission of guilt, which was not true.

While this is unpleasant it is not unprecedented. B J Vorster’s heir apparent Connie Mulder had to resign from the Cabinet as a result of the corruption uncovered in his Ministry of Information. (This was almost certainly due to a series of leaks probably orchestrated by Mulder’s rival P W Botha.) Vorster himself was hastily “promoted” to the then-ceremonial position of State President, but nevertheless had to leave office when the exposed scale of the corruption proved to embrace him. The thing of concern is that even though Mulder was utterly corrupt, he did not permit himself to be publicly fired; he resigned after losing the Prime Ministerial race. Similarly, when U.S. President Richard Nixon’s Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, was investigated for income tax evasion and corruption (for which he was eventually jailed), Agnew resigned. Corruption in high places is not new. What is new is that Zuma was not prepared to accept that the accusation of corruption needed to be resolved before he could hold high office — in other words, that corruption is not necessarily such a bad thing that the taint of it makes you unelectable.

An innocent man should face prosecution without fear, unless, of course, he is being framed. Was Zuma framed? This would have to mean that the evidence against Shaik was manufactured, including the vast sums paid into Zuma’s bank account by Shaik and others, which Zuma did not deny existed. It is very difficult to manufacture such accusations without any flaw, for people tend to keep their bank statements, and if Zuma could have shown that no such payments existed, both the case against him and against Shaik would have collapsed.

The alternative would have been that back in the late 1990s, before it was even certain that Mbeki would be President and Zuma Vice-President, someone had fooled with Zuma’s bank account and with Shaik’s correspondence. Why do this? It seems an absurd amount of effort to go to simply to have something to charge Zuma with in the event that he was put in a position where someone might need to charge him.

The only person who had a real interest in framing Zuma was Mbeki. But Mbeki did his best to promote Zuma, keeping him in the Deputy President’s office for six years. Why promote a man if you trust him so little that you want a secret way of charging him?

Did he want to get rid of Zuma to make room for a more suitable successor? Mbeki undoubtedly did not want Zuma for President; he appointed him largely for his Zulu identity, as part of the programme to keep Inkatha weak and to win KwaZulu-Natal for the ANC. There is little doubt that Mbeki actually wanted Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, coincidentally Zuma’s divorced wife, as his successor. However, while Dlamini-Zuma was popular in the ANC, there were qualms about promoting women to high office which Mbeki had to overcome, and there was also the problem that the media was intensely hostile to Dlamini-Zuma. (When Zuma was fired, he was replaced by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who was a woman but was also not a credible presidential contender.) There was surely going to be time to ensure that Zuma did not win the succession race at the 2007 National Conference; there was no need to disgrace the party, the office and indeed Mbeki’s own judgement by having Zuma investigated for criminal activities.

Or, did he want to charge Zuma to distract attention from something else, such as his own crimes? Mbeki has been frequently accused of illegal activity around the arms deal, although no evidence has surfaced despite a decade of investigation. The trouble is, however, that charging Zuma of corruption in the arms deal simply focuses attention on that corruption, and sets a precedent for the removal of someone from high office for corruption. It really isn’t the kind of thing a corrupt person would do. Moreover, if Mbeki had been engaged in corruption, Zuma was his right-hand man and was very involved in the arms deal. It was extremely likely that Zuma would have evidence of some or other corruption which Mbeki had participated in. Once fired and charged, Zuma would have no reason to keep silent. Again, this isn’t the behaviour of a corrupt person. It is much more likely that Mbeki got rid of Zuma because he saw no way of not getting rid of Zuma, and he was not afraid of anything Zuma could do in return.

In this, of course, he was making the biggest mistake of his life.

Is there any other evidence that there is anything wrong with Zuma? Well, there is the evidence led in his rape trial. Whether or not you think the trial was flawed, he admitted to having adulterous unprotected sex with an HIV+ woman. (The circumstances of the sex do seem as if the woman was not a truly willing participant, whatever Zuma’s lawyers said.) At the time he was the head of the Moral Regeneration Movement. Is adulterous forced sex really conducive to moral regeneration? It appears rather hypocritical to lecture people about morality which you do not share. At the time he was in charge of the ANC’s HIV/AIDS programme, fully supported by the Treatment Action Campaign. It appears rather hypocritical to promote the “abstain, be faithful, or wear a condom” mantra while failing to follow those principles yourself. There is perhaps nothing surprising about being a hypocritical politician, but the sheer crassness of all this is striking, and the excuses made for this — that Zuma had apologised (though showing no signs of refusing to do it all again whenever he wished) — are facile and foolish. Zuma’s personal life suggests an immorality which correlates with his political record.

After the allegations were made against Zuma by the head of the “Scorpions” (the Department of Justice’s investigatory force) Bulelani Ngcuka, the response came from Schabir’s brother Mo. This response was to accuse Ngcuka of being a spy for the apartheid regime before 1994. As it turned out. Mo Shaik had been an ANC intelligence agent under Zuma and had retained documentation about alleged apartheid spies. Ngcuka had been a prominent member of the ANC for some time, and had been head of the Scorpions for years, but Shaik had never shared his information with either the government or the party.

The only conclusion to draw from this was that he was holding back damaging information for purposes of personal gain — blackmail or intimidation. Despite this disgusting behaviour (which would have been disgusting even if the claim had not turned out to be false) Mo Shaik remains a key adviser for Zuma today. Also, very disturbingly, this kind of behaviour — falsely bringing the organisation into disrepute by deploying information which you wrongfully kept secret from the organisation — is guaranteed expulsion material in any organisation. Yet Mo Shaik remains a member of the ANC, never brought in for any kind of disciplinary hearing. The only conclusion to draw from this is that Zuma was protecting him — possibly with the assistance of Kgalema Motlanthe, ANC Secretary-General who is ultimately responsible for disciplinary matters, and who is now Zuma’s Deputy President.

What this means is that the people around Zuma, people who were very often involved in the ANC intelligence arm which Zuma headed, appear to be dishonest, and that their dishonesty is protected by Zuma. A murkier case is the case of Billy Masetlha, another former Zuma underling, who became head of the National Intelligence Agency (despite its name this organisation is devoted to politically spying on South Africans — the SA Secret Service is the foreign spy agency). Masetlha claimed to have evidence that there was a vast Mbeki-ite conspiracy against Zuma, based on alleged e-mails from ANC leaders he had intercepted. He claimed he’d been told to intercept the e-mails. He couldn’t provide evidence of being told to do so. There were counter-claims that he’d worked together with an IT person to fabricate the e-mails. Meanwhile Mbeki honcho Saki Macozoma discovered that his house was practically surrounded with NIA agents who had been sent there very ostentatiously on Masetlha’s orders. Masetlha was sacked. It’s hard to believe that all this doesn’t amount to misconduct (although Masetlha’s trial has been strangely delayed), and also hard to believe that it had nothing to do with Zuma trying to avoid prosecution.

And so . . .

February 19, 2008

Will this go anywhere, or quietly die on the vine? Will The Creator accomplish anything meaningful, ever, or surrender to the ever-present dangers of manic depression and commercial suicide? Only The Creator knows, and she ain’t telling.

Lovin’ Can’t Pay My Bills

February 19, 2008

Here in South Africa we supposedly have lots of problems. We have the problem of AIDS and the problem of Satanism. We have the crisis of a totally incompetent government, and the fact that the next man in line to run the country is worse. (How can you be more than totally incompetent? Oh, we also have the problem of people making stupid statements and preventing anyone from challenging them.) We have the problem of moral decline and of the need for the privatisation of all major industries. We have a lack of commitment to revolutionary praxis, and of the failure of muscular liberals to meet the high, demanding standards of Peter Marais. We have a high crime rate (though, to be fair, they have arrested the chief of police, which surely shows progress). Oh, and Afrikaners are oppressed, terribly, too. Not to mention a brain drain, a grain strain, and a plain blame game.

No, we won’t mention those things, or any others either, because those things are trivial in themselves. They are symptoms of the disease. Often they are symptoms because they are presented, deliberately, by people trying to promote the disease, to distract and fool us from dealing with the disease. What is the disease?


The love of money is the root of all evil. If this is true (and who would deny it?) then capitalists are demonic and should be exorcised. No, discussion won’t get very far when based on particularly shallow platitudes. Let us seek slightly more profound platitudes.

There is a thing called the GINI coefficient, which supposedly measures how unequal wealth distribution in a society is. It is based upon the assumption that such things are measurable, and indeed that they are accurately measured, which they are not. GINI leaves out vast amounts of important things which makes it a very poor gauge of equality. However, just like Gross Domestic Product, which is an extraordinarily dim way of measuring such things but is the only one taken seriously by anybody, GINI is the best available tool. Like having to dig a trench with a tuning-fork, but there you are.

Well, according to the figures, South Africa’s GINI coefficient is about 0,66. 0 is the best equality, 1 is the worst inequality, in terms of which one person has all the wealth and everybody else staggers about with no clothes on. 0,66 is pretty high. It is apparently one of the highest measured, and we are up there with Brazil and Guatemala.

Does that tell us anything?

Yes and no. Yes, it is blindingly obvious that the inequality of our society’s wealth distribution — or, more accurately, the cause of that inequality — is responsible for a huge variety of social ills — the obvious ills of poverty and malnutrition and unemployment, the less obvious ones of crime and the collapse of social cohesion and civic responsibility. No, it tells us nothing, because the people who are most involved in that inequality are not prepared to listen, or if they listen, they hire people to tell us that the inequality is the fault of someone else.

How bad is it? This year the country is expected to generate about R1,5 trillion. We have about 50 million people. Working the math, that divides up to about R30 000 a head. If you are getting less than R30 000 out of the system this year, counting everything, and remembering that you are probably part of a family in which not everybody is earning, then you are losing out.

A lot of people are earning a lot more than that. There are people who earn R100 million in a year. Tens of millions are pretty standard fare for chief executive officers of companies. Such people are earning several thousand times the average. Sleazebags.

To free up money for this elite, we have an unemployment rate of — duh. The actual unemployment rate is unknown. The figures are routinely fiddled. However, let’s take 30% for argument’s sake. 30% of those people who could be employed are not being employed, are not earning anything at all from their labours. A substantial number of these are on subsistence farms in Limpopo, the Eastern Cape and a few other areas, basically outside the money economy altogether. Others are crowded into shanty-towns or mud-hut villages.

But of those actually earning money, a lot don’t earn very much. The minimum wage about which rich people complain so much is way below the average (meaning, of course, that it should not discourage employment, although rich people hire economists to pretend that it does). People selling little bags of mouldy tomatoes on the sidewalks of small rural towns are self-employed entrepreneurs and thus don’t count as unemployed, but how much do you think they are getting?

Meanwhile the people going on strike last year, whose struggles were defended by the media as opposed to the evil rich politicians who were oppressing them, the nurses and teachers and so on — they earn several times the average. Their strike was to demand that they should earn a good deal more than the average instead of just a little bit more. You can, if you like, argue that they are entitled to this (although the performance of our schools and hospitals suggests otherwise) but you can’t deny that they are an elite, and increasing their salary increases the GINI coefficient instead of reducing it. (This is probably why the media was so enthusiastic, given that the media loves elites.)

Wow. So the people whom we consider workers are not necessarily good guys, and the people whom we consider wealth creators are not either. OK. Who are the bad guys? The government, right? Everybody agrees that this is all their fault. They’re in charge, aren’t they? Why don’t they make it all better?

They can, of course. They can send in the police and the army to confiscate all wealth above R30 000 and hand it around. The confiscation part is easy. The handing around is more difficult, as was discovered in Cambodia under the benevolent rule of Angka Loew in the 1970s. This kind of policy is tacitly advocated by some left-wingers (usually ones living in agreeable houses a long way from where any problems might arose) but generally it will not work and nobody knows how to make it work.

Take a slightly closer look at the problem. Where did it come from? There was (you may have heard) a little problem called colonialism a few years ago, and subsequently, a modest hassle arising out of that called apartheid. These were basically techniques for concentrating wealth in a few hands. You divide the country into two categories (don’t call them rich and poor, please) and ensure that one category has political power and the other not. Then you make the ones without the power work for the ones with it. Similar techniques were used in Ancient Rome and Classical Greece, with very excellent results if you weren’t a woman, a slave or a barbarian. It was very profitable for rich, powerful people for a long time — in fact, it still is.

That is where the inequality came from. However, it grew worse towards the end of apartheid, partly because of high-value, capital-intensive manufacturing. This meant that we didn’t need to make lots of cheap stuff to pay for the salaries of the elite. Instead we only had to make a small amount of expensive stuff. We didn’t need to hire so many labourers to keep the rich, rich. Hence the rich stayed rich, but the poor got poorer because more of them lost their jobs. This process continued from the last decades of apartheid until now. It’s not a process that is easy to reverse.

Meanwhile, if you are rich, you tend to want more. The rich really do get richer. They invent sophisticated ways of getting richer, like the futures market on the stock exchange. They have more political power than the poor, so the economy becomes ever more skewed in favour of the rich. They can also stop the poor from getting their own back. That’s why the inequality gets worse.

The government can do a number of things. It can tax the rich and hand the tax money over to the poor. In fact, that’s exactly what it does. Most government spending helps the middle class as well as the affluent class; a substantial chunk of government spending, such as social grants, goes directly to the poor. Spending on infrastructure promotes employment and is theoretically good for economic growth. In theory, spending on schools and hospitals also goes to the poor, though in practice so much of the money goes on salaries for middle-class government employees that this is moot.

It can persuade the rich to be nicer to the poor — no, it bloody well cannot. One of the dumbest policies of the present government has been the blind belief that the problem was that rich people are bad whiteys, and if only good darkies were in charge of all the money, the problem would disappear. The fact is that wealth overrides skin colour; if you are a rich black person you have immensely more in common with a rich white person than with a poor black person. Hence black economic empowerment has definitely not improved anybody’s lives; it has merely perpetuated the problem. (On the other hand, contrary to the ridiculous propaganda of rich white people, black economic empowerment has not made anything worse for the country as a whole; just because there are black sleazoids as well as white ones earning a hundred times more than they deserve, does not change anything.)

It can prevent the rich from sending their money out of the country, through what’s called exchange controls. This seems smart. If you can’t get your money out, you might as well invest it. Maybe some of that investment will be productive and lead to someone getting hired. (Alternatively you might put all your money into derivatives on the stock market, meaning that it does nothing useful to anyone except you and your financial consultants.) So it’s not a reliable way of solving the problem — although lifting exchange controls was one of the dumbest things the ANC has done in its terms of office.

It can prevent the rich from wasting their money on imported goods, forcing them to buy locally manufactured goods instead. This is the best possible solution. If things are locally made, someone locally has to make them, has to hire people to make them, has to obtain resources locally, and so on. This is brilliant. The only problem is the first sentence in this paragraph. It isn’t true. The World Trade Organisation prohibits governments from making decisions of this kind. You are not allowed to slap tariffs on imported goods, nor are you allowed to hand subsidies to domestic goods. Why do they do this? The World Trade Organisation is run by rich people — go figure.

So what can the government do to make things more equal? The answer invariably given by economists working for rich people (that is, virtually every economist alive and quite a lot of dead ones) is, promote economic growth. A little bit of economic growth, say between 3% and 4% a year, does not encourage equality. This they say, and we know it is true, because we had that kind of growth all the time when inequality was increasing. So instead they say that what we need is economic growth of 6% and then inequality will decrease.

There is absolutely no evidence for this. It is, however, an argument endlessly made, because the rich are in a position to get a better share of economic growth than the poor. In other words when the economy grows faster, the rich get richer, faster. However, the poor also get a little bit richer, because employment goes up and sometimes wages rise faster than inflation. Therefore, for the poor, the extra crumbs falling from the table feels like manna from heaven. It’s easy to persuade them that this is a sign of equality growing, and to tell them that this is because the rich are doing such a splendid job, unlike the government, which is always doing a bad job.

So, basically, economic growth is a snow-job (at least as a means of wealth redistribution, which is not to say that economic growth is a Bad Thing). This helps to confirm that the rich are not interested in wealth redistribution. They could do it, but they don’t want it. The poor are interested, but they don’t have the power. The government has the power and might have the will (although they are easy to bribe or fool) but what are they supposed to do to solve the problem?

Anybody got any ideas?