What We Are Up Against.

May 29, 2009

The recent Vodacom kerfuffle serves as a useful example of how corrupt and neoliberally-oriented our society and culture have become in recent years. Vodacom is a cellphone network. In other words, it is a system of pumping money out of subscribers by renting them expensive and largely useless gadgets with which they can make unnecessary telephone calls. The Creator oversees a departmental telephone budget, and that budget is always overspent, and the reason for this is cellphone calls. People blather, and as they blather their cash drips into the moneybags of the network-owning fat-cats. In that sense a cellphone network is a scam, like the National Lottery. So far, so bad, but it gets much worse. Vodacom was set up as a joint venture by the British cellphone giant Vodafone and the South African fixed-line network (hurrah!) Telkom. In other words, it was a partially state-owned corporation. But then the South African government partially privatised Telkom, selling a big chunk to a Malaysian telcom. What happens to the partially state-owned subsidiary of a state-owned corporation when that state-owned corporation ceases to be state-owned? You can’t get a little bit pregnant; it’s the whole hog, totus porcus. So also with privatisation; it’s a disease which spreads like liver cancer, only more destructively. So, inevitably, the time came when Vodacom decided to “unbundle”, meaning, “cease to be an organisation with any links to the people of South Africa and become a purely money-making operation”. As a result Telkom was to abandon its stake in the firm and 15% more of the shares were to be sold to Vodafone, making Vodacom a British company with a few private South African shareholders. Some R22 billion were to change hands in this little game — no doubt an ideal opportunity for money-laundering. Now this sounds ugly but we must retain a sense of proportion. Cellphone companies employ nearly no workers, being almost entirely mechanised. Their maintenance level is much lower than it ought to be (which is why cellphone coverage is so lousy at the moment). That is why cellphone companies are so profitable (and why they can afford to use their exploitation of the poor cellphone owner to subsidise the rich laptop owner’s broadband Internet connection). Hence this quasi-privatisation is not going to lose a lot of jobs. Vodacom was not serving the people’s interests before, so selling out is not going to do much harm to the people. Previously 50% of the company’s earnings were being shipped overseas, and now 65% or more will be. Bummer, given South Africa’s desperate need for capital and its scalding current account deficit, but not a radical change. So why make a fuss about it? Interesting question. Of course a fuss can be made — it’s not completely trivial, even if it’s trivial compared with the actual complete privatisation of ISCOR about which virtually no fuss was made at all. One has to start somewhere, but in a sense this is the wrong way to look at it — because this is the end of the privatisation process, not the beginning. Taking a stand here is like the Iraqi Minister for Information declaring victory as the American tanks rolled down the main roads of Baghdad. But some people did take a firm stand; the “Independent Communications Authority of South Africa” (ICASA), South Africa’s FCC (remember Steve Earle’s song “F the CC”?) and COSATU, arriving late for the party but demanding that everybody should admire the beautiful Beyonce-style dress she was wearing. ICASA had previously, in March, declared that everything was hunky-dory about the Vodacom deal. Well, one expects South African “regulators” to kneel down and pucker whenever a rich company wants a bit of stimulation. ICASA, it is worth remembering, was at that time predominantly concerned with the way the ANC was bullying it into allowing the ANC, via Parliament, to hire and fire the SABC board at will, thus ensuring tighter control of the national broadcaster. Perhaps ICASA was distracted. It’s very unlikely, however, that the ANC was distracted. Anyway, that all seemed to be no big deal — or perhaps it was happening in the run-up to the election so that people would think it no big deal. Certainly, once ICASA had brought down its rubber-stamp, Vodafone didn’t let any grass grow under its clod-hoppers. Within a month and a half the listing of Vodacom on the Stock Exchange was about to go ahead. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the Stock Exchange. ICASA suddenly announced that it had changed its mind. It didn’t think that the Vodacom deal was a good idea after all. Well, people are entitled to change their minds, assuming they have a mind to start off with, which in the case of ICASA maybe they didn’t. However, having flung open wide the golden gates ICASA could not now close them again. So they decided, the week before the listing of Vodacom, to go to court to try to delay it. The members of ICASA might as well have tattooed “PATHETIC” on their foreheads while they were about it. However, there in her party dress with her legs spread alluringly, was COSATU too. What the hell were they doing there, supporting the ICASA court application? What did COSATU have to gain, given the absence of worker mass organisation in cellphone organisations? Why was COSATU blowing its money on lawyers when it would have been cheaper and more politically beneficial to hold a mass meeting in protest? It’s impossible to answer those questions directly. One must, however, adopt a narrative approach. Poor people use a lot of cellphones and were vaguely aware that there was this big privatisation deal happening. Poor people don’t like privatisation and were unhappy about having a privatised cellphone in their pocket. Therefore, by opposing the Vodacom deal, COSATU was creating the illusion that it was fighting against privatisation and for the rights of workers. Of course it wasn’t really fighting for the rights of workers, and also, by waiting until the very last possible moment, COSATU knew perfectly well that it was not going to succeed in its fight. So the whole thing was every bit as much of a scam by COSATU as the “unbundling” was a scam by the ruling class. There’s another possibility as well. In the aftermath of Zuma’s election, Zuma stuffed his cabinet with big businessmen. He also made it crystal-clear that he was not planning any changes which might help the poor or the working class. COSATU is in bed with Zuma, its party dress hitched up above its navel, which is obvious to everybody. Hence, by a stunt like opposing the Vodacom deal, COSATU could endeavour to restore a little of its credit in the public mind — in short, create the illusion that COSATU is not a tool of big business, and thus preserve the federation’s unity for a couple more years at least. Both of these possibilities suggest that COSATU is so completely in the back pocket of plutocracy that it feels the urgent need to distance itself from plutocracy, and from the ANC, which is seen as even further down into that back pocket. If this is the case, the claims made in the long run-up to Mbeki’s deposition and Zuma’s rise to power — that Zuma represented a left-wing shift within the ANC and a rise to control of the leftist COSATU and SACP — are not only ludicrous to your omniscient Creator, but have failed to fool just about anybody. It is quite possible that in fact the newspaper reports of Zuma’s leftism served to arouse deep suspicions that he was a rightist among all those who gave the smallest shit for the matter. Most South Africans tend to be contrarians about what they are told. What is also interesting, however, was how the whole affair was presented by the press and the radio. There, it was seen as the greatest threat to South Africa since, er, swine flu (which is so “last week”). We were told that if the national regulator of South African communications were permitted to intervene and actually regulate South African communications by preventing the privatisation of a communications company, then the skies would fall in. How can people make deals under such circumstances? asked the only people who were worthy of being consulted (corporate economists and the head of the Stock Exchange). How dare COSATU use the courts to legally challenge a deal which might make people money? They were undermining rich peoples’ sacred right to money! Why didn’t that nice Mr. Zuma do something (perhaps by declaring COSATU and ICASA outlaws, or maybe rounding up their members and putting them in little camps). It appears that, no matter how right-wing COSATU and the rest of the Left is in practice, the actual Right needs a Left to complain about, even if it has to build its own one out of whatever straw happens to be lying around that day. Meanwhile, another alternative explanation has surfaced, though it looks like a smokescreen. It appeared in the Mail and Guardian, Africa’s best read if all you ever read is corporate smear-sheets. This was a long and turgid article claiming that COSATU’s hostility to the deal stemmed from the possibility that some CoPe members might benefit. Apparently there’s a BEE company called the Elephant Consortium (like so many BEE companies it exists predominantly on paper) which has a small holding in Vodacom and Telkom, and which might have benefited modestly from the Vodacom deal. Some of the leading figures in the Elephant Consortium apparently have CoPe connections. This is all rather thin stuff which was being ginned up by COSATU after the fact, apparently to mobilise ANC support for its initiative, and which the newspaper naturally ran without checking any of the content (such as the claim, made by the President of COSATU, that CoPe was funded entirely by the Elephant Consortium). In fact, if this were the case, CoPe would have had some money in its recent election campaign, and might have therefore held some meetings and printed some media. It seems obvious that the R100 million claimed by the President of COSATU is entirely mythical, for this reason alone (apart from the absence of any evidence presented). However, this thin stuff corresponds with the newspaper’s insistence that CoPe is a rich person’s organisation, as opposed to the working-class, plebeian ANC. Actually, if the ANC had really thought that CoPe would benefit, ICASA would not have approved the deal in the first place, nor would COSATU have delayed bringing applications until the last minute. (The article claims that COSATU had been debating the matter for months, which further begs the question.) So the whole article and the whole COSATU propaganda effort on which it was based was, surely, merely an attempt to legitimise COSATU’s behaviour by hiding behind the demon CoPe and ignoring almost all the ANC and COSATU fat-cats who will doubtless profit (though a few, unusually, were mentioned in the article). So this is what we’re up against. Rich liars face us on every side. The toadies and servants of rich liars face us on every side. They have rigged the system against us until we feel trapped in a Dory Previn song. If the rich have to lie like this, however, they cannot be all that confident. Maybe a few good pushes might start to bring them down.

Challenge and Response. (IV) Hard Time on Easy Street.

May 22, 2009


Very well. We should tell the truth, and not fool ourselves. “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories” — that’s not exactly a brand-new maxim. We should make use of our capacity to analyse what is going on, and propose ways of resolving problems, and share them with the people. “Each one, teach one” — that’s not something unheard-of, is it? We should work together for the common good and listen to what the average person has to say rather than blustering and bullying them into doing what is good for us — “The people shall govern”, the Creator seems to have heard that somewhere before.

In other words, what the Creator is talking about is returning to the actual theories and practices underpinning successful struggle for freedom in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa. This is more or less what the people who set up CoPe were talking about. They talked about it, but they did not do it — perhaps because they had been corrupted by their allegiance to an ANC which had drifted away from these theories and practices, perhaps because they were in such haste to hurl a coalition together that they could not, or felt they could not, be particularly principled. Therefore they failed to provide a real improvement on the ANC.

All the same, they got nearly 8% of the vote. Contrary to what one reads in the newspapers, most of those votes came from the poorest regions of the country, including the poorest provinces. Of course the newspapers tell us that CoPe was supported by the black middle class, but this is an obvious lie since the black middle class is not so numerous. Actually, it is quite clear from the huge numbers of expensive cars sporting ANC stickers in the recent election campaign that a lot of the black middle class — probably the bulk of it — supported the ANC. (Naturally, since they were the biggest black beneficiaries of ANC rule, though not the only ones.) Besides, if CoPe really were backed by the bourgeoisie, then why would the bourgeois newspapers be so hostile to them (even after they had fulfilled their function, from the bourgeois perspective, of splitting the ANC)? It is evident, then, that a lot of working people were dissatisfied enough to walk away from the ANC in 2009. Most probably a lot of working people did not walk away from the ANC, but were definitely dissatisfied.

This is something which a serious working-class organisation could build on if it wished to.

Setting up an alternative structure to the ANC is thus possible. The question could, of course, be asked: why not just enter the ANC and take it over? The answer is partly historical and partly structural.

The historical issue is that the ANC is currently led by people who are known to have struggled in the past for the freedom of South Africa and to whom a great number of junior people have pledged their allegiance. In order to overthrow these people from within, it would be necessary to demonstrate to everybody that the leadership have abandoned their principles and that the lesser lights have either abandoned their principles, stopped seriously thinking about issues, or simply been fooled because they are gullible. This is a difficult thing to do, especially since the bulk of the ANC branch chairs have voted for those junior people at conferences and therefore have a psychological and political investment in the status quo. It would be very difficult for a newcomer to the struggle to argue, for instance, that s/he knows more than Zuma or Ndebele or Nzimande, and even if the argument succeeds, the struggle record of those luminaries is unanswerable — at least for someone whose struggle record was insignificant or nonexistent. (Also note how Shilowa and Lekota, who had comparable struggle records with Zuma’s, were simply brushed aside and declared enemies of the people; it isn’t only your record which counts, it’s your control of the propaganda around that record.)

The structural issue arises, in part, out of that moral and political authority which Zuma’s cabal possess despite having no longer any real right to it. They have used this authority, and the organisational confusion which was created by their struggle to take the organisation over (which meant that various people allowed them to take what seemed to be temporary decisions which defied democracy in order to pursue the greater goal of overthrowing Mbeki) to seize a great deal of power. Provincial premiers and important mayors are still appointed by the Presidency, and meanwhile the NEC also has acquired the right to hire and fire people all the way down to ward councillor level, and to manipulate provincial and district structures almost as they see fit. As a result, if a branch elects a chair of whom the leadership disapproves, the present ANC leadership can impose its will on the branch. Such powers never existed before (in practice, at any rate), and they make it extremely unlikely that anyone could “pull a Polokwane” on Zuma and get him, or his anointed successors, removed from authority.

That means that an alternative structure is the only real option to remove the painful disease of Zumatism from the body politic. This is good, because working within the ANC would inevitably bring with it much of the corrupt and undemocratic baggage which marred the ANC even in its best days. It is bad, because even though conditions are extremely favourable for a new organisation, it’s definitely going to be an uphill climb to set one up and make it work out.

How to begin that uphill climb? Definitely, the place to start is not to show up with a banner, a few fistfuls of money and free T-shirts, and call on everyone to renounce the ANC and all its works and instead pledge to follow you uncritically wherever you lead, after which you go back to. This method is the most nearly democratic and support-building system used by the far Left in South Africa, and it has failed on every occasion it has been tried. (The alternative method is to make contact with some or other existing organisation, generally a front for the local shacklord or hoodlum, and undertake to do something for the boss-man in exchange for his undertaking to provide some numbers for your next demonstration to create the illusion that you have some support — this method is the most commonly-used, alas.)

No, the place to start must be to familiarise yourself with the situation. You need to have the facts about what the government is purporting to do, what promises have been made and, insofar as it is possible to find this out, how far those promises have been fulfilled. This can be put into a small booklet for activists to read, and placed on the Web. People in particular provinces need to have the facts about their provinces, people in municipalities need to have the facts about their municipalities. The official facts, that is, which are relatively easy to obtain in most cases.

Then you call a small meeting in a ward and to ask what the situation is there, and how people feel about the provision of services and their access to governmental and party structures. If you do that a few times you can find out what is going on at the lowest level. You will most probably find that at ward level people are unhappy about these things. They will blame the wrong things — of course. They will blame foreigners, or they will blame outsiders getting all the best service. Or they will say there is not enough money. Or they will say that the ANC wants to help them but the local people are no good and they don’t know how to contact the higher-ups. Or they will say that they have got a little and are happy to have got that much, because in the past they got nothing at all. Or they will blame themselves. A lot of them will blame themselves. Most of them will be ANC supporters. Some of them will have contacts which you can use.

If you can persuade people of that kind that you are in earnest about trying to turn things around, you can begin to win them over. Your goal should not be to make them fanatical supporters of your party, but just to recognise that there might be a better way of doing things than the way in which things are currently working. If you know that the municipality has received ten million rands from central government that year, you can ask how much of that ten million rands the ward received — for most people don’t realise how heavily municipalities are subsidised, or how much of that subsidy is creamed off to pay the salaries of officials and of municipal workers who often do much less work than they are paid to do. You can then gently point out that if the municipality and the party people lived up to their promises, a lot more could get done, and those people would also be a lot more accessible.

Yes, but don’t assume that everything is wrong at municipal level, or any other level.

The reason for trying to work at basic level is to try to make friends and allies. This is roughly the way CoPe started out, and as an organisational plan it makes excellent sense. However, it is not enough just to ask if people are not pissed off, or at least have reason to be pissed off, with the way that things are done. It is absolutely necessary to have some ideological structure holding things together, and this ideological structure needs to be made plain, and there needs to be a link between the ideological structure and the organisation at grassroots level.

So, for this, you need media, and you need meetings. In the cities, small meetings of a few hundred people can be quite effective. Obviously you’d like to fill the City Hall; you’d like to fill the soccer stadium for that matter. But to do that you need to already have a vast organisation and plenty of money, and you don’t have that. What you have, in the city, is a couple of dozen committed activists and a few thousand rand. You hold a couple of meetings, put up posters (the cardboard can often be reused, and should be) and explain what you are about to the people who come. You put your case, which is that the government is corrupt and getting more corrupt, and in thrall to a rich ruling class who don’t care about the working class or the middle class and that your party can do a lot better in running city, province and country than the present government can. Depending on who you are talking to, you can probably win at least some people over. You can try to get them to join up — to try and set up some sort of small-scale neighbourhood structure which you can liaise with.

Eventually you can put together an organisation of cells and branches and paying subscribers to your newsletter and people who attend conferences and discussion groups and contribute. You have a movement. You have, one hopes, in the city at least, a movement of people with some money. That might not be true in the countryside, where you might have to subsidise your branches — not financially, but providing them with fliers and stickers and handbooks. In most small towns you could have at least one person with a computer with an Internet connection, from which the word could get out. You would need to have people prepared to travel around in rural municipalities to see how things are going with the organisation, but also to see how the municipality is doing and how the organisation is interacting with it. You would be careful to tip your hat to the local leadership, whether ANC or DA or CoPe — why not?

Funding? Membership would require payment. Twenty rand a year from twenty thousand people would bring in R400 000, which isn’t much but amounts to something. But the old SACP method is effective. Ask people how much they earn. If they earn, say, R100 000 a year, then they can easily afford to chip in a thousand. If people above a certain level of wealth can be persuaded to pay one percent of their wealth, you would be talking about a million rand or more — and, of course, there could be donations from some affluent but guilty-minded people.

With an organisation like this, which could be built from scratch in a year or so provided that you had the determination, you could make a huge dent in, say, Buffalo City or Nelson Mandela Metropole. Maybe you could take a place like Queenstown or Dutywa or Butterworth or Graaf-Reinet using methods like that. If you could do that, your party would be on the map.

The next municipal election is two years away.

Challenge and Response. (III) Out Of Our Darkness.

May 15, 2009

Very well. We accept that the ANC government in South Africa is unlikely to bring the people much good. We have seen the past and the present and the dirty future is reflected in both. The sky is sour; the elephants are being butchered; the flies rule.

But how can we change this?

There are too many easy answers. Their easy nature makes one suspect that they are wrong. At the moment, in fact, few are even offering them, because those easy answers have been supplanted by the universally-acknowledged command to bow down and submit or worship. Let us turn our backs on the easy answers and ask the fundamental question again: what did we on the Left do wrong which made all this so terrifyingly possible?

Well, what is this Left? It is difficult to see the SACP or COSATU as the Left. It is difficult even to see the APF or other Trotskyite agencies, so small and insignificant have they become, but if we could see them, would they really be the Left? Have the Trotskyites, in the end, a more genuinely Left analysis and policy and practice than the SACP or COSATU? It would seem that they do not. Ideological purity is a delusion caused by inexperience. As for the liberals, there is nothing Left about them any more.

And yet, overwhelmingly, South Africans desire and pursue Left agendas. There may be no “Left” in “we on the Left”, but there is undeniably a “we”. The mass of the people desire justice and redistribution — “a better life for all”. The shadow of the Left majority looms over every politician. Every politician has to find a way to steal and defuse the weapons of the Left. Luckily, the organised Left is always prepared to do that for those politicians, in exchange for a handful of silver and a ribbon to stick in one’s coat.

That’s a bitter thing to say, so let’s get specific about the problems. Firstly, the Left is horribly dependent upon lies. By lies the Creator means things which would be recognised as lies, and other things which are less obvious — half-truths, as well as the state of uncertainty where ideology breeds the confident assertion that one knows what one is talking about when one does not. Like the constant confident assertion that an economic crisis is the collapse of capitalism when it isn’t — or hasn’t yet been, thus far.

Why tell lies? The Left is a highly isolated body at the moment. This is mainly from choice; whether it is political patronage, or financial subsidy from abroad, the Left has a small amount of valuables to distribute. The leaders of the Left want to stuff those valuables in their pockets. That is why Blade Nzimande and Siphiwe Nyanda are where they are now.

As a result of this isolation, the Left is easily fooled. The leaders of the Left fool themselves. Yet even the membership are willing to be fooled. The Left has grown accustomed to defeat and therefore is happy to hear lies about how powerful and corrupt the enemy is. In its heart it believes that it is the only organic political grouping, the only one responding to reality (like all the other political groupings around) and therefore it also believes that it must win; historical inevitability. Therefore it wishes to see victories and triumphs where these do not exist. Furthermore, when the only thing which you can hear is the sound of your own voice, there is no check on what you believe and what you say. So Leftists can tell lies to each other without even knowing that they are lies.

And yet, what is the biggest obstacle to political action in broader society? Surely, it is the systematic disinformation projected by the ruling class onto us all which demobilises the people and slots everyone into the status of submissive and passive consumer of products and services and ideology. Attempting to challenge disinformation with counter-disinformation is a futile effort in the long run, whatever benefits it might bring for the moment. Furthermore, it opens up the probability of co-option; that the lies one tells will not benefit the Left but someone else. The enormous advantage of trying to tell the truth is that there is some kind of external control on what one is saying. So the Left should abandon telling lies.

The Left should also accept democracy. Internal democracy goes without saying. (No Left organisation at the moment is internally democratic, as the eternal unchanging persistence of their leadership clearly illustrates.) But the Left is supposed to be aiming towards a democratic life for South Africans. Hence it ought to accept that the general public, the people of South Africa, are not gullible, imbecilic goofs to be led by their noses towards the New Jerusalem with fancy propaganda, slogans and hectoring.

The the general public does not consciously hold Left views although it is undoubtedly more sympathetic to the Left than the Left acknowledges. This is entirely the Left’s fault. The Left speaks in jargon to people who barely understand plain language. The Left focuses on abstractions rather than on the concrete. It is necessary to see the big picture, to recognise the importance of the abstract in one’s understanding. But the average person understands poverty, unemployment, crime and violence, poor living and working conditions, unsatisfactory social services. This is where the Left needs to begin, but it is also not where the Left needs to end. These things must be used as a way to open the public’s eyes to develop their understanding of how these things can be brought to an end — and “developing an understanding” is not the same as “getting people on message”. The Left does not simply need people who chant slogans and march in step. It is much better to have people who ask what the slogans mean and where they are supposed to be marching to. The trouble is that the Left has, for too long, pursued mobilization and neglected conscientisation. The fact is that you cannot have the one without the other, not for long, and this is why the Left has simply promoted and facilitated demagoguery.

Respect for the people should be the starting-place of the Left, and demagoguery is the reverse of respect; it is exploitation. In the Western Cape, the Right has used racism to divide coloureds and whites off from blacks — and that’s the Right of Mcebisi Skwatsha as well as the Right of Helen Zille. In both cases, people are told a) that you are poor and oppressed (even wealthy whites can be persuaded of this by choosing the proper framework in which oppression means “threatened with having to pay your gardener a living wage”), and b) that this is because all the resources are going to the blacks (or the coloureds). Therefore the coloureds, to protect themselves against the corrupt black government, have voted in the whites, while the blacks, to protect themselves against the threat of coloured dominance, have allowed the whites to get a majority. Almost everybody in the Western Cape actually believes in Left principles, but thanks to clever propaganda and unimaginable dishonesty on the part of the leadership, racial prejudice has been used to turn these principles into serving the cause of the Right. This is not something which could never happen anywhere else, even though the Western Cape is most vulnerable to such things.

Truth and democracy; that’s a fair enough starting point. But what makes the Left significant is that it has a moral sense combined with an analytic framework which is uniquely valid in serving South Africa’s needs. The moral sense is a consciousness of oppression and a desire to bring it to an end; the analytic framework explains where that oppression comes from and, therefore, what should be done to stop it. This is what, for instance, the SACP had the potential to provide.

But it is easy to be deceived by history. Under apartheid, consciousness of oppression was ubiquitous. Everyone was either an oppressor or an oppressed, and some of the oppressors were themselves oppressed. Also, the National Party served as a focal point of the oppressive system, having created it and been quite open about that. The system was oppressive on many levels. Yes, there was also the question of whether big business was not a part of the oppressive system, but there were strong grounds for arguing that if the National Party were taken out of the equation, big business would be enfeebled and unable to resist the power of the people. It was all crushingly simple.

This is why the Left today loves to pretend that nothing much has changed since apartheid. The alternative would be to examine the moral basis of the Left in an era of democracy when oppression is much more insidious than before and in some ways no longer exists. This appears to enfeeble the simple purity of the Left, so the Left is reluctant to adapt to circumstances for fear of losing authority. In addition, if the situation is more complicated, the analytic framework in response to the situation must also be more complicated. However, the Left is terrified that changing its analytic framework may lead to compromise and to ultimate betrayal of its basic principles — every Left organisation accuses every other Left organisation of some degree of compromise and betrayal, which almost certainly means that every Left organisation has a bad conscience about its own willingness to betray its basic principles. So the Left sticks to its analysis, under conditions in which that analysis no longer holds up — the classic example being COSATU’s insistence on condemning the GEAR economic policy five years after that policy had been abandoned.

In fact, for the most part, in the 1980s the South African Left analysed society, economics and politics with greater subtlety and acumen than it does in the twenty-first century, just as in the 1980s it was more truthful and more democratic than it does now — even though now there is enormously more intellectual and political freedom and more right of access to information than ever.

Step back for a moment. What the Creator is saying is that there is enormous potential for a Left organisation to develop the support of the mass of the people, even if by vanguardist methods so long as these methods are respectful of the will of the people and responsive to the needs of the members of the organisation. This is because the situation in South Africa is in crisis because of skewed socio-economic redistribution of wealth and resources due to capitalism and its associated corrupt practices, and due to a lack of democratic rights on the part of the people despite their possessing the vote. The Left has the analytic tools with which to study the universally-acknowledge problem, tease out its precise causes and provide answers to them. The Left has the moral basis for pursuing this, having critiqued precisely these issues for hundreds of years. Nobody else can do these things, and the vast majority of those who claim to be able to do these things are doing so not because they believe they can do them, or even want to do them — but because they want to fool the public into refraining from supporting the Left’s way out of the crisis.

That should be tremendously heartening. However, it is completely obvious that the Left has systematically failed to meet its potential because of a broad, systematic, structural set of intellectual and organisational flaws which cannot easily be remedied within the present Left system in South Africa and elsewhere. If we want to radically change South Africa for the better, we must first radically change the Left for the better. This, unfortunately — because it is a difficult task — must be the starting-point for any campaign to rid South Africa of the ZUMA curse.

Another Non-Interruption: Divide and Misrule.

May 15, 2009

The fix is further in. The Cabinet has been announced. O Joy — the Freedom Front Plus is on board! Afrikaner white racists who think that apartheid was too nice for the blacks are now marching arm in arm with the people’s heroes.” Is it just me, or is everything shit?”

It’s not just you.

Some of the changes are cosmetic, and some of the cosmetic changes may actually be an improvement. The Ministry of Safety and Security was so-called because the term “Minister of Police” brought back so many delightful memories of John Vorster, Jimmy Kruger and Adriaan Vlok. Now everybody has forgotten what those names meant, and forgotten the “straight fuck-you gait” of the barathea-clad Suid-Afrikaanse Polisie, and so Ministry of Police has made a comeback like the return of the repressed. At least this is real.

On the other hand, Ministry of Housing changes to Ministry of Human Settlement. This is a bit like Architecture turning into the Built Environment — it seems like a plethora of syllables to no good effect. On the other hand, the Ministry of Housing provides, er, housing — whether it be RDP houses or brick-shaped tenements or whatever, at least it’s supposed to be better than tin, plastic and tarpaper shacks, and it could even be better than wattle-and-daub huts (though not always). Human Settlement seems to suggest, on the other hand, a Minister who points, says “Settle here, humans!” and then dusts off hands and walks away, murmuring “My work here is done”. It seems to be a hint that responsibilities are being cast aside. (Unsurprising, given that the job has been handed to a billionaire BEE property developer.)

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Intelligence (a joke in itself) has been renamed the Ministry of State Security. This brings back jolly memories of BOSS and General Van Den Bergh. It also brings back jolly memories of the Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Besopasnosti, the Committee on State Security which did such important work in ensuring that the Soviet Union never collapsed.

However, these changes may mean nothing. Other changes are a little more important.

The first big obvious change is the demolition of education. Instead of a Ministry of Education, we now have a Ministry of Higher Education and a Ministry of “Basic Education” (that includes high schools, for those teachers out there who still had any self-respect). Education is, admittedly, an immense problem, largely due to the reluctance of government to address the real problem of demotivated, unskilled or careerist teachers. (This problem has sucked money into salaries rather than into educational infrastructure, and it shows no sign of going away — in fact, since one of the Ministers is the corrupt panderer Blade Nzimande, and the other is a weakling, it will almost certainly get worse.)

However, education is a conveyor-belt. You have good primary education (which we don’t have, although it was promised by the very first Education Minister as his priority back in 1994) and then you pass competent kids on to good secondary education, which passes competent young adults on to good tertiary education. “Good” here meaning an education which provides the learner with enough challenges to develop skills and enough understanding of the world to recognise the need for continuous learning and continuous improvement of those skills. That’s what we don’t see anywhere, and that’s certainly not what is being called for by the corporate vocational-training choir which dominates the press and the official public space.

If you want to get good education — in fact, even if you want competent skills creation, let alone education — however, you cannot have breaks in this conveyor. If your kids haven’t learned arithmetic, they are not going to learn calculus as adolescents even if they have the best teachers in the solar system. If your kids haven’t learned how to think about their place in the world as adolescents, they are not going to be able to make head or tail of economics or sociology when they are young adults.

So dividing education in this way — and dissing the schooling system in your ministerial title —  is a recipe for chaos. It suggests a lack of coordination which will be fatal for good educational practice. It is also, in a very fundamental way, a class divide. The people who go to university in South Africa are, for the most part, the people with wealth and power — and the students are going there in part because they want good jobs. Setting up a special Ministry to look after the interests of these people is appalling. You might as well have a Ministry of Rich People tasked with keeping the streets of Sandton well swept and the swimming-pools of Constantia nice and clean.

That’s the bad news. What’s the good news? Dream on, sucker.

A number of new Ministries, some of them existing in name only, have been created. There’s a Ministry in charge of planning, headed by Trevor Manuel, and there’s a Ministry in charge of checking up on the performance of Ministries — a Ministry of Ministries, as it were. Neither of these should actually be Ministries, but in principle, both are not bad ideas. It would be very nice to have a plan. It would also be very nice to have someone checking up on whether the plan is being implemented, and if not, why not. What is more, it is logical to ensure that such things are supported by centralised authority. Nobody, surely, can seriously challenge the creation of such structures . . .

Except. For a start, both planning and performance management are located within the Presidency. Performance management is headed by a virtual nonentity whose power derives directly from Zuma. Manuel, of course, has had clout in the past, but his support base depended heavily on Mbeki and on the Western Cape coloureds who supported the UDF; Mbeki has been fired and the Western Cape coloureds have been chased off into the Democratic Alliance. Hence Manuel is a token; he’s there because big business would have been spooked if he had just been kicked down the stairs. Zuma can do with him what he likes, much more than Mbeki could have done.

As a result there is good reason to doubt whether either of these Ministries will function as they should function if the state apparatus were being run for the benefit of people and nation. It is worth remembering that Harold Wilson, whose British Labour Party gained power after thirteen years’ opposition, was a great enthusiast for planning. In his stump speeches he talked about it all the time. When he gained power, he set up a Department of Economic Affairs to develop a National Plan and headed it with one of his competitors for party leadership, George Brown, an enthusiastic but inept and alcoholic politician who speedily failed. After a year, the National Plan was presented, and was duly ignored and buried; the DEA and Brown were buried (in Brown’s case, literally) not long after.

What worries the Creator is that this looks very much like what will happen under Zuma, and may indeed be Zuma’s game-plan. Unlike Wilson, Zuma has shown no interest in actual planning (though he enjoys rhetoric about punishing people for incompetence, this is probably more reflective of Zuma’s intellectual brutality and sadism than of a real love of efficiency and productivity). Amazingly, the SACP has provided not even the skeleton of a national plan; not even a set of aims and objectives other than the standard ones pursued by every government since 1994. Not even a mission or vision statement such as Zuma’s beloved corporations invariably possess. Without guidance or leadership, how can a meaningful plan be developed? And, without a meaningful plan, how can performance management be more than a series of ad hoc interventions at best? Of course, much more likely is the fact that Zuma will abuse “performance management” in order to punish people who disagree with him, or threaten his authority in some way — standard practice in Zuma’s beloved corporate world.

Meanwhile, separate from this altogether, and not housed in the Presidency, is the Ministry of Economic Development. Once again, one can hardly challenge the idea of a Ministry of Economic Development. What a good idea? Who is opposed to economic development, apart from a few air-headed greenwashing radicals, most of whom have private incomes? The fact that, once again, it is to be led by someone without much experience or authority is not a huge problem — after all, Gordhan, the new Minister of Finance is also someone with little authority, and whose experience is chiefly of administration and of doing what Trevor told him to do.

But, hold on just a minute. That means there is another Ministry to do with economic issues. We already had the Ministry of Trade and Industry. We already had the Ministry of Finance. We now also have the Ministry of Planning which is headed by the former Minister of Finance and which will inevitably devote much of its energy to economic issues. That means there are four major figures in the Cabinet whose interest lies in grabbing as much authority over economic issues as possible, in order to build their empires. In consequence, there is no one centre of economic authority — unless that is to be the Ministry of Planning, but Planning would obviously have to take other issues under consideration as well. It’s as if the Ministry of Defence were to be broken up into the Ministry of Soldiers, the Ministry of Killing People, the Ministry of Buying Guns and the Ministry of Pretending To Have Won. It would be a hell of a way to fight a war.

There is a Zuma pattern here. Zuma felt that the Scorpions were a problem, so he disbanded them. It didn’t matter to him that the country needed an organisation like the Scorpions, because he didn’t like them and they needed to be punished — and also his advisors wanted them eliminated so that the nation could be made safe for corporate crime. Zuma’s allies in the SACP and COSATU have had clashes with the Ministry of Finance, because they were stupid, ignorant and too lazy to develop proper arguments to challenge the Ministry. So, rather than develop a centralised structure capable of implementing a more centralised economic plan of the kind a socialist would be expected to prefer, they are weakening the Ministry of Finance by ensuring that it doesn’t exactly know — that nobody exactly knows — where its responsibilities lie.

In a way, the two actions are similar. The Ministry of Finance could, potentially, prevent business from plundering the nation through its oversight over international currency transfers, and punish business for misconduct through stringent taxation. If other Ministries are able to butt in, they can disrupt its capacity to do either; Trade and Industry could argue (as they always have) that companies should invest outside South Africa and hence exchange controls must be loose, while Economic Development may argue that taxation must be loosened in order to encourage people to spend. Planning, meanwhile, may argue that Finance should run up a bigger deficit so that the National Plan’s targets can be more easily fulfilled. Potentially, this is a recipe for a huge mess.

And the man to sort out the mess which he has cooked up is, of course, the President, who once again becomes the Saviour of the Nation, as the newspapers tell us, even if the Nation goes bankrupt in the process.