Let us muster some evidence for the existence of a ruling class in South Africa.
But first, try to define a ruling class. A ruling class is a self-defined, self-sustaining group of people whose goal is to get all other people within a socio-economic system, such as a country or the world, to do what they think is best for themselves. That sounds fair, and avoids too much stuff about the State and about ideological apparatuses.
Looking at South Africa’s record, we can see a tremendous concentration of wealth in the white community. Every industry is a cartel, and every possible profitable activity is industrialised. What we have here is the dream of W B Yeats — great wealth in a few men’s hands. Admittedly, a great deal of this industry (and under industry one must include agriculture — South African farms are essentially factories, which is why small-scale agriculture has never succeeded and why the Department of Agriculture failed to even make a serious try at promoting sustainable, non-corporate agriculture) is foreign-based, and sometimes foreign-owned. However, virtually all of it is administered by South Africans who naturally wish the country where they dwell to do what they want it to do.
So it would be natural to assume that the situation for a ruling class exists. White South Africa is remarkably small in numbers — perhaps five million people in all, and fewer still in the past. What’s more, out of those five million only a small percentage represent possible candidates for wealth. A few thousand people have the economic and social power in their hands. It would be difficult for those people not to become a ruling class even if they had any reason not to.
However, when we look at white South Africa in the twentieth century, its ruling ideology has always been the exploitation of power. Politics in South Africa is almost unbelievably devoid of integrity and principle; parties have been extraordinarily factional, splintering and recombining (always in pursuit of power) in a way which proves that the problem is not one of constituencies versus proportional representation. Success has always gone to the most brutal — and success implies admiration and support. “Kragdadigheid”, the desire to succeed through the violent exploitation of power, is an Afrikaans term, but it is a broad white South African phenomenon — English-speakers felt that their tragedy was that they never controlled sufficient power to show what they could do with it and had to meekly cheer on the Afrikaners. Jews pursue the same thing vicariously, by drooling over the atrocities of the Israeli gangster-state.
Under such conditions, with power-worship positively fetishised, it is obvious that a ruling class must develop. But what evidence is there that such a thing exists, or must we simply believe in it with the simple lobotomised faith of someone who tunes in to TV evangelism?
One piece of evidence is the strange case of the TRC in the night-time. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigated the ANC very extensively. It also investigated the police and the army quite extensively. It looked at the National Party government, although much less thoroughly and participating in a cover-up to protect the NP against justifiably harsh criticism. It did not investigate business. The ostensible reason was that the TRC was investigating violations of human rights, and paying low wages, refusing to provide workplace safety and denying the rights of workers to organise did not, in the opinion of Alex Boraine and Desmond Tutu, constitute violating human rights. Anyone who had any respect for Boraine or Tutu could have stopped right there.
Indications were, then, that the TRC was consciously making the ANC and the apartheid armed forces the twin villains of the piece, with the National Party coming in as a subsidiary villain. The corporate structure which underpinned apartheid South Africa’s economy and society was given a free pass. The TRC barked remarkably selectively. Why were they doing this? The whole question of the business community’s involvement in apartheid has been extensively debated — essentially, supporters of the business community say it had nothing to do with apartheid, while opponents of apartheid say it was up to its ears in apartheid. This was not a new or extraordinary debate (although it significantly died down as apartheid came to an end). Had the business community wished to clear itself, it would surely have clamoured for a right to clear itself before the TRC. Did it refuse to do this because it had much to hide? And was it doing this because very powerful people told the TRC behind the scenes to lay off, or else?
Or else what?
This wasn’t the only time that this has happened. A couple of years later the Human Rights Commission decided to look into the question of racism in the media. One may question the motives of the HRC’s chair, Barney Pityana. However, the press played a central role in propping up apartheid by encouraging whites to support the government and discouraging them from asking questions — consistently suppressing evidence of human rights violations, for instance, which is itself, surely, a human rights violation, even if Alex Boraine and Desmond Tutu don’t think so. It was hardly likely that in a few years it had reversed course. Meanwhile, if the press was still portraying much the same intellectual landscape as before, then it was, surely, inimical to the post-apartheid political landscape, and at the least, the public deserved to know this. So the HRC’s proposed investigation, which was based in a wordy, airy-fairy but damning report to it by an academic intellectual, Claudia Braude. was obviously worth doing.
The press’s motto is “Don’t shoot the messenger”, so in this case, naturally, they all pulled out their guns in unison and blazed away at Barney and Claudia. The claim was that this was an evil ANC plot to undermine press freedom. Of course, nothing ensures press freedom more than covering up corporate control of the press — and this was exactly what was done, to the cheers of the corporate press and the white pundits. The HRC was forced to back off; nobody was allowed to investigate the press, and nobody has since done so. It’s almost as if some all-powerful force was preventing any such investigations.
Indeed, the example of the press is a powerful piece of evidence for a ruling class. There are several press conglomerates, but all of them speak with one voice. Most of them recycle the same ideas in the same language, so that their news text is no more original than their advertising text (and often no more usefully informative). Most observers who acknowledge this (most do not, of course, almost as if they were told not to look too closely or speak too honestly) believe that this is because South African journalists are lazy, stupid and incompetent. This is undeniable but it is not enough to explain why everyone in the system speaks and thinks the same. How is it that every newspaper agrees that Barbara Hogan’s non-performance as Minister of Health is actually the greatest ministerial achievement since Trevor Manuel’s apotheosis, or that Vusi Pikoli’s dodgy behaviour is not dodgy at all, but the magisterial perfection of a superior life-form? Presumably the whole press is a single hydra because it is all controlled by one force — not simply one corporation behind the scenes, but instead one large body of people — and can it be the ruling class?
In this, if it is so, the South African press is not so very different from the British or American, of course.
There has also been a terrific flood of anti-ANC books produced by a variety of local presses. It is very difficult to believe that these books have made any money. They have been pumped out according to need; anti-Mbeki or pro-Zuma or just politically obfuscatory, as with Richard Calland’s explanation of how South Africa is ruled which manages to ignore even the possibility that there might be a ruling class. They fulfil the same function as the well-funded think-tanks which perform the same purpose — which is to provide an excuse to present their political pabulum in the press, and to promote their preposterous propagandistic punditry. This is important, simply because if these books and these faux-intellectuals did not exist, the propaganda would have to come direct from the journalists, and possibly even the numbed victims of ruling class propaganda would see that something was wrong — for journalists are not respected in South Africa, whereas someone who has written a book is viewed with almost superstitious respect. (Actually, most of the books are written by journalists, and ones who thoroughly deserve their disrespect.)
The point is that the ruling class is much better-concealed in South Africa than in some other places. It is also, by the looks of things, considerably more powerful. The minority of South Africans who accept the ruling class as their leader, are more regimented by the ruling class than in most other countries — perhaps because of their hope that the ruling class will save them from the black majority which does not cleave to the ruling class.
But they do not see themselves as ruled by the ruling class. Americans or Britons do, at least in the sense that they cheer for Bush or Brown or Obama. They are happy with their ruling class. White South Africans seem almost unaware that the ruling class exists; instead, the ruling class is simply an invisible source of common knowledge, what everyone believes, everywhere present like the air, but nowhere created or controlled. The situation is perfect. South Africa is an intellectual prison, but its warders and trusties believe themselves to be free, and would be indignant to be told anything else.
What’s particularly impressive about this is the fact that it is a white ruling class which goes to great lengths to equip itself with a black facade. When one looks at people like Cyril Ramaphosa or Tokyo Sexwale or any of the schools of smaller black business fish, one notices very quickly that they have little or no power. They have been given little bits of white business to play with, and to be in the public eye with, so that the pretense can be kept up that there is such a thing as black economic empowerment. Meanwhile, the white ruling class complains in its media that black economic empowerment is leading to corruption, and is, of course, the fault of the government. Thus the corrupt scum created by the white ruling class (admittedly, with government connivance) is blamed on the government. Simultaneously this scum is held up as showing how far we have come from the bad days of racism — look, black billionaires! Then it is held up as showing how terrible inequality is in South Africa — look, black billionaires! Who do not care about the poor (cut to pictures of shacklands and a white Trotskyite commentator standing in front of them, obviously caring about the poor)!
And, of course, inequality applies to blacks. John Pilger at least complained about the presence of so many rich whites in South Africa. He had a point, as we now realise when we see the harm the white ruling class has caused. But most people who pretend to follow Pilger are simply tools of the ruling class, knowingly so or not, distracting attention on to the bad, bad blacks who dare to own big houses and drive big cars, and ought to be punished. Besides, they have not worked for their money, have they?
As if the white elite did . . .