Wrap you in his arms, tell you that you’ve been a good boy,
Rekindle all those dreams that took you a lifetime to destroy,
Reach deep into the hole, heal your shrinking soul,
But there won’t be a single thing-a that you can do . . .
He’s a god, he’s a ghost, he’s a man, he’s a cool dude,
They’re whispering his name through this disappearing land,
But hidden in his coat is a red right hand.
— Nick Cave, “Red Right Hand”.
After studying Commanding Heights and Community Control, the natural assumption must be that Patrick Bond can’t possibly have anything valid to say about South African political economy. His misreading of reality led him to prescribe absurd quack remedies for the country, which fortunately were never adopted. His misreading seems to have changed little, if at all.
Yet that doesn’t make Bond a worthless commentator. Noam Chomsky is an anarchist, a political posture which seems strikingly unrealistic, however much he might reminisce about what the Catalan anarchists might have accomplished if they hadn’t been squashed in 1937. (They would certainly have been squashed in 1939, when Barcelona surrendered to the Falangists.) But Chomsky is worth reading because he provides vast amounts of information and is an extremely acute and honest analyst. Why shouldn’t Bond be worth reading? The first two-thirds of Commanding Heights is provocative, even if superficial. One turns to Elite Transition: from Apartheid to Neoliberalism in South Africa with hope.
The Creator took up the book in a state of doubt, when Mbeki had made it quite clear that he was going to continue the cautious and conservative economic policies of the previous few years. Elite Transition offered, or seemed to offer, a challenge to all that stodgy pandering to wealth. However, the Creator couldn’t get over a problem with the title.
Seen through the right lens, any transition is an elite transition, from the Smolny Institute to the Union Buildings. Unless Bond could show that there was a plausible alternative to what happened in 1993, he would be indulging in silly special pleading. Moreover, whatever had happened in the 1990s was not obviously a simple move towards neoliberalism. Argentina’s neoliberals would certainly have sold off ESCOM, SASOL and TRANSNET like greased lightning. Indonesia’s neoliberals would not have passed the Labour Relations Act or the Employment Equity Act. Such issues suggested that the politics of South African government and economics had room for positive development and critique, where Bond’s title seemed to deny this.
Bond says repeatedly that the ANC sold out the people and became a neoliberal comprador organisation, serving the Western capitalist elite. If this isn’t true, it is an unhelpful insult which would alienate Bond’s audience, so it had better be true. Bond begins by making a sweeping presentation of the capitalist crisis which, he claims, characterised the last decades of apartheid (whether it was actually a crisis or simply a transition from production-based to finance-based profiteering, he does not explain).
He then explains that big capital wanted to have the ANC supporting it, which is hardly surprising. Significantly, big capital did not reciprocate, consistently supporting the ANC’s enemies throughout the decline of apartheid and the post-apartheid period, down until the capture of the party by big capital at Polokwane in 2007. (Even now, it is likely that much of big capital distrusts the ANC and would prefer a blackface Democratic Alliance if only one could be ginned-up.) Bond’s point proves very little about the ANC or about South African politics.
At which point, Bond asks an interesting question: “How did mediocre hucksters of neoliberalism flatter and cajole so many formerly tough-minded working-class leaders and progressive thinkers into abdicating basic principles?”. Here he is asking how something has happened before he has shown that it, indeed, happened. Skipping over the difficult task of proving that the ANC indeed adopted neoliberalism as a policy (he had earlier shown that the leadership of the ANC was extremely suspicious of nouveau-riche black capital in the 1990s, not conspicuous evidence of neoliberalism) is not analysis, but rhetoric.
Bond does point out that many “scenario planners” set out to fool the ANC. It is less clear that they were indeed fooled by the planners (who outside the business community takes Clem Sunter seriously?). Bond interviews the planners and endorses their propaganda about how they deceived their enemies It is always dangerous to uncritically believe propaganda, and Bond never does this with the ANC, but he accepts corporate rhetoric which fits his political objective of claiming that the ANC sold out to big business. (Notably, the footnotes here in the 2000 edition often prove nothing like what is claimed in the text.) When Bond analyses actual economic discussion within the ANC, he merely shows is that there was conflict between different groupings who accused each other, usually justly, of being unrealistic.
Eventually Bond does address a real issue by discussing GEAR, the economic policy unveiled in 1996. The policy was simple; reduce the budget deficit by reining in public spending, cut taxes to (allegedly) increase spending and investment, and economic growth would accelerate. As Bond rightly observes, the conclusion was not plausible and did not materialise. On the other hand, Bond fails to mention the impact of the global economic crises which materialised at the same time as GEAR and undoubtedly contributed to the stalling of economic growth. These probably would have caused big problems even if exchange controls had not been ill-advisedly reduced.
Bond also does not mention that failing to cut spending would certainly have led to a rapidly-growing budget deficit (COSATU happily anticipated a return to the 7%+ deficit of 1994). This could have been more harmful to the economy than GEAR was, for if economic growth was stalled by global crisis, then swelling deficits would lead rapidly to a bloated national debt, servicing which had cost 25% of the Budget in 1994-5. This would have hammered social spending — which Bond claims to oppose. He is being disingenuous here.
Significantly, while GEAR continued subsequently, economic growth picked up, contrary to Bond’s prediction. Bond makes other predictions which were soon falsified, such as the idea that Value-Added Tax would be increased, or the privatisation of major parastatals, and thus airily discusses the harmful effects of things which did not happen. GEAR, as the Creator has pointed out, was effectively a conservative rather than a neoliberal policy intervention, and contrary to Bond’s claims it had positive effects as well as negative ones.
Bond right in pointing out that the RDP was an imperfect instrument, particularly because it was not well understood or thoroughly by the community at large. This, in turn, was understandable, since politicians and the interest-groups they represent tend not to pay much attention to broad plans of this kind, while the state in the mid-1990s was largely run by white bureaucrats who had little interest in supporting either RDP or government. These huge problems are not addressed by Bond. Moreover, Bond does not clearly explain that the political failure of the RDP was partly a product of left-wing incompetence — the belief, which Bond fosters, that there was plenty of money somewhere to fund whatever projects you wanted.
The left’s idea seems to have been that this money would be used to buy support for the left, in a virtuous circle of development and political self-aggrandizement. Unfortunately, when money became tight and the spigots were closed by GEAR, the left was in no position either to challenge this, or to negotiate a way of reversing or avoiding it. Nothing that Bond says suggests how anything better than this could have been done — and by ignoring this, he lets the left off the hook entirely, despite their apparent political and economic bungling. (In many ways it was not bungling but political good sense; after the left allowed the RDP to disappear, it no longer had to take responsibility for policy and could blame every failure on somebody else. Tactically astute, but unrealistic and self-destructive.)
In a sense, Bond is doing precisely this. The RDP was a series of production targets, many of which were in fact met (as Bond rather shyly acknowledges). However, if it was also a hook on which to hang the transformation of society, it was a weak one which broke under the weight. If, however, Bond can blame all this on the bad ANC and the evil GEAR, he can exempt the left, including himself, from all responsibility for the failure. (It is this kind of discourse which has led the left to blame almost all failures on the bogeyman Mbeki.)
Meanwhile, Bond proceeds to denounce the housing policy of the post-apartheid state. Interestingly, Bond challenges the ANC claim that late apartheid failed to provide housing, by saying that 200 000 houses for middle-class blacks were built over 5 years between 1986 and 1990. This is a rate of 40 000 a year, not exactly the “roaring” rate which Bond ascribes to it, and such houses were inaccessible to most people, so it is hard to see why Bond raises this, unless he wishes to delude his audience into seeing apartheid-era housing as better than it actually was. Bond blithely concludes that the housing production of the first five years of government was only 100 000 houses (wiping away the other 750 000 with a wave of the hand) and justifies this by saying that the houses were small and ill-built, and anyway, according to the neoliberal press, there was corruption in the Housing Ministry.
An RDP house is anything but a palace, yet it is far superior to a shack, or even to most wattle-and-daub housing, which is why people move into them. Seemingly Bond doesn’t want to acknowledge success in this area, so has to lie about it and justify this through appeals to a relatively affluent audience whose baseline for housing is a middle-class suburban house. When Bond talks about what could have been done, he describes what actually was done (200 000 modest-sized houses a year built with small subsidies and loans).
Bond could rightly complain that houses could have been built better, and more of them built and in more appropriate places, if more capital had been available, thus criticising the ANC’s macroeconomic policy. However, Bond prefers to invent a much worse scenario of failure, thus legitimating the sweeping accusations of broad-based neoliberalism which he desires to present to his readers. Where the facts do not support his allegations, so much the worse for the facts. He follows this by waving the World Bank as a scarecrow, pretending, that a vast crisis arose from the ANC’s surrender to this institution — that is, borrowing money from it.
Bond seeks hope in “new social movements” and in a mystified “Left” against which the ANC was allegedly mobilising repression. He also hopes that the SACP and COSATU would break with the ANC — the familiar dream of white capital for so many decades. He makes dire predictions of what an Mbeki government would do (invariably falsified) and ends with a ringing call for South Africans to overthrow their government and cut themselves off from the rest of the world in order to fulfil the deranged plans presented at the end of Commanding Heights.
In short, the book fulfils the fears rather than the hopes aroused by Commanding Heights.
Bond has a modest competence in the undemanding field of Marxist economic analysis. (Marxist economic analysis has great potential to evolve from an imperfect critique of capitalism but can be developed into a valid one — but in the hands of people like Bond this veers off into jargon-laden shibboleths such as “uneven development” and “falling rate of profit”.) Unfortunately Bond is embedded in the academic political fantasies of American Trotskyism. As a result, while some of his criticisms of state policy are valid (and could be useful in the hands of another writer), his overall work is all but worthless in terms of providing a correctional critique or a way forward.