The Creator is going out now and may be some time. This entails staggering in circles amid blizzards and hostile, heavily-armed penguins.
The weblog may be neglected.
The Creator is going out now and may be some time. This entails staggering in circles amid blizzards and hostile, heavily-armed penguins.
The weblog may be neglected.
A short sad word.
First about a man named Mr. Zulu, whose name means “Sky”, who was a student and is no longer a student. He has died yesterday at his very young age and will grow no older. He will never serve his people or his nation or even his family or himself again. He died after a short illness and perhaps that means what you think it means and perhaps it means nothing of the kind. It does not matter. Mr. Zulu is dead. He is no longer a creative writer, an answerer of questions, a contributer of ideas, a lifter of spirits. He is nothing any more. No doubt he was something to many people whose lives are left emptier. Perhaps he might have had the chance to do this for many, many people had he lived long enough, but he did not.
Second about a man who lived more than two and a half times as long as Mr. Zulu and yet did not live long enough, who died today. His name was Dr. Ivan Toms. He was found dead in his home. We do not know what he died of except that it appears to have been natural causes. Knowing what we know about Dr. Toms, natural causes does not mean quite what it would mean for most people.
Dr. Toms was a medical doctor and after completing his time in medical school he went to the Army. While he was a doctor for the Army he was asked to go to a rural area and act as an intelligence officer, but he refused because he did not believe in spying on the people. They sent him off anyway into a faraway place in what is now KwaZulu-Natal. Strangely, Dr. Toms did not, like most white South Africans, decide that the misery and poverty and sickness which surrounded him was a natural product of being black. It occurred to him that, rather, it was a natural product of the privileges which came with his being white. He wished to do something about that. This was very strange indeed.
Dr. Toms was a Christian. The Creator has not a lot of time for Christians but Dr. Toms was not your usual kind of Christian. He seemed actually to have read the Gospels and thought about them, like Dr. Martin Luther King whose “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” the Creator was teaching to a class which no longer included Mr. Zulu. As a Christian Dr. Toms decided to practice medicine with a form of human responsibility. He assisted in setting up a clinic in Crossroads in Cape Town.
You are familiar with Crossroads? It was, and is, a favela, a squatter-camp — “informal settlement” is the fashionable euphemism. A cluster of corrugated-iron and wood and plastic huts, a fire hazard, a disease hazard, a miserable dumping ground for people discarded by society, to which people flooded because the alternatives were worse. Now at least it has roads and electricity cables and toilets and water and a kind of security. In the nineteen-seventies it had none of these things, and it had policeman charging through Crossroads trying to force people out because Cape Town fell within the “Coloured Labour Preference Area”: blacks were not supposed to be there. Yes, this happened, thirty years ago, and we have forgotten so quickly!
Then came the nineteen-eighties and the attempt to destroy Crossroads and its sister KTC altogether, breaking down houses with front-end loaders and turfing people out into freezing rain to die, or to move to the distant hovels of Khayelitsha thirty kilometres down the road. There was Dr. Toms, now not only trying to keep babies and old people alive, but picking bird-shot out of eyes and trying to keep a teargassed child’s bronchiae open long enough for it to take a life-sustaining breath. Through his clinic came an endless parade of student helpers, few of whom were not radicalised, not by Dr. Toms’ politics, but by what they saw there and what they saw him doing there.
Time went on and brought a movement to struggle against the hideous militarisation of apartheid, and Dr. Toms took part in that, and eventually served as a focal point of a call for the military to be withdrawn from occupying black townships, fasting for twenty-one days in protest against the occupation. He seriously damaged his health by that fast. Then he was off to Nicaragua on a solidarity trip. It is fashionable to mock those trips and pretend that because Nicaragua’s fledgling democracy was eventually crushed by the Americans, it was doomed and its supporters were fools. What Dr. Toms came back with was not foolish obedience, but delight at being, for the first time in his life, in a country where one could salute the flag and sing the national anthem without shame. How wondrous to experience normal patriotism!
Time rolled on again and the apartheid state crushed the anti-military movement, but Dr. Toms survived, was called up to serve in the military once more, and refused to serve. Instead he faced trial and imprisonment for eighteen months (an artful system whereby one could be imprisoned again and again, whereas a person simply refusing to serve at all would face six years in prison). Dr. Toms, unluckily, went in at a time when he had to serve his full sentence. He served as an example to many others who declared their refusal to serve, some of whom also dared to go to prison for their beliefs.
When he emerged from prison he declared himself unrepentant. He had many stories of the harsh life which prisoners lead; his friend who made necklaces out of the pigs’ teeth found in the daily stew. Maybe the experience had aged him more than he realised, but he obviously had no regrets.
Then came liberation and work within the ANC which he had always supported. And then — political office, opportunities for perquisites and directorships and brushes with the law and defiant lies and criminality? No. Living in the same small house as before. Hard work in the Cape Town medical community, eventually rising up to become one of the leading lights of the municipal health-care system and one of the few people in that unfortunately dysfunctional municipality who consistently did good work. But, no doubt, at a cost in physical and psychological well-being. He died of meningitis; no doubt he thought he had a headache from overwork and took plenty of Myprodol to dull the pain during meetings until he passed out.
And now he is dead, and there are few to replace him, if any.
For such people as Mr. Zulu and Dr. Toms, the Creator would like to provide elegies, but there is no talent here for that. Instead a little may be stolen from W H Auden to give some point to the Creator’s mood, a glummish passage from “As I Walked Out One Evening”:
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
“O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
“In the burrows of the Nightmare,
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.
“In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
Tomorrow or today.
“Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.
“O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.
“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the teacup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.”
The Monthly Review is the most prestigious of the journals of American Trotskyism, and is one of the few that has not become a front organisation for neoliberalism, so it deserves our support. It is genuinely leftist and retains many of the values which motivated the Left in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before the anti-imperialist struggle was flung in the dust for a smile, a song and a Ho-Ho-Ho-Chi-Minh.
But for all this positive stuff there is, of course, a big, big but — the Monthly Review is often preposterously wrongheaded. One of its most recent trumpet-calls has been a declaration — not, so far as the Creator can see, based on any evidence — that American imperialism has, being weak, become obliged to rely upon satellite states to do its dirty work. The satellite states which the Monthly Review identifies, a notion which is being so widely spread about the Internet that it is even appearing here, are India, Brazil and South Africa.
On the face of it this is not an implausible position. If the United States is really growing weaker it makes sense for it to seek allies. Pakistan helped it attack Afghanistan. Britain helped it attack Iraq. France helped it attack Haiti. Ethiopia helped it attack Somalia. These are all fairly evident events and Britain and France, as well as, for instance, Canada, a spear-carrier for the US in the occupation of Afghanistan and of Haiti, might be considered natural allies of the United States. But is this true of the three countries specially singled out by the Monthly Review?
Brazil, of course, is a major American trading partner. It also, to its shame, assisted in the United Nations figleaf occupation of Haiti, and thus with the brutal repression of the democratic opposition in that trampled nation. However, if Brazil is really assisting the United States in its attempts to restore control over Latin America, it is not doing a tremendously good job. The populist-socialist states of Bolivia and Ecuador and Venezuela, and the social democracies of Argentina and Chile, have grown up under Brazil’s current government without Brazil doing anything very obvious to oppose or subvert them. It could surely do more if it wanted to — Brazil in the 1960s was a major promoter of the right-wing terrorism which eventually overwhelmed much of the continent in the 1970s, and if anything, Brazil is more powerful and influential now than it was then. It seems most likely, then, that Brazil is not attempting to directly serve American political imperialist interests.
India is another major American trading partner and a major beneficiary of outsourcing. Hence it is presumably in a position to serve as America’s spear-carrier in South Asia. For instance, it has, has it not, served American interests in Pakistan and Afghanistan? (Apparently not, judging by results.) Er — in that case, what American interests does it have the capacity to influence? In Sri Lanka? Bangladesh? Nepal? Burma? Abruptly, one sees that even if India were panting to bend the knee before American imperialism, it is not in a particularly good position to serve American interests; virtually all of the countries around it are either already American clients, or they are too feeble to be worth bothering about. However, there is little or no sign that India actually is doing this; even under the ultra-right-wing BJP government, which was avowedly more pro-American than the confused and bizarre Congress government at the moment, the Indians cheerfully trampled on the American shibboleth of nuclear non-proliferation and fought a bloody war with America’s ally Pakistan. This does not look like a promising country for subservience.
Of course, both countries have strong pro-American commercial elites. Hence both countries will sometimes act in the interests of the United States because those elites wish it so. Yet on the other hand one cannot guarantee that elites will always do this, just because they often do it. Especially when the United States is weak, elites might look elsewhere for their power-worshipping instincts to be satisfied, and also for their wallets to be filled up.
That leaves South Africa as the last survivor of the Monthly Review thesis. South Africa was originally part of the British Empire, which after the Second World War became a satellite empire of America. However, unlike Australia and Canada, which fell more or less directly under American influence, South Africa preferred to follow the British line; South Africa equipped itself with British weaponry until Britain could not get away with selling any more to it. But South Africa had no obvious role in the Cold War, except for symbolic acts like sending a squadron of fighters to Korea and promising to guard a Cape Sea Route which the USSR had no real intention of threatening.
It was, of course, true that from the 1970s South Africa troubled Southern Africa, destabilising virtually every country in the region. Some of this served U.S. interests; the obvious example was the South African support for Unita in Angola, which killed so many people to no final purpose. However, the South Africans were not doing this as American surrogates; they had, instead, developed Unita for their own purposes after the CIA abandoned them (the CIA had preferred the gutless and corrupt FNLA). Furthermore, given that there was virtually no Soviet presence in Mozambique, South Africa’s equally destructive destabilisation of Mozambique served no obvious American purpose; it was simply a continuation of South Africa’s Rhodesian policies and a dim dream of driving the ANC far, far away where they would no longer trouble Pretoria. South African aggression even disrupted U.S. client states like Botswana.
Indeed, it is a moot point how far American support for the apartheid state was a strategic thing, and how far, like American support for Israel, it reflected simple reactionary power-worship and admiration for violence for its own sake. Certainly the Americans supported the apartheid state long after they ought to have abandoned it as an embarrassment, and did what they could to preserve it by lifting sanctions and offering other assistance. (A great deal of American support for South Africa came through Israel, of course — especially in ballistic missile weaponry.) But all this did not exactly make the U.S. beloved in Lusaka, even though by the early 1990s, with the disappearance of the USSR, it was dangerous to make any resentment obvious.
So what has South Africa done, lately, to merit attention as an American satellite? Well, it opposed the attacks on Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti and Somalia. It also opposed the surrogate attack on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and did what it could to defend the interests of Libya and the Sudan. It has been friendly to Iran, supported Fatah for as long as it could (actually longer) and more recently invited Hamas to Pretoria for discussions. It has been a staunch opponent of Western attacks on Zimbabwe, even though George W Bush described President Mbeki as his “point man” on the issue (which was a generous benison which President Mbeki undoubtedly did not want). On a couple of occasions — Lesotho in 1998 and Equatorial Guinea in 2004 — it acted to prevent minor destabilisation operations which almost certainly emanated from Western planning, despite subsequent counter-propaganda to the contrary. It played a major role in paralysing the last round of the World Trade Organisation. In short, in foreign policy it has been about as anti-imperialist as any anti-imperialist could reasonably expect a militarily, politically and economically weak state to be.
No doubt its domestic policy has been neoliberal in some ways, but it has certainly not been ostentatiously so. The GEAR policy may in some ways have resembled a structural adjustment plan, but nevertheless South Africa did not permit the IMF or the World Bank to simply dictate its policies. As a result South Africa managed to avoid some of the more catastrophic consequences of excessive subservience which have done so much damage to comparable economies in East Asia and Argentina. South African capital has certainly penetrated Africa — particularly mining, telecommunications and service industries. Some of the SADC countries are little better than South African economic satellites; the rand dominates the region.
Yet it is hard to see that in doing this it is necessarily dancing to Washington’s tune; if this is an imperialism it is a private imperialism of Pretoria’s own devising. Incidentally, it is worth noting that it does not appear to be a destructive imperialism; on the contrary, South African investment in infrastructure in the region has been fairly extensive. No doubt it serves the ruling class in the region to an unfair extent, but at least it has not been an example of Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism. Mines, hotels, cellphone antennas and highways are not automatically signs of potential calamity.
Of course, some, such as Dennis Brutus and Patrick Bond, will say that this is the case; that southern Africa would be far better off in resisting South Africa’s corruption, and would be happier in pursuing the traditional socialist path exemplified by — well, by absolutely nothing in Africa, any more. But this is in any case rather different from saying that South Africa is doing these things under American orders. There is remarkably little evidence for that. Instead it seems probable that South Africa is trying to build itself a niche, not so much as a superpower, but at least as a state capable of independent action in support of its own interests, and therefore enthusiastic about other states also being capable of independent action, even if only to act as distractions for the American superpower to pay attention to.
Then why the denunciation in the Monthly Review? One reason seems to have been the South African decision to support sanctions against Iran. This is probably a bad move on South Africa’s part, but on the other hand, South Africa had been patiently calling for Iran to be given more time to show its good behaviour, and the time had largely run out. The sanctions, in any case, are largely symbolic (though it is disturbing to see them being imposed; one recalls earlier United Nations interventions which America has used as pretexts for aggression).
Another, more important, seems simply to be that the Monthly Review does not like the governments of India, Brazil and South Africa. It feels that we ought to be more left-wing, which is fair enough. (In many ways it, like most Trotskyites, confuses anti-American rhetoric with anti-imperialist policy.) Therefore it concludes, apparently, that the best way to promote this view is to pretend that these governments are not merely moderate and occasionally conservative, but are reactionary toadies of Yankee imperialism. In order to do this the Monthly Review has to play fast and loose with reality, but sadly that is not usually a problem for Trotskyites.
It does seem obvious that having mildly left-wing governments in these major countries, and having these countries join hands in mutual defense against U.S. interference, is not necessarily a bad thing. It is, instead, something which leftists could exploit to their own advantage. However, a lot of leftists believe that nothing can ever be supported unless it is entirely worthy of support, and therefore anything not entirely worthy of support must be opposed with utmost power. Thus, paradoxically, the Monthly Review is in this case lining up with elements of the imperialism which it wishes to oppose, and which dearly would like to see South Africa, India and Brazil enlisted to radically oppose leftism in their respective regions. Doubtless the Monthly Review murmurs “The worse, the better”, to itself as it rocks itself to sleep at night.
But meanwhile, the rest of us need to be more wide awake than that.
South African white liberalism had become, by the end of apartheid, something quite extraordinarily unlike anything to do with justice, freedom or democracy. The flagbearer of traditional white extraparliamentary liberalism, the Institute for Race Relations, had become a propagandist not merely for apartheid, but for the most vicious aspects of apartheid; among the elements and policies which it embraced were the last surviving supposedly-independent homeland of Bophuthatswana, the apartheid riot police, and the murderous thugs of the Inkatha movement, while it denounced every kind of anti-apartheid activism outside the white community as “Mass Mobilisation”, which it defined as evil. Ironically, while it was doing this its researchers chronicled the crimes which its leaders, such as Andrea Wentzel and John Kane-Berman, were endorsing and approving.
Liberal journalism had, if anything, become worse than this. In the pro-apartheid Sunday Times, but also in the supposedly anti-apartheid Business Day, the “muscular liberal” journalist Ken Owen denounced all anti-apartheid activists as brutal agents of the Soviet Union at best, or else as covertly planning to install what he loved to call a “Pol Pot” dictatorship. He was helped by the “alternative Afrikaner” journalist Rian Malan, whose drug-addled racist fantasies were distributed all over South Africa by such energetic reactionaries as Dennis Beckett, and peddled all over the world by those seeking to prove that the apartheid state was at least better than the cowardly white radicals and “slideaway liberals” who were foolishly helping murderous, savage blacks come to power. (To be fair, both Owen and Malan have recanted some of their worst lies, though Malan continues to peddle them and both characters, if South African society had any moral compass, would be unable to come out of their homes for fear of being debagged and horsewhipped.)
Meanwhile, there was the Democratic Party, which spent the transition period (1990-94) claiming that it was better, more liberal, and more experienced in the ways of black people than the National Party. To prove this, it devoted a good deal of time to flirting with anti-democratic conspirators like Anthony Horowitz, whose “consociationalism” was basically an extension of separate development. When the eventual deal went down in 1993, virtually every word of the new Constitution, an impeccably liberal (in the eighteenth-century sense of the word) document, had been drafted by the ANC with no thanks to the Democratic Party. Its contribution was to accuse the National Party of selling the country (by which it meant, the white part of the country) down the river by caving in to demands of one-person, one-vote in a unitary state — a shocking, horrible and unacceptable concession from the white-leadership perspectives of white liberalism.
The consequence of this was, perhaps, unsurprising. In 1989 the Democratic Party had received a substantial fraction of the National Party’s vote in the whites-only election. In 1994 the Democratic Party gained less than a twelfth of what the National Party gained. Not only had the Democratic Party, the party of white liberal values, failed to hold on to its support-base, losing something like half its voters to the National Party, the party of apartheid and reactionary conservatism. The Democratic Party had also totally failed to pick up black, coloured and Indian votes, as the National Party did.
Meanwhile, of course, the National Party entered the Government of National Unity, as did the Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC, in approximately the ratio 2:1:6; the Democratic Party, had it chosen to take part, would have entered in the proportional ratio of 0,17, which would probably have gained it a very junior deputy ministership on sufferance. Perhaps wisely, it decided to stay out of the GNU. The GNU, however, proceeded to pursue impeccably liberal politics (thus, well to the left of anything that the Democratic Party stood for). It abolished the death penalty and did away with racial and sexual discrimination, and made a modest start on providing some kind of social security and unemployment insurance, all things which the Democratic Party was queasy about.
It ostensibly endorsed all these things, but in practice the DP was largely supported by pro-death penalty people, had a lot of homophobes and misogynists in its ranks, and was fiercely opposed to social democracy, so that among the people purged from the party’s parliamentarians was the long-standing MP Harry Schwartz, who was deeply reactionary in many ways, but was also a social democrat and hence unacceptable to the DP’s new leadership. It seemed that this new leadership, based around a small cabal of right-wing Johannesburg ex-councillors and their friends and partners, and with a startlingly high proportion of closet homosexuals in denial about their identity, was not only out of touch with reality, but had no prospect of any success.
This was an illusion. For one thing, the DP controlled the English-language press, which by now dominated the Afrikaans-language press. For another thing, the NP had shot its bolt. It pretended to serve the interests of blacks, coloureds and indians, but while it was in alliance with the ANC it was unable to denounce the ANC’s policies as the DP could. The NP united wildly differing class and ethnic identities who had felt that it would protect them against the ANC, but now it was clearly not protecting them, and when the DP promised to denounce the ANC and the whole post-apartheid dispensation, the NP had nothing to offer in return. Eventually, in desperation, Deputy President De Klerk took his party out of the Government of National Unity to free its hand. But it was useless, for it was impossible to hold the fragments of the party together; having been in government too long, the National Party could not attack the ANC as hysterically or as dishonestly as the DP could — and all the withdrawal accomplished was to weaken the NP’s public profile even further.
In consequence, the DP stood to gain, and in fact did so. The problem appeared to be that the DP would be stepping into the NP’s shoes. The leadership of the DP evolved a “strategy” which was fairly simple: rather than develop a coherent ideology to unify the party, they would simply absorb the coloured, white and indian constituencies previously occupied by the NP. (Any africans who happened to come in would be most welcome, but the party would not devote much time to acquiring them.)
Thus the party would build itself into a force to be reckoned with, like the NP at the time of the 1994 election. This was a strategy in the sense that catching the apples falling from a tree is a strategy; it required no effort other than spending money and devoting attention to denouncing the ANC. With its racist “Fight Back” strategy, the DP overwhelmed the NP at the 1999 election, overtaking it and declaring itself to be the new “Official Opposition”, a meaningless, antiquated term which resonated with those who were nostalgic for the old white Parliament. But where would it go from here, and what had all this to do with liberalism?
The answer, of course, was nowhere and nothing, but the party refused to accept this. Instead, it pressed for an alliance with the NP and suggested that in fact the two parties should amalgamate. De Klerk had departed after the NP’s humiliating defeat, his place taken by Marthinus van Schalkwyk, a pragmatic former securocrat with inclinations towards the ANC. Unable to take the party with him, however, and since the DP and NP were already in coalition in the Western Cape to keep the ANC out of power in that province, Van Schalkwyk surrendered to the inevitable and the DP and the NP began to merge.
Essentially, since the DP had already expanded by taking over NP branches lock, stock and barrel, what this meant was that the DP leadership was capturing the NP voters, but at branch level the NP practice and membership was taking over the DP brand. The party, having already abandoned liberalism in practice, was now becoming a sort of Christian Democratic party, except that instead of hiding its reactionary nature behind the Pope, it was hiding it behind the ghosts of white liberals like poor Helen Suzman, who was wheeled out whenever possible to legitimate the horrible stew which was to be called the Democratic Alliance. The formerly liberal press, now neoliberal, and the formerly liberal think-tanks, now also neoliberal or reactionary, cheered these events to the echo.
The death of parliamentary liberalism, however, still had one last joke to play on its members. This came at the 2000 municipal election. In the Western Cape and in Cape Town, the alliance between NP and DP was particularly painful because the NP was much stronger than the DP and yet the DP was calling the shots; the NP people were resentful. Embarrassed by this, Leon’s Johannesburg contingent hatched a plan; they would win Johannesburg and thus cow the Cape NP by their might and authority. Unfortunately, Leon’s cabal were incompetent, hopelessly out of touch, and completely unselfcritical. (Leon himself toured the country with a vast video-screen to blow him up out of proportion at his rallies, revealing him wearing a relaxed black leisure shirt which made him look like a pigeon-chested, chinless Mussolini.) When the votes were counted, the DA’s defeat in Johannesburg was total, while the NP-dominated Cape DA, led by a banjo-playing Elvis impersonator named Peter Marais, had won Cape Town.
Leon was not prepared to tolerate this. He demanded that Marais step down as Mayor, inventing a fraudulent excuse for this and whipping up a massive press campaign against Marais. Such contempt for democracy and party principle proved too much for the leadership of the NP, who walked out of the DA en masse, taking many of their followers with them, and eventually defected to the ANC after that party used its two-thirds majority in Parliament to organise a “floor-crossing” Constitutional loophole for them. The DA lost the Western Cape, and temporarily even lost Cape Town, to the ANC, because of its hatred of democracy and freedom. It would have been hilarious if the DA had not been the only Parliamentary alternative to the ANC, and the anointed heir of a century and a half of white liberalism.
Where did this leave liberalism? The short answer is, that, as with mathematics at Gö ttingen under the Nazis, “there really is none, anymore”. Leon’s misrule of the DA, and the weakening position of the Johannesburg cabal, eventually saw him lose control and be unceremoniously replaced by a duumvirate, the right-wing union-busting neoliberal Helen Zille in Cape Town, and the right-wing Afrikaner nationalist Sandra Botha (no close relative of the apartheid President, but a direct political descendant). Outside Parliament, neoliberalism rules unchecked in the press, the think-tanks (such as the Freedom of Expression Institute, a body curiously uninterested in corporate suppression of free expression) and to a great extent in academia, where big business calls the financial shots even for Trotskyites. It seems that liberalism was simply a passing fad which, now that it is no longer needed, has become an embarrassment to the corporate interests which pretended to foster it.
Since 1994 white liberalism has been racing to greet this opportunity, hoping that at some stage it could, with the help of big business, become the neoliberal front-rulers of South Africa. Ironically, however, they have been too slow and too incompetent. Now that neoliberal big business controls the ANC, it no longer needs the white liberals. It is perfectly likely that, having destroyed all capacity to pursue any meaningful agenda of their own, the white liberals will see their hopes and dreams, along with all their values and principles, withering on the vine. It would be justice — though it comes at the expense of the people of South Africa, so it’s nothing to cheer about.
The decision by the Zuma camp of the ANC to disband the Scorpions, the executive arm of the Department of Justice, deserves to be looked at, and so is not being looked at, except, perhaps, here.
The Scorpions are a privileged, well-funded and well-equipped body devoted to fighting organised crime. As such, they are a lot like the American FBI on whom they try to model themselves, although unlike the FBI they do not function as a political police. Their ambit is to pursue gangsters and corruption in business and government. This is obviously a useful goal to pursue, and one which was not well performed by the Police Service — which is the ostensible reason why President Mbeki set up the Scorpions in the first place.
Turning the Scorpions into a unit within the Police Service is not, of course, to destroy them. However, it does reduce their freedom and raise the possibility that they might be quietly abolished, as other special units within the Police Service have been abolished. It is an explicit statement that the Scorpions have not been doing their job properly and therefore need to be brought under control.
Implicit statements are various. One implicit statement which many have derived from this action is that Jacob Zuma wishes to protect himself against going to prison. It is argued against this that his case is in the hands of the Public Prosecutor now, and therefore disbanding the Scorpions will not protect him. This is partly true, although it is also true that cases tend to be driven by the investigating officer, and if the investigating officer falls under the authority of someone who does not want the case to be pursued, the case would become much weaker and less likely to succeed.
Another implicit statement, which has been made explicit by some politicians and the whole media, is that the Scorpions have been politically misused by President Mbeki for his own purposes. There is no evidence that this is the case, but it is Zuma’s only defense and a powerful propaganda weapon against Mbeki in the media. On the other hand, if this is the problem, then disbanding the Scorpions is obviously not the solution; getting rid of Mbeki and replacing him with a person of greater integrity is the solution. So: why disband the Scorpions?
One plausible answer is that the feeling is that the Presidency is too powerful. The Scorpions are not exactly a Presidential unit, but they do report to the President and he can hire and fire their leader. Hence it is not so much Mbeki that these people are afraid of, but anyone in his place with his authority. Disbanding the Scorpions pulls the teeth of central government, in this view. It gives the ANC relatively more control as a party, and the ANC’s Presidential candidate less control as a President.
This view segues into another related view: that the leading lights in the ANC and elsewhere are afraid of what the Scorpions might be capable of. If the Scorpions are prepared to take on the Presidency, then they are prepared to take on anybody. Most of the leaders of the present NEC are businessmen, and most of them are corrupt, as are virtually all businessmen. The Scorpions are not incorruptible — there have been several cases of corruption in the Scorpions — but they are certainly less corruptible than the SAPS. Hence, removing the Scorpions reduces the danger that some criminal act on the part of a senior politician will come to light and damage or ruin that politician’s career.
An interesting thing about these issues is that none of them is actually unique to the leadership of the ANC; on the contrary, most of them have been borrowed by the current leadership of the ANC from white media and big business interests. It is undoubtedly the big bourgeoisie which particularly wanted to put Jacob Zuma where he is today, and which therefore sees the Scorpions as a problem in this sphere (since Motlanthe might not be as pliable as Zuma). It is undoubtedly the big bourgeoisie’s media who have run with the story that Mbeki is abusing state organs for his own purposes ever since Mbeki came to prominence, despite the absence of evidence in this regard, and the pretense that the Scorpions have been so misused has been a frequent element of this particular brand of propaganda. (For instance, the claim that Special Operations Director Pikoli’s dismissal was an attempt to save Police Commissioner Selebi, despite Selebi’s almost immediate arrest thereafter.)
Also, it is a constant refrain by big business and the press that the Presidency is too powerful. They naturally want a decentralised state in which big business has complete freedom and control. Equally, they do not want any police unit looking into their own criminal corruption, as they have been able to keep themselves secure from prosecution, for the most part, with occasional bungles like Greg Blank (who was the fall-guy for what was surely a much larger insider-trading business) and the Brett Kebble affair (Kebble was surely murdered to silence him).
So in this regard, virtually everybody in power is likely to be in agreement that the Scorpions need to be done away with. The only person really opposed to this was Thabo Mbeki, and he has been stripped of authority in his party and thus holds power only on sufferance. So — in that case, why is the media and the white establishment so enthusiastic about supporting the Scorpions, whom they did not lift a finger to protect up until the decision was taken to disband them?
Good question. The answer is almost certainly a pure question of propaganda. The Scorpions not only make a superb propaganda weapon against the ANC, but the disbanding of the Scorpions can be used as a comparable propaganda stunt. The disbanding of the Scorpions is almost as useful to the forces of corporate reaction in South Africa as the election of Jacob Zuma.
The Scorpions are being disbanded at the command of the ANC as a party, and this is being implemented by the government who are essentially Mbeki’s people. As a result, the disbanding can be blamed on both, even though there is no evidence that Mbeki wants to see the Scorpions disbanded. He can be blamed, just as much as his bitter enemies who are initiating the process in order to undermine him! It is a perfect situation for propaganda purposes. If necessary, the whole affair can be blamed on Mbeki and Zuma’s rule in it be downplayed or covered up.
The Scorpions have long been portrayed in the media as essentially an organisation working against the ANC. (No doubt this is one reason why there is so little sympathy for them within the ANC, even outside the Zuma camp.) Hence, all those who hate the ANC in South Africa have been trained to like the Scorpions. If the Scorpions were as obviously active against other parties as they are against the ANC, it is unlikely that right-wing whites and their stooges in the media and business would be sympathetic with the Scorpions.
In fact this image does not truly reflect reality; it is a propaganda construct. In part it has been constructed because it has been the standard tactic of opposition parties to accuse the ruling party of corruption, and therefore the Scorpions have been investigating the ruling party (with some results, although these results have virtually never been linked with anything said by an opposition party). Therefore the media constantly links the Scorpions with the national government and the ruling party’s crimes, real or invented. Meanwhile, the Scorpions are quite active in investigating corruption in big business (though not so active as they ought to be) but they receive virtually no press coverage regarding this. Big business has enough control over the media to ensure that their shenanigans will not received too much attention, even when they end up in the courtroom.
As a result, one of the most probable actors calling for the destruction or neutering of the Scorpions, the collective noun for big business, is absent from any discussion on the issue. The attention is on the monkey — Zuma and his merry men — rather than the organ grinder — Zuma’s corporate friends, paymasters and handlers. This, undeniably, is the way South African public opinion is controlled in this modern age.
For instance, at the moment a businessman named Glenister is going to court to “save the Scorpions”, claiming that Glenister, wealthy owner of an information technology company, is threatened by rising crime rates if the Scorpions are disbanded. One does not have to second-guess the court to see that this claim is tommy-rot. Glenister has no idea whether this would be true or not, and no means of proving it, since it relies on counterfactuals. Meanwhile, the person whom he is taking to court is President Mbeki, probably one of the last people in South Africa who really wants the Scorpions disbanded.
It is not clear whether Glenister is simply doing this to knowingly cast dust in the public’s eyes. He could well be acting on behalf of big business to further confuse the public and, as usual, smear Mbeki with the crimes which they themselves are committing or planning to commit. But given the ignorance and political confusion bred of the racist propaganda to which the media routinely subject white South Africans, it is perfectly possible that Glenister is sincere. He may really think that the way to save the Scorpions is to denounce Mbeki, to attack his government, and to promote the general paranoia about crime which is standard procedure on the white right, left, centre and points up and down.
Incidentally, promoting paranoia about crime plays right into the hands of the South African Police Service. It is generally agreed (among the white right and corporate community, exemplified by the propaganda arm of the ex-apartheid armed forces, the Institute for Security Studies) that what is needed is simply to give the SAPS much more money. In that case, taking the Scorpions into the SAPS, regardless of what happens to them after that, and regardless of how they are administered and controlled, appears the way to go. This is exactly how the white right works; its solutions in health care and education are largely the same: throw more money in the general direction of the problem. Big business likes this because they know how to catch the money in huge currency nets. Eventually, too, big business hopes that the structures receiving the money will be outsourced and they will be able to trap even more of the dosh for themselves. This is the kind of agenda which Glenister is serving, and if he doesn’t know it, well, information technology people do tend to be stupider than average, probably because they think themselves so extraordinarily clever.
So the Scorpions go down, Mbeki goes down, the ANC goes down (except for some members of the Zuma faction), the SAPS eventually goes down, and the only people who win are big businesspeople living in gated residential communities, free from commonplace thuggery, and making their enormous profits out of corporate crime. Is this a depressing prospect? Then perhaps we should have tried to do something about it a few years ago, because now seems to be much too late to change anything.
In the 1970s there really seemed to be only one game for liberal white English South Africans to play, and it was a Parliamentary game. For a child growing up in a liberal white English household, it was a matter of natural course to support the Progressive Party (PP), which merged with the Reform Party to become the Progressive Reform Party (PRP), and then after it got a new Afrikaans leader, became the Progressive Federal Party (PFP). No accident that the party’s acronyms pronounce remarkably like the sound of belches and farts.
18 was the legal voting age, so that child could not vote, but could at least go to political meetings and discover that parties which were not Progressive — the gangrenous fragments sloughed off by the disintegrating United Party, lovely ironic name — were awful. The National Party, the party of apartheid, was unacceptable. There were a few little white groupuscules, such as the National Union of South African Students, who were playing left-wing games, but nobody official took them seriously. The media represented black South Africans as irredeemable haters of whites. No, the best way to show one’s liberalism would be to support a Parliamentary opposition which, best of all, had no prospect of success, even after it became the “Official Opposition”. (That ridiculous term had been invented by the National Party to justify ignoring the Progressives, who had spent a decade and a half in the wilderness before gradually overtaking the UP at the polls.)
There was a small problem with this liberal party. Officially, the government presented it as being more or less aligned with the anti-apartheid movement represented by Biko and, eventually, the ANC. Unofficially, however, the government connived with it under various conditions (such as the invasion of Angola) and they all seemed quite polite to each other when they weren’t shouting across the Parliamentary floor. The problem was that the PFP was a whites-only party, because that was the law under the “Prohibition of Political Interference Act” which had destroyed the old Liberal Party.
Being a whites-only party, it had to somehow sell liberalism — freedom for all — to white South Africans who had no interest in seeing liberalism implemented. It did this in two ways; one was by being too small to accomplish anything, so that you could vote for them knowing that your vote did not threaten your interests. The other was that the Party’s new Leader, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, had come up with a brilliant idea under which change could happen without affecting white interests.
This idea, which endured in various forms for nearly twenty years in South African politics, was “federalism”. Essentially, the country would be broken up into self-governing fragments. Some of these fragments would be mainly white and rich, some would be mainly black and poor. Each fragment could set its own rules, within a broad framework. Does this sound like the Bantustan system? Excellent point; in fact, the Progressive Party originally split from the United Party because the Progressives wanted to give the Bantustans a chance. In this system, whites would hang onto their power and privilege but would no longer be in any way responsible for blacks’ lack of power or privilege. It was a pipe-dream, but one which P W Botha seized on in his “constellation of states” policy, which the PFP initially endorsed.
If you were going to an English university out of an English community, it made sense to join NUSAS (especially since at most English universities membership of NUSAS was compulsory, as a sop to counter the government’s smearing and bullying of campus politicians). NUSAS hated liberals with a passion, and NUSAS were in peripheral touch with actual black people (though at this time very few blacks were allowed to study at white campuses). However, it was only the heaviest NUSAS people who were engaged in real political activities of this kind, and they tended to turn off new recruits by their self-important asceticism (which was often the purest put-on). As a result, people drifted out of NUSAS again.
But this was the early 1980s and now there were real things going on which were not just Parliamentary. The UDF was getting going; interestingly, the liberal Black Sash tended to distrust it as a reformist organisation. The Detainees’ Parents’ Support Committee was another liberal grouping which grew increasingly as more and more people ended up in the jug, and the DPSC was non-racial and sufficiently activist so that one could stand around with a placard if one so chose without compromising one’s liberal principles.
But all this seemed like little more than play, at least in the white community. In the black community it seemed a little more than play; people were actually doing things. Sebokeng exploded in September ’84 and the army was photographed rumbling through town. A student riffling through second-hand bookshops might suddenly come across banned publications discussing the implications of this activity, and wonder why the newspapers and the politicians weren’t discussing this.
Then came March ’85, and at Langa, the main township for Uitenhage, an industrial satellite of Port Elizabeth, the local UDF organised a march to commemorate the Sharpeville massacre. The local police had their own method of commemorating the massacre; they fired into the crowd with shotguns, using SSG ammunition (extra-heavy buckshot) instead of birdshot, and killed 21 of them. Possibly they hoped that since it was only a third as many as had been killed at Sharpeville, nobody would care very much, but if so, they were mistaken.
The masses were up in arms, and the PFP organised a meeting which a liberal young adult would be inclined to go to. (How were the really responsible liberals going to sort this out?) The meeting was poorly attended, but that was nothing compared with the fact that the PFP had absolutely nothing to offer apart from writing a letter to the Minister of Police, Louis le Grange, who had already shown himself to be something like Jimmy Kruger without the compassionate side. When confronted with the real world, instead of fantasies of Parliamentary rhetoric or imaginary homelands, the PFP was completely without ideas, let alone capacity to implement them.
But the extraparliamentary universe had answers. The solution was to support the revolution; it was never quite clear what the revolution would be about, but what was clear was that it would be televised, and if you wanted your name in lights, you had a chance to get arrested, beaten or killed while the cameras rolled. Mobilise the people, even in the white community, in the name of resistance to oppression. It was perfectly possible for liberals, and even PFP supporters, to get on board such a policy, and such a policy was also a ticket to a journey to township rallies where one could hear people singing about the weapons they wanted, but did not have. (This made PFP people queasy, however.) In effect, the PFP, because they were so lacking in ideas, and so wishy-washy in action, had been marginalised.
Well, they fought back. First they got rid of that Dutchman running them (Slabbert resigned, coincidentally, about the time the Challenger exploded) and then, O joy, they saw the State of Emergency declared. Now, they explained, with the extraparliamentary movement out of action, it was time for the Parliamentary party to show what it could do in the 1987 election. The PFP decided to make a massive leap towards gaining power by abandoning all their liberal principles, embracing the Suppression of Communism Act and endorsing political repression. Coincidentally, NUSAS called for a white boycott of the election, which doubtless had all the impact of a very small custard pie dropped in private.
But oddly enough, it appeared that many people had voted for the PFP because of their principles, so when they abandoned them, those people failed to show up at the polls. Also, those people who really supported political repression knew perfectly well that P W Botha could do it better, and with more panache, than Colin Eglin. Hence the PFP’s support-base collapsed, and the far-right Konservatiewe Party became the Official Opposition, to the hilarity of the National Party.
As good liberals, Eglin and Co. took stock of the situation. First they got rid of Helen Suzman, that dangerous leftie, replacing her with a reactionary corporate lawyer named Tony Leon who had close connections with the military and police. Secondly, they had to explain their defeat at the polls, and since it couldn’t possibly be there fault, they blamed the awe-inspiring power of NUSAS, who had betrayed South Africa’s true liberal freedom fighters (under orders from the white master of the Soviet plan to conquer Southern Africa and enslave us all, KGB Colonel Joe Slovo of the SACP). Yes, that was what was being said. The PFP swallowed the apartheid state’s line absolutely uncritically, and set about marginalising anyone within the Party who disagreed with it. Within a few months the liberals in the Party decamped, becoming independents.
What all this meant was that, unbeknownst to many white South African liberals, (the term “boneheaded” is far too polite), NUSAS and the other leftist critics of Parliamentary liberalism had been correct all along. The moment the PFP faced a real problem they ditched their principles and all that went with them, and became almost indistinguishable from the parties of apartheid. Ugh! The fact that the press went along with this merely helped to show that the white establishment which pretended to be anti-apartheid was far more reactionary than anyone on the outside had fully realised. (This was the harbinger of the full-on reactionary stance which the press has taken ever since.)
Gradually, even the Eglinites began to realise that they had made a small error in calculation. To save the liberal Parliamentary opposition from total destruction, in 1988-9 they made a huge fuss about their plans to reunite the party (negotiating with the people they had driven out only a year or so earlier) and to suck up to Afrikaners. (With perfect timing, they called the Afrikaners who supposedly backed their party the “Third Force” — the name applied by the anti-apartheid movement to the government-sponsored terrorists who were provoking conflict between black political organisations in that period!)
So there came the 1989 election. By this time it was obvious that things were changing; De Klerk was not the same as Botha, and the times were no longer so propitious for the Conservative Party’s white racist psychotic garbage. The new party was going to be called the Democratic Party, which sounded awfully nice and which at least didn’t seem as exclusionary as its predecessor.
On the other hand, at a time dominated by the red, yellow and black of the United Democratic Front and the black, green and gold of the ANC, the DP chose for its colours blue and yellow — which just happened to be the colour-scheme of the South African Police. Ouch! But perhaps that was just ignorance. If you were an experienced activist, you might have wandered into a DP election rally in your neighbourhood, in a venue which you were still not permitted to use because your organisation was technically banned. And you might then have seen the local candidate, an air-headed female corporate media crony, sitting around while her helpers set up the microphones and decorated the stage. And you might then have noticed, because you could not help it, that those helpers were former members of the National Student Federation, which was a far-right-wing organisation set up by the apartheid secret police to spy on and disrupt anti-apartheid student politics, and that some of the people helping set up that DP election rally, the vanguard of white South African liberals, were paid apartheid police spies.
And you might ask yourself: How did I get here?
And you might ask yourself: My God! What have I done?
The South African electrical power crisis was an oddity. The South African government is nothing if not plan-minded, and it seemed odd that they should not have thought about the possibility that their delayed spending on more electrical power plants might cause difficulties. The South African government is also propaganda-minded, and when the accidental damage to the Koeberg nuclear plant caused brownouts in Cape Town, it was well aware that this was a public relations problem. So why did they not anticipate the problems which developed?
Perhaps they did. Under normal circumstances, the amount of electrical power should have been adequate. It was not, because there were unexpected faults and unusual amounts of maintenance. The Solidarity trade union explained this by the prevalence of black people in ESCOM, explaining that black people are not able to maintain complicated equipment. This might be the case — and yet it sounds suspiciously like the argument that black people cannot fly aeroplanes or sail ships. Might there be other motives?
ESCOM is a commercialised company owned by the government but which has been prepared for privatisation; the government actually planned to break up generation and distribution, along the lines of the inefficient and corrupt policy pursued by the British government, and some of this has even been done. The people in charge are sympathetic to neoliberalism, and it is at least possible that they do not share the developmental approach of some elements in the second Mbeki administration. Could this be a factor?
The brownouts began in late 2007, becoming even more significant after Polokwane. This might well be coincidence, even though this is in summer, when one would expect electricity demand to be lower, and it transpired that ESCOM had sold a great deal of its coal to foreign buyers, running its reserves down astonishingly low. ESCOM then demanded an 18% increase in the electricity tariff, the highest ever increase. It also seems to have lobbied for the government to give it the R20 billion seed money with which to improve its bargaining-position when borrowing money to fund its power station expansion programme. ESCOM has been a very demanding subordinate to the government, considering what appears to be staggering incompetence, and it has been treated with surprising generosity under the circumstances.
Or is this surprising?
One of the most interesting developments is that ESCOM is now demanding a tariff increase, over and above the 18% increase, of almost 60%. This would, it points out, raise the cost of electricity to the level of other countries, and thus eliminate South Africa’s comparative advantage with cheap electricity. Why should ESCOM want to do that? Apparently, because they want to be able to pay off the cost of building new power stations more quickly than they would otherwise.
This sounds partly reasonable — except when one considers the implications and the alternatives. What we have here is an increase of about 75% in electricity cost. It is a devastating blow to those who use electricity; the expense will almost double. Of course, those who use a lot of electricity — wealthier people — can cut back; on the other hand, the most insignificant users, who use electricity only for lighting and to run refrigerators, can hardly do without lights and return to the good old days of canned food and rotten vegetables. It appears discriminatory.
A prominent ESCOM official, asked about those who would find the cost of electricity a blow, agreed that ESCOM would have to think about helping those people out. It transpired that he meant big corporations, big urban centres and, generally speaking, rich people. Poor people who will actually suffer from electricity price rises are simply not considered worth discussing. Meanwhile, of course, the most sensible way to pay for the electricity would be to do so through funding ESCOM via the tax system as well as via the price of electricity. In contrast, “Cost recovery”, as practiced by the followers of the World Bank, tends to discourage people from using electricity and thus makes the distribution of electricity almost pointless; why run the wires to peoples’ homes, if you make it unaffordable for them to use it?
But, as it turns out, that prominent ESCOM official, speaking on the radio, inadvertently blew the whistle on another issue. He explained that while the electricity price in South Africa was low, nobody from outside the country would want to invest in generating electricity here. Hence, hiking the price would not merely make it much easier for ESCOM to pay off its costs, it would also, perhaps more importantly, make it easier for foreigners to buy up South Africa’s electricity generation plants and operate them for their own profit.
Oho! So, what we are talking about here, is using the current electricity crisis to promote privatisation! Now, that makes sense, so long as you do not worry about the interests of the country. It is worth remembering that one reason why ESCOM did not invest in new plant in the late 1990s was because the company was scheduled to be privatised, and you do not incur new debts when you are trying to sell your plant to people who want to make money out of it; they would be buying those debts along with the company, and of course they would not do so.
Cheap electricity (along with cheap labour, of course) was the reason why foreigners were likely to invest in heavy industry in South Africa; it was a hidden subsidy to promote investment. There are, of course, problems with this; heavy industry based on electrical energy is usually very capital-intensive (like aluminium smelters) and therefore does not promote much in the way of jobs, which is a problem. But, at least it is fairly profitable, and those profits can be taxed, and therefore the subsidy to those companies was at least encouraging people to come here and earn money some of which could go into the South African state’s coffers.
Now, we know that the World Trade Organisation hates such things with a deep passion. Under neoliberal doctrine, the state must not be allowed to promote or discourage any corporate practice whatsoever. Instead, corporations must be free to do exactly what they like. Almost certainly, one reason for this is that the WTO is an American front organisation, and the Americans do not want countries to grow rapidly unless those countries are absolutely under their thumbs. Being free to promote corporate investment might lead to rapid growth, which in turn might generate a China-style political crisis for the American government, so such freedom is an absolute no-no — unless the country involved is so powerful, and holds such a stock of US Treasury bonds, that the US can’t afford to antagonise them. South Africa isn’t in that category, and presumably the US, via the WTO, doesn’t want it to get there.
OK, this is crude conspiracy theory, but it is probably more accurate than a more sophisticated but less realistic analysis. Bluntly, what ESCOM is doing is hurting South Africa’s capacity to develop, both by preventing large firms from investing, and by obliging smaller firms to pay more for electricity, so that they will invest less, and by raising the cost of consumer goods and the cost of household electricity so that consumers will be able to buy less with their money and will have less spare cash after the electricity bill is paid. All this, so that it can be easier for First World countries to buy up our generating capacity and reap the benefits of this situation. It is, as George W Bush once observed, a “trifecta”; all manner of good things at once, except for South Africa, for whom it is all bad.
At this point a useful question may be asked: has this situation really developed coincidentally? Is it just that dumb darkies didn’t plan to buy enough electricity plant in time? Is it just that foolish kaffirs cannot maintain electrical plant? Is it, also, that the entire South African media and intelligentsia are so racist that they unanimously come to the conclusion that the problem is dumb darkies and foolish kaffirs, even though this idea is first espoused by the overtly and consistently racist Solidarity trade union, which evolved out of the whites-only Mynwerkersunie? Or can it be that these assumptions are being coaxed in a particular direction by the same vested interests which anticipate benefiting from privatisation and “cost recovery”?
For, of course, such electricity crises are not unique to companies run by people with black skins. We remember the beginning of the century, when California, the Garden of Eden, the paradise for you and for me, was suffering simultaneous power outages and drastic increases in the cost of electricity. Well, some of us remember, and we could do worse than check out Greg Palast’s books, especially The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and Armed Madhouse. Palast explains the technical details of how the Enron corporation (with aid from other private electricity companies) hoodwinked the country into thinking that there was an electricity crisis by such methods as suddenly shutting down plants for “maintenance” when they knew there would be massive demand.
Once the idea of the electricity crisis took hold, they introduced the idea that there should be a complete elimination of state regulation, which had obviously failed. (In fact it had, but only because Enron were paying or persuading the regulators to look the other way, or paying or persuading the politicians not to listen to the regulators.) This was accompanied by a drumbeat of media propaganda in support of deregulating, privatisation and endorsement of the free market way forward, which just happened to mean paying ever more money to the Enron corporation, who were, by their own modest assessment, “the smartest guys in the room”.
Sound familiar? Of course it does! ESCOM seems to have simply taken a few pages out of the Enron playbook. Enron were such dolts that they went bankrupt, of course, and then they could no longer bribe or bully their way out of investigations which eventually exposed the whole criminal conspiracy. Although the conspiracy was downplayed in the US media (when has a corporate conspiracy not been downplayed?) a few Enron executives even went to jail!
Now, it is possible that this is a joint government-ESCOM scam. However, I’d say that this is unlikely. The government has been punting massive corporate developments like the Coega smelter project as flagships. It has also, largely, put privatisation on the back-burner (although ESCOM is full of elves who aspire to work for foreign multinationals). If the government really wanted to privatise ESCOM it would be a lot more cautious about electricity-gulping programmes and it would be working hard on pro-privatisation propaganda — since privatisation has a generally bad smell among most South Africans.
The Creator would guess that this is a plot hatched between ESCOM and the big business people backing Zuma. The electricity “crisis” was blamed on Mbeki, who couldn’t make any accusations against ESCOM or Zuma & Co because he knew that his former allies would not support him, and thus it served as a weapon of mass distraction for the public — and for Mbeki, whose government had to scramble to find escape routes. And just by way of coincidence, there happened to be a pre-prepared escape route down the shit-caked tunnel that leads to privatisation. And, in a year or so, when it is too late to do anything to stop all this bullshit, anything that goes wrong will be blamed on Mbeki. Yeah, right; under Zuma, the business of South Africa is business — the kind of “business” that dogs leave behind them on the pavement.
Popular fiction is a fine place to go to for reactionary propaganda. Presumably because it is supposed to be popular, and because “the people” are supposed to be conservative (and thanks to bad education and atrocious reactionary public relations, this seems to be more true every month) popular fiction writers are encouraged to be reactionary, or at least deeply conservative.
It’s pretty obvious that most love stories reaffirm traditional kinds of sexual stereotyping, even where they transgress them as in some kinds of pornography. In addition, most of these stories, and especially the pornographic ones, espouse very conventional class structures, where all the interest and power resides in the wealthiest ones. Detective stories are almost always written from the perspective of the sleuth as opposed to the criminal and tend to espouse centralised power. (All the way from Edgar Wallace’s fantasies to the ur-fascist Patricia Cornwell, who helps to show us that lesbians are not necessarily radical lefties.) As for fantasy, obviously there is a lot of potential there for challenging established views, but equally obviously, a vast amount of fantasy is simply puddling around in an imaginary medieval world, and usually the journey back to medievalism is a journey back to simplistic authoritarianism in the Narnia mould.
So that leaves science fiction. Now, science fiction is revolutionary, or rather it can be revolutionary. It can also be unbelievably dull, and pretentious, and pedantic, and obsessed with itself. Rather like a weblog that is 500 pages long and that you have to read to the end to find out what’s really wrong with the world. (A bit like this weblog except that you don’t have to go to a bookshop to get hold of it.) It’s no surprise that Scientology was founded by a science fiction writer.
One can also have people who want to contain politics within a kind of technological bottle; such people, unfortunately, seem to include William Gibson, an otherwise intelligent and attractive person who devoted a great deal of time to promoting the notion that artificial intelligence was a literal salvation; that once we had machines which claimed to think, we would live forever in paradise and thus would not need politics any more, so that the fact that the real world was fucked beyond recall was no longer of any concern for anyone. (He actually had one of his characters announce, and nothing in that particular series of books seemed to challenge the validity of it, that politics had come to an end — which, since the books described how the upper class were in the saddle on the backs of the lower class, was quite convenient for those who had happened to end up in that saddle.)
A great deal of science fiction has been politically-oriented, but all too often this has been, at best, crude and simplistic. Robert A Heinlein wrote some intermittently amusing political tracts such as Double Star, but these works, and more (nominally) serious ones such as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, are all wrecked by Heinlein’s natural inclination to represent American society as the high point of human development, bound to enjoy victory without effort.
The trouble is that science fiction is about power. Its core is the way in which humanity can attain greater security or authority through machinery. Therefore, many writers are obsessed with the deployment of power and with fantasias of ever-greater power. Hence the absurd gigantism of E E Smith or A E Van Vogt. So it naturally attracts people who, in various ways and to varying degrees, are conservative, and believe (as a result) that the exercise of power is a fairly simple thing, provided that the right people are exercising it. (In turn, the collapse of power, as in Asimov’s galactic empire, is disturbing in itself, while the need for the right people — the Foundation or the incorruptible robots — to exercise it is the all-embracing issue.)
For this reason, right-wing science fiction tends to be simplistic. Left-wing science fiction, on the other hand, tends to be less common, partly because right-wing tendencies set the standards and attract the readership. Also, people who start on the left, like Brian W Aldiss and Arthur C Clarke, often shift rightward (or in Clarke’s case centreward) with time. Hence left-wing science fiction is unusual enough for its existence to excite commentators.
An example would be Kim Stanley Robinson, whose work has attracted plaudits from Fredric Jameson. Jameson is a very bright individual, but he is also prone to exaggerated excitement and questionable interpretations which probably stem from the huge predicament of trying to combine Marxism, postmodernism and aesthetics. Robinson’s Mars trilogy, for instance, is extremely interesting, but Jameson’s claim that it is one of the great political novels of the late twentieth century is only partly legitimated because there are so few actual political novels of the late twentieth century at all. In fact Robinson’s intellectual analysis, while vastly superior to most science fiction, is not particularly profound. More problematically, not only are his characters wooden, but they are not especially interesting; villains and heroes are obsessive figures, driven by what is actually the author’s need to further the plot and elaborate on the techno-ideological framework underpinning it — and that makes them very boring figures. One cannot imagine them attending parties, or throwing very entertaining ones.
So one comes back to Iain M Banks, the Scots author who, so his publicists claim, turned science fiction upside down. He began young, producing an impressive and disturbing if playful book, The Wasp Factory, and then an impressive science fiction book with the slightly pretentious name Consider Phlebas. (Many of his non-science-fiction books, initially, had fantastic elements, although they gradually became more pedestrian; he has not produced a fantastical non-science-fiction book since A Song of Stone, which was more pornographic than anything else.)
Consider Phlebas was a compilation of images from earlier science fiction, with no technical novelties, but an intriguing representation of a space war between a communist society — the Culture — ruled by artificial intelligences and an aggressive interstellar empire. The communists eventually defeated the empire, though with difficulty, and at the cost of the central character’s life, so there was a tragic element to the story despite the fact that the broad ideological foundation of the book was optimistic. If it had been the only science fiction book Banks had ever produced, it would have been a lesson in how to write a science fiction novel and would have done Banks every possible credit.
Unfortunately Banks could not let the Culture alone. It seemed clear that it was too dear to his heart for him to ignore it. Hence he began producing a series of Culture stories, following the usual pattern of science fiction writers who put a great deal of effort into developing a secondary world and find themselves unable to change their tune, probably because their fantastic world actually reflects the world as they see it, and the world as they believe it ought to be.
Banks used the Culture as — well, a culture in the biotechnological sense. His novels reflected the problems experienced by an advanced society which desired to spread its advanced nature throughout the cosmos, in which most societies were less advanced than it was. Of course, concepts like “advanced” beg questions, as does everything else about Banks’ Culture novels. What he was trying to do, it would appear, was to combine two separate elements of his contemporary society; the notion of a left-wing alternative to the authoritarian capitalism which had evolved hegemonic control of the West, and at the same time, the notion of a West which, if it could only abandon its authoritarian capitalism, would have a great deal, in terms of technology and cultural development, not to mention political sophistication, to offer the less developed countries of the world.
Or would it?
One of Banks’ early Culture novels was The Player Of Games, dealing with the Culture’s attempts to eliminate the odious expansionist, racist, sexist, authoritarian Empire of Azad. The Empire was set up, as Banks always sets up the Culture’s opponents, as a revolting spectacle which could plausibly be seen as a demonic enemy deserving destruction. This destruction, in the course of the book, the Empire receives. No nice Culture people are harmed in the making of the book.
Yet — what grounds does the Culture have for considering itself superior? It is trying to turn Azad into something like itself; this is made clear when the game-player finds himself playing a gigantic game against the Emperor. It is, thus, doing the same as the Empire is doing to other cultures, except insofar as it is doing it in a nice way, because the Culture has such massive resources compared with the Empire. Furthermore, the Culture provokes a civil war within the Empire of Azad which is seen to take many lives, and presumably takes many more in circumstances which Banks does not bother to present in the book. It is, in short, not morally so superior to the Empire of Azad as Banks’ presentation of it makes it appear.
Of course, the Culture does not permit the kind of socio-economic inequality which Banks insists is essential to the Empire and makes the Empire so evil. However, the Culture does this by handing over its government to artificial intelligences which do not care about property and therefore do not distinguish between people on property terms — and by producing such a surplus of property that everyone has more than enough. If the Empire of Azad had such a surplus, would it really still be an Empire along the same lines? Banks cannot say. But the Culture could provide the Empire with the technology to generate such a surplus; it refuses, however, to do this until the Empire has bloodily collapsed. In a sense, then, the Culture chooses to undermine its enemy and make it collapse and then claims moral authority over the ruins, rather than offering the Empire a choice.
Although Banks goes to some lengths to conceal the fact, the Culture is also very much a hierarchical society. While the majority of its human inhabitants are hedonists, there is a small elite called Contact, essentially the military arm of the Culture, within which is an elite of the elite, Special Circumstances, the special forces and intelligence arm of Contact, upon whom Banks focuses most of his attention, and who are enormously admired by almost human within the Culture, and feared by those outside it.
As to the non-human, mechanical inhabitants, there are minds which are less than human — handling vehicles and houses and also small free-flying devices called knife missiles — and then there are minds which are greater than human, the drones which are ubiquitous and treat humans with courtesy despite their superiority. Above these are the Minds which operate spacecraft or control conglomerations of life-forms mechanical or biological, and which are so vastly superior to human or drone that they treat humans as pets and drones as little more than slaves. It is, in short, a society much like the society in Zamyatin’s We, where all real power resides in the hands of a tiny ruling class in whom all others are expected to trust unquestioningly and which has, in addition, the moral authority of Jehovah, Allah and Ahura Mazda rolled into one. In a sense the Culture is a tyranny without a tyrant (like Pol Pot’s Cambodia); in a sense it is a theocracy.
Banks’ books are filled with sadism, lovingly described and ostentatiously disapproved of, but this sadism, like the hedonism, seems to make the books attractive to their readers. The Culture is not altogether free from it. In the last Culture book, Look To Windward (the title of which seemed to suggest closure, since it was a quotation from Eliot like the first), the Culture’s meddling in another society had provoked a genocidal war. That society now sought to wreak revenge on the Culture by exposing it to the slaughter of a vast population (though proportionally far smaller than what it had done to the weaker society). The Culture not only prevented this al-Qaeda-like revenge from happening, it carefully tortured those responsible for planning the revenge to death (an atrocity thoroughly described by Banks). No, the Culture appears to have no real moral supremacy over other cultures in Banks’ books, except in his mind. It is no wonder that throughout the books one sees people abandoning the Culture and joining other, less self-righteous works.
Banks’ unexpected return to the Culture in Matter is no repudiation. Instead, it struggles vainly to recover the glory-days of Banks’ Culture and to excuse the odious behaviour which the Culture, and other “advanced” galactic societies displays, by comparison both with the horrid behaviour of the less developed societies (they rape and murder and burn, which is terrible, but it is all happening under the benign Culture’s auspices so it will be good in the end). Besides, other alien races exist which do exactly what the Culture does (though, says Banks, they don’t do it as well — Banks in this book is as xenophobic and anthropocentric as John W Campbell could have wished.
Possibly Banks’ newly-discovered doubts about liberal imperialism after the invasion of Iraq, and his rejection of New Labour, have been discarded after the London Transport bombings. Conceivably he has had his Cohen/Kamm moment in the last couple of years. In any case, he appears no more than a rhetorical radical trapped in a gilded imperialist cage, a familiar but far from beautiful sight to see.