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.
What We Are Up Against.