Recently the Creator was chatting fairly amiably with an intellectual and mentioned working on an article about South African politics during the early 1990s. Ah, said the intellectual (of Afrikaner extraction) then you will need to read R W “Bill” Johnson.
The Creator is a polite person, so did not pitch the intellectual over the cliff which happened to be conveniently close by. Meanwhile, another person of Afrikaner extraction named Chris Louw, author of “Boetman is die bliksem in”, blew his brains out, thus at least proving to everyone’s satisfaction that he was a person of strong passions and had at least enough brains to make a mess. And, still more recently, the Creator happened upon a collection of essays called “Can South Africa Survive?” which addressed what it quaintly called the “Johnson thesis” ten years down the track. The volume thus provided a kind of quality-control upon Johnson’s work (if going “Pooh!” when you open a can of rotten food can be called quality-control).
The connection between these elements is perhaps not obvious so needs to be established.
The Johnson thesis can be succinctly stated, as it is contained in Johnson’s woolly vapouring, “How Long Can South Africa Survive?”. It is that the white apartheid state is led by clever people who can reform their way out of any crisis, that if the apartheid state runs into any real trouble it can shoot anybody making difficulties, that the West will always stand by their apartheid allies while the USSR will not make waves, and that blacks are not a serious factor in South African politics.
Let us note that this was written after twenty-nine years of apartheid, a year after the Soweto massacre, just before the only black newspaper in South Africa had to be banned because its mildly liberal observations were feared to be the spark igniting a basement full of dynamite and light artillery. Just before the most prominent black intellectual and politician in South Africa had to be murdered. While the first guerrilla operations in South Africa were beginning, two years after FRELIMO and the MPLA took power in the Portuguese colonies neighbouring South African-controlled territories, while the Rhodesian regime was tottering towards its fall, while SWAPO’s operations in Namibia were already a serious threat to control of the north of that country. All this had to be dismissed as trivia by Johnson.
We then note that the UDF was formed six years later. Nine years later a permanent state of emergency had to be declared to secure white power. Eleven years later South Africa was kicked out of Namibia. Thirteen years later the white regime felt obliged to unban black political organisations. Seventeen years later the apartheid state was utterly undone. Hence it would seem that Johnson’s thesis has been quite effectively disproved. It might be argued that Johnson had a point inasmuch as a few people might have contended in the late 1970s that the apartheid state had only a few years to endure. However, only fools thought that in 1977 (even in 1985 it was hard for most to believe that the revolutionary situation then prevailing was going to lead to a successful seizure of power, and indeed it did not). So Johnson embedded a hard nut of validity in a vast mass of flabby authoritarian rhetoric legitimated by racist and Cold War fantasising.
It is interesting to compare Johnson’s thesis with John Kane-Berman’s contemporary “Whirlwind before the Storm”, which (published in the same year) presents the Soweto uprising as a serious crisis which might lead to something still more serious. Kane-Berman didn’t particularly like this prospect, and he subsequently moved over to a position very similar to Johnson’s except more practical (essentially, complete endorsement of the apartheid state and particularly its repressive apparatus, a position he still holds long after both have disappeared, so that he shares considerable ideological affinities with the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging). But all this only means that Kane-Berman was trying to live in the real world (and in a sense still does) whereas Johnson was living in a pretend universe.
Ow. What has this to do with Boetman? Quite a lot, actually. Louw’s book Boetman en die Swanesang van die Verligtes, which for you non-Afrikaans-speaking garbage means “Brotherman” (an Afrikaner diminutive apellation roughtly equivalent to “Little buddy”) “and the Swan-song of the Enlightened Ones”. You might well think that the Enlightened Ones were the ones who were enlightened, and hence opposed apartheid (because isn’t that what enlightened ones do?) and so how the heck could they be singing a swansong when they were still around? But it’s more complicated than that.
Under the old Afrikaner nationalist system there was a simple system of categorisation: you were with us or you were a Milnerite out to destroy the Afrikaner race and language. (Not much has changed since then in the minds of people like Dan Roodt.) However, this basically trapped Afrikanerdom in the rut of nineteenth-century nationalism, and so to enable it to break out of this, the concept of “loyale verset”, or loyal opposition, was borrowed from British parliamentary debate by Van Wyk Louw. Basically it was possible to introduce new ideas to Afrikanerdom (especially those entailing collaboration with large corporations) via this imaginary process.
Eventually, however, with the crisis of Afrikaner power in the 1970s, this was no longer enough. A right wing had splintered off from the National Party, articulating the racist authoritarianism which was the dominant but unexpressed ideology of the party. To demonise this grouping without actually denying it, it was defined as the “verkramptes”, “those who are confined” as opposed to everybody else who was therefore the “verligtes”. So the name was basically a rebranding exercise which turned all Afrikaner politicians and intellectuals into the good guys. To demonise those who were not sufficiently within the bounds of reason (but also provide another version of loyal opposition) the term “oorbeligtes”, or “the excessively enlightened” was thereupon developed. These were, of course, the people who took things Too Far Too Soon. There was a constant coming-and-going within this category, with people like Hermann Giliomee hopping in and out as circumstances made it convenient.
Chris Louw’s line, interestingly, goes right back to the days of the late 1970s (Hello, Bill!), when he was a junior Afrikaans reporter and getting donnered around by the verligtes who were running his newspaper and therefore hymning the glories of whatever came down from Tuynhuys and the Broederbond. While they were thus declaring that whatever was, was right, by appointment to his majesty die Groot Krokodil P W Botha, they were naturally also saying that it was right to send one’s Boeties off to the Border, or into the townships, or into the death-squads, or actually into whatever cesspool the regime proclaimed to be chocolate mousse that week. The common feature which all the verligtes had was that they would not go anywhere within hearing range of gunfire, nor dirty their hands with blood or even ink, since they needed to have clean hands to show to the outside community which did not understand the Afrikaner and thus might have been upset to see reality.
Louw pointed out that this entailed saying “Trust us and we will lead you wisely” while actually marching everybody off a cliff, afterwards saying “I have no idea why they chose to walk off that cliff”. There’s a certain parallel between this and some of Antjie Krog’s writings in Country of my Skull; like most people she and Louw (who later edited Die Suid-Afrikaan, a magazine run mainly by oorbeligtes like Krog) feel a bit more affinity with the reactionaries and thugs who actually did the dirty deeds and then came out and admitted it, than with the reactionary hypocrities who issued the orders which were then shredded and burned so that nobody could prove that they were issued, and even those reactionary hypocrites were better than the ones who cheered on the reactionary hypocrites and made excuses for the thugs while pretending not to do either.
Louw’s “Boetman” articles began a small debate within the Afrikaner intellectual community, a debate of a kind which has never really happened within any other intellectual community, about moral responsibility for crimes. (There were a few feeble efforts within Charterism in the early 1990s, regarding the question of censorship and political repression generally, which might have led to something, but all that was drowned, partly in a flood of liberal syrup generated by the TRC, and partly by the successful efforts of the white community to use both issues to disclaim their own moral responsibility for apartheid.) Of course the whole debate was speedily choked off, but it clearly struck a chord — which existed because there were such flagrant contradictions between what the verligtes said and did, and between what Afrikanerdom claimed to stand for and what it did stand for. But this was also because some Afrikaners had actually believed in the rubbish they had to listen to.
The problem with their English contemporaries was that for the most part they did not believe their rubbish. They knew perfectly well that it was all a smokescreen for the holding and exercising of power. But also they did not know this; thanks to doublethink they could proclaim rubbish without internalising it, so that they could later disclaim the rubbish, and then reclaim it when it was convenient. Thus they could negotiate a zigzag path, springing from turd to turd so as to traverse their cesspool without any sign of having been affected (unless, like Fred Vargas’s Commissioner Adamsberg in This Night’s Foul Work, you checked the soles of their shoes).
This is where R W Johnson comes in. He entered as a supposed leftist; back in the 1960s he was a Trotskyite, as they called traitors to the people and to all human decency in those days (a tradition which ought to be continued) and almost instantly shifted right, thus generating his absurd reactionary screed in 1977, then shifting into full-on endorsement of the apartheid state in the 1980s, writing articles which made Ken Owen look liberal, and thereafter devoting energies to providing a spurious intellectual screen for the dogmas of the white elite. So, nothing unusual there, but significant because his dishonesty always corresponded perfectly with whatever whites in power wished to hear.
This is where Louw was mistaken. The “verligtes” did not sing a swan-song; they merged inextricably with the English praise-singers of multinational capital. (This is why Hermann Giliomee is now so popular with English intellectuals,) They thus reinforced an already almost unassailable fortress of intellectual dishonesty which was meanwhile drawing in black front-people; Sipho Seepe, William Gumede, Moeletsi Mbeki, Jonathan Jansen — an endless list who do exactly what Johnson does; repeat the dogmas of white conservatism, mixed with the dogmas of Western imperialism. They are all squawking like hadedas – but less tunefully.
Many of the black front-people don’t do this anywhere near as well as people like Johnson and Giliomee, but on the other hand, they are black, and thus (at least in the minds of the occupants of the fortress) are better equipped to fool the majority. (Actually, the Creator’s impression is that most of these pseudo-intellectuals are viewed as jokes by those members of the majority who know that they exist; this is convenient, since the majority is thus not hostile to them while the pseudo-intellectuals can continue to draw their gigantic salaries in return for doing public relations for the status quo. Let’s face it, hardly any advertising actually changes anything, but no corporate body dares abandon its reliance on advertising, for fear of what might happen.)
It is particularly noteworthy that, although he is widely despised among actual intellectuals (even ones who have sold out to the ruling class) nobody made any obvious jokes about Johnson when he was attacked by necrotising fasciitis and nearly turned into a stinking puddle of toxic slime. (The jokes are so obvious that the Creator will not bother inventing them, but one remembers when Randolph Churchill had a non-malignant tumour removed; “How typical of the medical profession, to discover the bit of Randolph which wasn’t malignant and then remove it!”) Since South African intellectuals are extremely sarcastic towards anyone not in their club and unable to hit back, it is immediately apparent that this kid-glove treatment is because Johnson is well-protected and, in reality, considered part of the intellectual gang. Which is where we came in, with an intelligent and principled oorbeligte assuring the Creator that a worthless sack of fart-gas deserved serious attention.
But the core of the issue is that the current utterly dishonest and worthless South African intellectual climate is nothing new, and is not simply a response to the post-apartheid crisis. It has existed since long before the ANC took power and the fact that it has come to endorse and enthrone Zuma and his crooks simply shows its flexibility and corruption. The problem is not this fortress of intellectual dishonesty — it is that intellectuals with integrity have departed the field, at least beyond the boundaries of the Creator’s current incarnation’s immediate reach. This is a bit of a problem, don’t you think?
Recently the Creator was chatting fairly amiably with an intellectual and mentioned working on an article about South African politics during the early 1990s. Ah, said the intellectual (of Afrikaner extraction) then you will need to read R W “Bill” Johnson.
The ruling class’s incessant ululations in support of President Zuma, as reflected in the media, neglect a few rather important issues, of which much the most important (and, therefore, the least examined) is the devastation of South Africa’s fiscal state.
The Procurators of the Fisc are not unimportant. We know, in our own personal lives, that we cannot spend or borrow endlessly. We therefore know that there must be some sort of limit to fiscal irresponsibility. On the other hand, “fiscal responsibility” is a kind of mantra of the reactionary cadres who seek to control public opinion, and it is therefore rightly viewed with suspicion. Suspicion is appropriate, but, obviously, not dismissal.
What is actually going on in our fiscal state?
It is frightening. In 1994 the departing National Party government left the ANC with a budget deficit of over 9% of gross domestic product. There is little doubt that they hoped that this would promote an economic crisis which would bring the ANC down. The ANC first reprioritised spending, which over the next two years cut the deficit to 5,2%, and then cut back on increases in public spending, which over the ensuing six years eliminated the deficit altogether in a policy mendaciously called “Growth, Employment and Redistribution”, although the policy was not actually intended to do that. However, in fairness, after the GEAR policy had been completed, economic growth rose above 4%, unemployment fell, and there was considerable redistribution of wealth via social grants, so while GEAR was a misnomer, its object was indeed eventually accomplished.
But that took eight or nine years, and that was happening in a time when the global economic crisis was restricted to peripheral countries and industries; Mexico, the Asian Tigers, Russia, Argentina, the Anglo-American “dotcom” bucket-shops.
In 2009 we are looking at a budget deficit of 7,8%, up .2% on the previous calculation and this probably does not take into account additional expenditures undertaken since, such as an above-inflation across-the-board increase for the public service and some substantial short-term increases in antiretroviral expenditure. Call it 8% and have done.
We got there through a combination of the economic crisis, the government’s flat refusal to do anything in response to the economic crisis, and the government’s irresponsible spending in ways which do not respond meaningfully to the economic crisis. As a result, we are borrowing a vast amount of money to finance, essentially, the same economic policies as before, while the economy shrinks and unemployment has risen from about 28% to at least 33% (the Stats SA measurements are almost certainly fraudulent, since they do not show the million additional unemployed we have at the moment).
It is possible that the economy would have shrunk still more had the government not indulged in spending increases, but this is unlikely, as most of the new state spending goes towards the middle class and the rich, and this probably generates more imports rather than more employment in South Africa itself. As a result, if we had not had these increases, we might have a budget deficit of around 6%. If we had increased taxation by about 5% (as an emergency measure which could be reduced once the slump ended), we might then (without significantly harming long-term growth) have a budget deficit of around 4.5%, which is more manageable although still embarrassing. In other words, a completely conservative response to the crisis (not overspending and modestly increasing revenue) could have reduced the problem significantly. It is clear that the decision not to do these things is not actually a decision; it is rather a refusal to decide.
But why is this a problem? A budget deficit of 8% means that the government is borrowing 8% of the nation’s annual product this year in order to finance its running costs. The government’s total expenditure is about 40% of the nation’s annual product. Therefore, 8/40, or 20% of the government’s spending is being borrowed. Imagine if you had to borrow to meet twenty percent of all your spending. Wouldn’t you consider yourself in a problem?
That’s for 2009. In the longer term, when you borrow money, you have to pay interest on it. Let’s say the interest rate is 10%, to simplify; that means that next year, and every year thereafter unless the debt is paid back, the government will have to pay 0,8% of this year’s GDP to the banks from which they borrowed the money.
Next year, let’s hope, the economy will stabilise. (Maybe it won’t, of course.) In that case, corporate profits will rise considerably. Corporate profits provide about a third of the government’s revenue through corporate taxation. In other words, it is perfectly possible that although the economy has shrunk this year and will probably not grow in 2010, and income tax and VAT will therefore not grow very significantly, there could be a rise in revenue from corporate tax which could be as much as 2% of GDP. Meaning that the present 8% budget deficit would fall to 6%. But, unfortunately, there would then be that 0,8% interest on the previous year’s borrowings. This would push the budget deficit up to 6,8%.
Now, at this point, it is possible that taxation might be increased next year. A prudent person like Pravin Gordhan, who understands taxation if he understands nothing else, could certainly attempt this. Note, however, that because revenue from all taxes is only 40% of GDP, it takes a big increase to make a difference. If we assume (not quite accurately, but it’s convenient) that the revenue split is 33% company, 33% VAT and 33% income tax (in other words, each representing 13,3% of the 40% of GDP), then how would taxation be made to work? Firstly, it’s probably politically impossible to increase VAT (and an increase in VAT, because it hits the poor hardest, would also be most likely to damage economic growth). Secondly, if company profits have been low, then companies want more profits. Increasing the tax on their profits substantially would be extremely unpopular and might lead to job cuts (the natural corporate response to almost everything). Realistically, too, corporations have much more influence in the Zuma administration than in the Mbeki administration, so they would probably lobby for no cuts. So that leaves only income tax.
To increase income tax in order to reduce the budget deficit to 6%, it would therefore be necessary to push income tax up to 14,1% of GDP. That means raising income taxes by about 6% of their current value. So if you are paying, say, R40 000 of your R100 000 salary, you would then be paying R42,400. It’s not a monstrous amount, but it’s still quite substantial. You’d notice it, and you’d be cross with the government unless they had run a mammoth we-must-all-make-sacrifices campaign, which they haven’t. So, therefore, significant tax increases are unlikely. Gordhan doesn’t have the political clout, and nobody else in the Cabinet has the knowledge or the will.
Instead, it’s quite likely that spending will increase. It would be very unlikely for spending to be held at the level of inflation, and since next year the economy is unlikely to grow at all (to be precise, it will seem to grow substantially, but this will only make up for this year’s contraction, and the disruption caused by using the World Cup as a pretext for laziness and absenteeism might reverse that) a 1% above-inflation-level increase means a 1% increase in the deficit. Which means that next year the budget deficit will be 7,8%.
Gaah! That means a 0,78% debt servicing increase in 2011! In other words, things will be nearly as bad in 2011 as they are going to be in 2010! How much of a problem is that?
Well, we may assume that the economy will grow a bit. Let’s be reasonable and suggest that it grows at 2%. (It takes time to restore confidence and infrastructure after the collapse of a boom.) That would probably mean that revenue would rise — by .8% of GDP. But that only erases the cost of increased debt servicing. In other words, assuming that there was no additional expenditure in 2011 over and above the expenditure in 2010, the budget deficit would remain essentially the same — 7,78%. But by this time, it’s almost inconceivable that people would be happy with another year of spending restraint. It’s much more likely that by 2011 there will be strong pressure to spend, spend, spend, especially on salaries for the upper classes and middle classes and on projects which grant cushy tenders to white-owned BEE-front companies. In other words, on corruption and bribery, which could eat up as much as 2% of GDP.
And if that’s the case, then the budget deficit could easily rise to around 9,5%, above what the apartheid state lumbered the ANC with. Please notice that this is all assuming that in 2010 we have a very cautious fiscal policy. If we were less cautious we could be in trouble earlier.
The point is that the higher the budget deficit gets, the harder it is to reduce. The temptation is to borrow more rather than less. The problem is that to cut the deficit you must either cut spending or increase taxes, and a government is squeezed from both sides. (It doesn’t help that in the middle of the crisis Barbara Hogan is privatising ESCOM for the peppercorn fee which you’d expect in an economic crisis, eliminating one way of gaining revenue with immense deftness while ensuring that the vast amounts milked out of the consumer by ESCOM will pour into foreign pockets instead of into the state’s coffers.)
The end product, therefore, would be a rapid rise in the budget deficit, and a comparable rise in the cost of debt servicing. This would cause a collapse in confidence in the sustainability of the fiscus, which would cause a run on the rand, which would cause a need to increase interest rates, which would raise the cost of debt servicing.
Within a few years, this would mean that however high spending went, the cost of debt servicing would overtake it. In other words, state spending would become largely devoted to servicing the debt, with all other things as minor additions. (This was what happened in many African and Latin American countries in the 1980s and 1990s.) Then there would be cuts in social services, which would breed popular resistance (probably blindly following whoever shouted the loudest, and the loudest people in South Africa are the rich people who clamour for privatisation and cuts in social services).
This can be avoided by dealing with the crisis now. The way to deal with the crisis now is to selectively restrain expenditure (that is, make sure that spending increases in areas likely to promote real indigenous economic growth) while increasing revenue via taxation (especially income tax and corporate tax wherever possible). If this is not done within a couple of years it may be too late to escape the debt trap.
Of course, many affluent South Africans endorse the debt trap (just as affluent Americans did under Bush) because it leads towards an attack on social security and therefore leads towards reduced wages and cheaper consumer goods). So all this may actually be a deliberate policy on the part of the people behind Zuma. If we had any intellectuals or any investigative journalists in this country, someone might look into that. But all you have is the Creator, alas, and that ain’t enough.
Because the South African Communist Party is the most powerful faction in the ANC, they are probably the moving spirit behind the South African government. Therefore it is useful to know what they are up to. They have held their 2009 conference in Polokwane, to celebrate the overthrow of President Mbeki, and this casts a lot of light on what concerns the Communists.
There is a lot, in December 2009, for a Communist to be concerned about. The most obvious is the calamitous increase in unemployment and the failure of the government to do anything about it. (The pledge to create 500 000 jobs has been broken; there is no sign that the pledge to spend money on retraining the unemployed has been kept.) Another is the government’s new privatisation plans (for electricity and roads, mainly, but others appear to be in the pipeline). Of course, one could also pursue more positive matters; calls for improving education or healthcare or social grants. These are things which Mazibuko Jara recently put forward as things which could be discussed at Polokwane, although, like all Communists, he made no concrete proposals and appeared to have no profound understanding of the issues involved.
Anyway, the matters discussed at Polokwane have been:
*how dare members of the ANC criticise the Communist Party for having excessive influence;
*how dare a member of the ANC criticise a member of the Communist Party for opposing the nationalisation of major industries as specified in the Freedom Charter;
*how dare anybody suggest that dual ANC/SACP membership might be done away with (nobody has suggested this, but it was raised anyway);
*how dare anybody suggest that the SACP’s constitution ought to apply to Secretary-General Nzimande.
In other words, irrelevant, distracting babble. (Although the criticism of the SACP in the ANC is now very widespread at rank and file level, few ANC leaders dare to voice it openly, and those who do, like Billy Masetlha, are insignificant jackasses — if Masetlha is right about this, it is the first time he has been right about anything since 1994). Orchestrated booing of officially-sanctioned enemies reminds one of Party meetings in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The difference being that the SACP is not actually in charge, however much it might like to be, so it is also a little like members of a primary-school playground gang getting together to say that a member of a much bigger primary-school playground gang is never going to be allowed to join their gang. It is certainly not adult behaviour.
There is a certain consistency to the SACP topics. They are all about defending the SACP against criticism that it is overweeningly powerful, or about securing and enhancing the position within the ANC which makes the SACP overweeningly powerful. However, all this power is not being directed in pursuit of any agenda or set of policies. Instead, it is being pursued for its own sake — and the personalisation of discussion, together with the change in the SACP Constitution to accommodate Nzimande’s personal position as Minister for Higher Education, suggests that the sake for which it is being pursued is a decidedly personal sake.
Of course, organisational matters are important for any political party. This is why it must have been heartening for the SACP Conference to hear how well their party’s membership was doing. This is in sharp contrast to virtually all other political parties, such as the ANC, whose membership is falling sharply. (COSATU’s union membership has also been falling swiftly in the past few years. However, COSATU was able to sort out that problem by manipulating numbers.) The SACP’s membership has gone up by 40%, from 56 000 to 96 000.
That is very impressive. It is even more impressive when you consider that the SACP’s Treasurer told the SACP at the 2007 Conference that its membership was not 56 000, but less than 18 000 — in short, that its active and paid-up membership was only one-third as many as the list of people who had ever joined the party in their lives. Well, the Treasurer couldn’t be allowed to get away with that, so he was purged from the Party. However, that raises the disquieting possibility that the SACP is claiming an increase of membership not of 40%, but of more than 400%.
All this is extremely unlikely. Why should people join the SACP at all? Not, obviously, because the SACP stands for socialism (not while the big issue at the Conference was a stern and unprincipled repudiation of the nationalisation which they had been clamouring for two years earlier, before they took power). Out of greed, then? Have numbers of councillors joined the SACP to secure their positions in power, or to gain positions as councillors? It’s a possibility, of course, but overwhelmingly, the SACP seems devoted to looking after its own senior people. New people at entry level in the Party do not seem to be specially favoured — which is what one would expect in a Party where the leadership is utterly corrupt.
But then why has the SACP grown more than any other political organisation in the country, and in sharp contrast to most such political organisations? Because it overthrew Mbeki? Because it has so many Cabinet positions? Or is there something else?
One striking point is that 40% of the membership are not members of the ANC, which is odd. If you are a councillor, you do not stand for your position as a member of the SACP. You stand as a member of the ANC. Ditto, although you might join the Party in order to secure lucrative contracts, in order to get those contracts you would need to have some sort of contact with the ANC, because the ANC is the controlling body in local and municipal governments, not the Party. Therefore, greedy people have no reason to join the SACP but not the ANC. As for ultra-left socialists who might be disgusted with the ANC, the vast majority of them are also disgusted with the SACP — which has, after all, betrayed its principles far more comprehensively than the ANC has. Conceivably, some might have joined the SACP in order to undermine the ANC from within. However, they would only be a tiny grouping — apart from anything else, the SACP is extremely hostile to entryism in its own ranks and the SACP leadership has absolute power over membership. (Also, it goes without saying, if you wish to undermine the ANC, you would want to be a member just as much as if you wished to profit from contacts in the ANC.)
There is, of course, another possibility. That 40% of the membership, 38 000 members, is exactly the same as the number of members who have joined since 2007. This is a curious coincidence, if it is a coincidence. If it is not a coincidence, why would nobody have joined the ANC in that time? Supposedly, late 2007 was when the SACP captured the ANC at Polokwane, and the triumph there should have encouraged growing membership of the ANC.
But what if the new members don’t actually exist? What if the SACP branches have been quietly told to send in fake membership forms bearing imaginary names? That would be not very different, in practice, from maintaining people on the membership lists who have never been to a Party meeting nor paid their subs after the first year. It would be a splendid way of boosting the image of the Party — while also justifying siphoning money out of COSATU’s piggybank. (COSATU is the main overt donor for the SACP’s administration fees, though possibly covert corporate donations are more significant.) In addition, it would create the impression that the SACP was more powerful than it actually is — more than a quarter the size of the ANC, after the ANC’s long membership decline under Motlanthe and Mantashe’s misrule. Thus it justifies having immense expensive conferences and having a finger in every ANC mud pie.
The reason for wondering about this is simple. If these imaginary people were claimed to be ANC members, they would fail to show up on the ANC’s own membership records. These are audited by external firms not under the control of either the ANC or the SACP. If the SACP were to claim to have ANC members who had never applied for actual ANC membership then the falsity of its claims would be exposed instantly. On the other hand, if it went to the trouble of applying for ANC membership on behalf of imaginary people, eventually this would be exposed and if it happened consistently it would potentially embarrass the SACP. So if the Party were making up its membership, it would be wise not to pretend that these imaginary members were in the ANC.
It makes sense, when you think about it. A party with a fraudulent platform, with principles which it does not believe in or implement, and mythical membership. It’s the perfect party for modern South African politics. There is no cause to wonder why the SACP changed its Constitution for the personal convenience of its Secretary-General — why not do that, when nothing about the SACP serves anything except its hollow and fraudulent leadership?
If (as some claim) there is to be a showdown between the SACP and the ANC’s careerists who find the SACP in the way, who will win? More to the point, who cares?
When politicians lie, it comes as something of a shock. Of course, we know that there are lying “politicians” out there, but we don’t really count them as politicians because they are our political enemies. The politicians on Our Beloved Side do not lie. Except that they do, and when they do, it raises questions about whether we should all be marching in step before the saluting-base of the Führer.
So the sensible thing for those who support our divine helmsmen is, not to mention such lies, thus protecting us from shock. (This is what is being done in the United States as Obama, the candidate of Change and Hope, trudges into the Slough of Despond to join Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.) Let’s consider two recent cases of such helpful protection.
One was the decision by the Minister of Health (following on President Zuma’s example a few days earlier) to announce, in the PR run-up to AIDS Day, that there had been a massive increase in the crude death-rate between 2007 and 2008 in South Africa. He claimed that the increase had been from 576 000 in 2007 to 763 000 in 2008, a rise of 32,5%. Immediately after this, there was a flurry of criticism of the Minister of Health. Some AIDS medical personnel circulated a petition calling on the Minister not to release such statistics because they might cause people to disbelieve other statistics. (In other words, “Amateur, your lies are unconvincing — leave it to us professionals to tell convincing lies!”.) A Sunday Times journalist charitably speculated that some numbers had got transposed.
In the real world, what does a Minister of Health do when such figures come up? Either a) lie and cover up, or b) investigate the validity of the figures and, if they are valid, try to find out what the problem is and how it can be solved. This is the Zuma administration, so b), of course, was out of the question. The unfortunate Minister of Health was particularly in a cleft stick because President Zuma had already blurted the figures out, and it is not in Zulu culture to ever admit that you have ever done anything wrong. So a) was the only way forward, at least in the short term.
That committed the Minister to bad policy; having seen his Leader smearing shit on the walls, he proceeded to wallow in the cesspool himself. To be precise, he announced that the increase in the death-rate was obviously due to the rising death toll from AIDS, which was due to Thabo Mbeki. Problem solved. Except, of course, it wasn’t.
In the real world, between 2004 and 2008 the government allegedly put 600 000 people with AIDS on antiretrovirals. Maybe that isn’t true, but it was certainly the policy and what the Minister said had to do with policy since he wasn’t checking the facts. That number was allegedly about half of the people with AIDS in the country (though the number of people with AIDS is constantly increasing in the real world, and AIDS campaigners constantly change their statistics — two sets of figures with little in common). If you put half of the AIDS patients in the country on antiretrovirals, and if antiretrovirals are effective in the fight against AIDS, then that ought to bring the death rate from AIDS down. Since it has been the policy of the AIDS industry since 2001 to claim that the AIDS death rate can be derived from the crude death rate, the AIDS death rate ought to have powerful influence on the crude death rate, and a decline in one ought to lead to a decline in the other.
Oddly enough, the crude death rate had supposedly remained almost static between 2004 and 2007, fluctuating between 500 000 and 600 000. The sudden hike in 2008 was an anomaly. But all this is the exact opposite of what anyone who takes the AIDS industry’s public relations seriously should believe. The crude death rate ought to have been declining, not remaining static and then whirling inexplicably upward.
The only way to link this directly with AIDS policy failures is to assume that the antiretroviral programme is not working (whether because the campaigners against antiretrovirals are right, or because — perhaps more plausibly — the antiretroviral programme is being shamefully mismanaged by incompetent staff, lazy managers and NGO monitors who don’t care about effective treatment). Indirectly, it could be linked with AIDS if you believe that so much money and effort is being directed towards the provision of antiretrovirals that basic health care is being undermined and many more people without AIDS are dying in consequence. Or you could believe that the whole state system is disintegrating so that children, the sick and infirm are being killed off in vast numbers through malnutrition and crime. (Not really plausible, but at least possible.)
All this could have been said, but of course was not. Instead, the journalists went along with the line that there was something mildly amiss with the stats — not anything wrong with their calculation or with the people pretending to calculate them, but with the numbers themselves.
And then the Minister of Health proceeded to say that statistics did not matter, what mattered was that people were getting treated. After which, of course, he was fired from the Cabinet the following day, and when he next appeared in his favourite haunt, the King Leopold II Cigar Lounge in Sandton, everybody threw food at him and he was forced to flee in ignominy. No, that last sentence isn’t true, alas. There was no comment at all in response to his statement, which was equivalent to “Who cares how many people dies so long as we go through the motions?”, which in turn is equivalent to Heinrich Himmler’s “If a thousand Jewish females die digging a ditch, who cares so long as the ditch gets dug?”
OK, we can agree that this is an irretrievably broken situation and move on now away from the crucial question of pretending that there is such a thing as AIDS denialism, to pretending that you are challenging global warming denialism.
To be precise, the press splashed the glorious story that South Africa was going to Copenhagen with the pledge to cut its greenhouse gas emissions — by 35%. Hurrah! We lead the world, just as we scored a tremendous triumph at the World Cup by holding a drunken street party in Long Street, Cape Town.
But, um, how are we supposedly going to do that? We do not have the capacity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while we are building a massive new sequence of coal-fired power-plants. Nor are we building an immense new public transport system, based on long-range rail to replace road haulage or light rail to replace urban transport, which could reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide, monoxide and ozone by our cars, trucks and inefficient buses. In short, we are not going to cut our greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, we are going to increase our greenhouse gas emissions, quite substantially. How will that play at Copenhagen? (Copenhagen is a swindle, of course, as any sane person observing the situation would have expected, but this is not a reason to repudiate the ideals upon which the swindle is based.)
Well, the answer turns out to be simple. The press got it wrong, or lied. We are not going to cut our greenhouse gas emissions. What we are going to do, is to cut their rate of increase by 35% in ten years’ time or so — that is, the time when our current programme of coal-fired power station building comes to an end. (Assuming that we don’t come up with another programme of increasing the production of greenhouse gases in some other way.)
To be succinct, all this means that we are lied to in various fronts and fields. (Interestingly, AIDS denialism is often lumped with global warming denialism, whereas the people who oppose AIDS denialism are often global warming denialists because they love corporations so much.) What is, of course, blindingly obvious is that we are lied to. So what is also obvious is that we do not mind being lied to. Or that we don’t care.
There’s a sudden effusion of smelly stuff, as if a boil had burst. The smelly stuff is the well-funded insistence by overpromoted “independent” researchers that AIDS is not a disease of poverty. This derives from the “research” of a registrar at UCT named Kenyon, and a Pro-Vice-Chancellor at UKZN named Karim.
The countries which suffer most from AIDS on the planet are poor countries. The most AIDS-ridden continent, Africa, is also the poorest continent; the second most AIDS-ridden continent, Asia, is the second poorest continent. Meanwhile, the two richest continents, North America and Europe, have extraordinarily low levels of AIDS. In Africa, AIDS is spreading most where the poorest people live. This is conspicuous in South Africa, of course, where the poorest racial group (Africans) suffers an order of magnitude more AIDS than any other. The poorest parts of the country — the rural areas — are especially heavily hit despite the lack of transport and communications in those areas.
So the evidence contradicts the “research”. However, when medical research contradicts the obvious, perhaps they know something the rest of us don’t. What does physiology tell us?
In all diseases, the poor are the most vulnerable. They eat less healthily than the rich, on average. (Of course some rich people wreck their livers with booze or their psyches with crack, and these people are vulnerable to disease.) In addition the rich have greater access to medical care, meaning that their immune systems have to work less hard (except when the medical care damages their immune systems, as it sometimes does). Rich people are psychologically healthier because their lives are more secure than those of poor people, which makes their bodies less vulnerable to threats. Therefore, what K and K are telling us is that HIV and AIDS are completely different from every other disease — AIDS is completely decoupled from the physiological state of the people involved.
Admittedly, there are factors which confuse the issue. When poor people get AIDS, they tend to die. Antiretrovirals can sometimes keep them alive for a while, but without adequate medical treatment, without proper food, without safety, they die. When rich people get AIDS, they tend to live. Antiretrovirals are most effective for people who have something to live for (exactly like cancer therapy). What this means is that people who develop AIDS will live longer if they are rich than if they are poor. But then this means that there will be proportionally more rich people with AIDS, as compared with rich people who are HIV+, than poor people with AIDS as compared with poor people who are HIV+. Any serious observer who wanted to compare the infection rates of rich versus poor people would have to account for this.
Furthermore, rich people are less afraid of AIDS and more prepared to talk about it, because they think that it isn’t a problem. If you believe the TAC’s propaganda, nobody who takes antiretrovirals ever suffers or dies. Rich people are much more likely to believe such propaganda than poor people, because their experience has been that they can buy themselves out of any crisis. Hence, rich people are more likely to acknowledge their status, at least anonymously, whereas poor people are more likely to be in denial about it.
However, in most of South Africa, but even more so everywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa, there is very little knowledge of either AIDS or HIV status. There is very little testing, and what testing happens is not reliably passed on to authorities. In other words, it is likely that there is drastic undercounting, particularly in the poorest areas, the rural areas, and the poorest countries. The UNAIDS statistics appear to exist independently of this problem — they are presented as if every country had completely accurate status testing. This is plainly nonsense, although it is possible that the UNAIDS statistics are more accurate than their provenance justifies. (That is, the desire by AIDS activists to exaggerate the facts compensates for the lack of accurate facts.) But therefore, a close analysis based on medical statistics probably leads to a gross overcounting of urban and affluent HIV+ and AIDS status and a gross undercounting of rural and poor status.
Now, neither of the Ks have taken account of these matters. Their work is thus worthless. The term “AIDS denialist” is already taken, so what should we call the Ks? Perhaps we should simply call bullshit and be done with it. However, why should medical researchers wish to bullshit about the idea that poor people are more liable to suffer from AIDS (or any other disease) than rich people?
To answer this question it is worth going back to 2000, when President Mbeki addressed the Durban Conference on HIV/AIDS and told them that the real problem was poverty which fostered AIDS. He was roundly denounced by everybody for saying something which was blindingly obvious to everybody who looked at the structure of the AIDS epidemic. Hence, as far back as 2000, the people supposedly most concerned with the disease were pretending that it had nothing to do with poverty.
Equally interesting is that Zackie Achmat, who had previously been a Trotskyite (and therefore ought to know something about poverty) said the same thing. What people need, he said, following the TAC line, is not food, not health care, but drugs. Hence the campaign against the National Association of People Living With AIDS, which argued that perhaps HIV+ people should eat more and better. Hence the campaign against Health Minister MaNtombazana Tshabalala-Msimang, whose call for HIV+ people to eat the food which most nutritionists recommend for buttressing the immune system (garlic, olive oil and lemon — delicious!) was denounced, ridiculed and condemned by people who knew nothing about either nutrition or the immune system — but what was interesting was that the nutritionists who were recommending the food were all keeping silent about the Health Minister.
A line developed in which it was impossible to talk about feeding people with AIDS. (One could argue that the dodgy Matthias Raath, who advised people to take his vitamin supplements instead of antiretrovirals, was a justification for this — but Raath’s misbehaviour was in arguing against antiretrovirals; there was actually no reason for HIV+ people not to take his innocuous pills.)
One reason for such extremism might have been scepticism about Mbeki’s agenda. Had Achmat been an honest Trotskyite, he would have asked why Mbeki wasn’t doing anything for the poor, whom he claimed to be supporting. Then he’d have had to eat a slice of humble pie when, along with free antiretrovirals, came the social grants system for subsidising people who are HIV+. It’s not clear how much good these have done for the disease (though they are very important for wealth redistribution, albeit this is ignored by most leftists). However, that’s not because food is irrelevant to the disease — it’s because there is almost no research into the efficacy of any South African AIDS treatment or prevention strategies. The research, instead, is going either towards cures which obviously don’t work, or towards politically-motivated projects like that of the Ks.
For this is the point: healthy HIV+ people can probably stave off AIDS for a while through eating well. Sick HIV+ people need proper medical care (and good food) in order to take full advantage of antiretrovirals. But mass nutrition programmes are expensive, and so is improving South Africa’s broken public health-care system. It takes money away from buying drugs. People like the Ks and Mark Heywood of the TAC (now on the National AIDS Council, where he is probably doing as much good as Dr. Duesberg did on the Presidential AIDS panel) are only concerned with the scale of drug purchase. The TAC actively campaigns against both food and health care, for these get in the way of buying drugs (and if one suspects that the real agenda is drug-company profits, well, who’d be really surprised?).
If you are rich, you can afford to eat well. If you are rich, you can afford good health-care because you can go private. Poor people and rich people get the same triple therapy, but they don’t get it in the same context. Therefore, to campaign against feeding HIV+ people, and to campaign against giving them better health-care than the odd handful of pills flung at them by a slovenly nurse, is to campaign for a massive class divide between the treatment of rich and poor. It is a form of class warfare.
Also, if your chief agenda is buying drugs, obviously you are going to deny that anything except drugs is important. It is then natural to accuse anybody who wants to feed people or look after them better, of irrational hatred of drugs. One begins to see why the “AIDS denialist” trope has survived more than five years after the antiretroviral programme began, and more than a year after President Mbeki was railroaded out of office. It’s not just about distracting public attention from the criminal incompetence of the Zuma regime, although that is important. It’s also about preventing people from treating AIDS like a normal disease, instead of a mysterious curse to be lifted through the magical intervention of AZT (or, preferably, something even more expensive), like the opposite of Kryptonite.
This is where the bullshit comes in, and to defend the bullshit freedom of speech and thought and suchlike matters have to go. Such totalitarianism cannot be restrained to only one area, so while the AIDS propagandists are themselves only concerned with doing the bidding of their corporate handlers, they are (no doubt inadvertently) poisoning the whole of our society. (Whatever Kenyon’s politics are, a Pro-Vice-Chancellor at UKZN is necessarily a tyrannical sleazeoid, since he is necessarily doing the bidding of the reactionary enemy of the people, William Makgoba.) But you won’t read about any of this stuff in the papers or see it on TV, so that isn’t considered a problem. “Who controls the future controls the present, who controls the present, controls the past.” Viva Big Brother!
Shaun de Waal is one of the less unattractive figures working for the Mail and Guardian; he is almost the only surviving intelligent film reviewer in the media. (He is conceited and pretentious, of course, but who isn’t? Except for the Creator, who has nothing to pretend, and when you are supreme there is no question of conceit.) However, he has the foible that he does not think that his newspaper supports Jacob Zuma.
Huh? One thinks back to the “hundred days” columns, when the Mail and Guardian, along with all other newspapers, frantically cast about for pretexts through which Zuma could be praised, usually declaring that Zuma’s rhetoric was cause enough for adulation. In that newspaper Zuma’s corruption, personal immorality and public dishonesty have simply been painted over, like whitewashing fresh dogshit. In that newspaper the iron tyranny which has settled on the shoulders of the ANC’s membership represents liberation, the broad-spectrum policy vacuum is the glorious wisdom of the triumphant Left, and so on and so forth ad potentially infinitum. Should we assume that De Waal does not read his own newspaper? (In which, to judge by the huge stacks of old Mail and Guardians carried off by attendants from supermarket shelves every Friday, De Waal’s practice would coincide with the reading public).
No, De Waal is trying to support his newspaper. Perhaps he actually believes that his newspaper does not support Zuma — being homosexual, he presumably feels personally uncomfortable about backing a homophobe, however much De Waal might endorse Zuma’s other reactionary and proto-fascist tendencies. Perhaps he wants the public to believe that his newspaper does not support Zuma, and hopes to get away with such a transparent lie. (South African journalists passionately hate the existence of competing voices, which is why they hated Thabo Mbeki’s “ANC Today” column and probably why De Waal is denouncing a weblog read by seven people on exceptionally good days.)
What we are dealing with is the way in which a newspaper camouflages its real political agenda in order to win sympathy for that agenda from people who, if they were clear-sighted, would shy away from that agenda. The Creator dons horn-rimmed gig-lamps and continues.
In the beginning was the Rand Daily Mail, which was not a very good newspaper though it had the reputation of being the best newspaper in South Africa. (Like being the kindest crematorium attendant in Treblinka.) That newspaper was shut down because its proprietors wanted to suck up to the apartheid state while saving money. Some of its most solid personnel set up Business Day, which was a commercial venture. The idealistic ones set up the Weekly Mail, which was dependent on foreign assistance (mainly Scandinavian, apparently).
For five years the Weekly Mail was run by people who were clearly enjoying themselves. The Creator can testify to how much fun it was to cover the news of the day, simply because it was so extraordinarily easy to get scoops. One had only to ring up one’s friends and learn stuff which wasn’t going into the commercial press because the commercial press were all collaborating with the regime. It was as if one could run headlines like “COME OFF IT, UNCLE JOE” in competition with Pravda during Stalin’s rule. The only problem was that hardly anybody wanted to hear that stuff, apart from the ninety-five percent of the population who didn’t read newspapers.
Then the funding was pulled and the Weekly Mail died. It was killed off rather suddenly by Anton Harber (Caxton Professor of Journalism, and no doubt Durex Professor of Virginity) who scammed it into a daily paper without proper planning after getting rid of the too-idealistic Irwin Manoim. After the killing, the carcase — the logo, the leftie readership and the least competent journalists — were bought out by the Guardian Group in London, who had their own ideas about what foreign control of a South African newspaper was all about and proceeded to show it.
They installed a new set of staff at the paper — particular the managing editor, one David Beresford. He in his turn hired the very, very interesting Howard Barrell as political editor. Barrell was interesting because, as a completely undistinguished insignificant white leftie, he suddenly fled the country and joined the ANC in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe was the least significant place for the ANC to be in the late 1980s; there were no structures of substantial political significance, although there was a lot of room for picking up gossip and keeping an eye on the occasional gangs of white liberals “negotiating” with the future leaders of the country.
After the unbanning of the ANC, Barrell came back as a member of the ANC (writing a rather thin history of MK), but soon became European correspondent for the Independent group. After a spell in Europe he suddenly returned home purged of all sympathy for the ANC whatsoever and announced his conversion to Washington Consensus neoliberalism. He was almost immediately hired as political editor by the new Mail and Guardian.
Weird, eh? Barrell’s rise was rapid under Beresford. His reactionary, anti-ANC, West-centred political agenda soon dominated the newspaper. It wasn’t long before he was its editor. The late 1990s was a very interesting time politically, and Barrell used his opportunities to pursue several important objectives. One was to support Cyril Ramaphosa, the mining magnates’ choice, for President of the ANC. One was to support a royalist military coup against the elected government of Lesotho. One was to support the Ugandan/Rwandan invasion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
That’s all, er, intriguing. Support for Ramaphosa was perhaps not so surprising, since Ramaphosa was notoriously subservient before rich and powerful white people, and his alternative was Thabo Mbeki, who notoriously was not. However, the support for the coup in Lesotho was particularly interesting because Barrell ran a number of fake articles written by a mysterious figure named “William Boot” who supposedly was a white man living in Lesotho and who just adored the coup plotters. These articles were disinformation, artfully constructed; it was extraordinarily unlikely that Barrell himself knew enough to have written them. On the other hand, it seemed odd that anyone genuinely concerned for a right-wing reaction in Lesotho should adopt the pen-name of an Evelyn Waugh character from the early 1930s. No, these articles had probably been generated from somewhere else.
The DRC articles had certainly been generated from somewhere else. The invasion of the DRC was launched in association with an attempted coup by Mobutuist forces in the western DRC. It was supposedly launched by guerrillas, well-supplied with high-tech equipment, acting as a front for the armies of the two American-backed Great Lakes powers. It stank to heaven of global imperialism, and so the Mail and Guardian refused to cover anything except Western newspaper reports and Western-oriented propaganda about it.
South Africa had no interest in the Rwandan/Ugandan invasion succeeding. However, it appears that Britain had a big stake in the invasion; it also appears that the United States did, for they both imposed arms sanctions not only on the DRC but also on Zimbabwe, the DRC’s most important military ally (and absolutely necessary, since for the first year of the war the DRC barely possessed an army). This was enthusiastically endorsed by the newspaper.
Meanwhile, when South Africa invaded Lesotho to head off the coup, the Mail and Guardian ran a string of false stories exaggerating the chaos which erupted in Maseru and falsely claiming that the South Africans would face guerrilla warfare. So on the one hand the newspaper supported aggression on a genocidal scale (the DRC war is widely held to have led to the death of several million people) while on the other hand it did what it could to undermine a democratic government and to prevent that government from enjoying regional support. Hmm.
Then we notice that the Guardian at this time was very, very close to the British government, and we also notice that New Labour was very supportive of British imperialism in Africa. Now, it is perfectly possible that Barrell was not personally on the Foreign Office payroll. It is possible that he just happened to support them so completely that he might as well have been.
But it was awfully interesting, too, whom Barrell liked to hire. Like young Stefaans Brümmer, covering the war in former Yugoslavia from the Croatian side (that is, the side most linked with NATO and the United States). Later, Brümmer covered the war in Afghanistan as a more or less embedded journalist with the U.S. military there. Like young Justin Pearce, necessarily covering the war in Angola from Luanda, which happened to be controlled by the MPLA, but making no secret of his support for the UNITA movement which just happened to be associated with the United States (although the U.S., with its characteristic principled stand, happily snuggled up with the MPLA once they had defeated UNITA’s attempt to reverse the results of the 1992 election).
Which takes us down to the end of the 1990s. It was then that Barrell introduced the concept of AIDS denialism to South Africa. The concept appeared first in the Mail and Guardian, later in other newspapers, and only much later in the Treatment Action Campaign. (The TAC first had to purge itself of people like Mazibuko Jara, an actual principled Marxist who was concerned about people with AIDS and therefore complete anathema to the corporate spin-doctors of the TAC.) One of the big issues in the affair was, of course, the question of the excessive pricing of AZT, which was manufactured by Glaxo, which had recently acquired the huge British pharmaceutical company Wellcome.
It was also then that the Mail and Guardian ran the story that Thabo Mbeki was the brains behind all the corruption in the arms deal. This was a difficult story to sustain, since the most obvious people involved in the arms deal were the Shaik family whose links with Jacob Zuma (who was in charge of the arms deal) were no secret, but the story was sustained by the simple expedient of not focussing on Zuma and not focussing on Schabir Shaik but on Chippy Shaik (whose links with Zuma, like Schabir’s brother Mo’s links with Zuma, were less evident). One of the big issues in the arms deal was, of course, the British Aerospace angle; British Aerospace were intensely unpopular in Britain and it was important for the British government to pretend to be investigating them in a field which would not lead to anything. (Actually, there is little evidence that BAe played a big role in corruption around the arms deal — partly because the main player in that part of the deal was the Swedish firm SAAB.)
It was also then that the Mail and Guardian ran the story that Thabo Mbeki was a staunch supporter of ZANU (PF) in Zimbabwe. This again was a difficult story to sustain, since — quite apart from Mbeki’s frequent criticisms of ZANU (PF)’s policies — it was well-known that Mbeki had used Zimbabwe under ZANU (PF) as a bad example to legitimate his pet GEAR policy. This was sustained, again, by ignoring the real issues. The British government was very keen to demonise ZANU (PF) and ran a large-scale project against them, financing their opposition (the MDC) and supporting the opposition newspapers such as the Daily News of Harare.
In other words, the three main deception operations run by the Mail and Guardian between 1999 and 2002 were operations which happened to favour British government policies at those times. Barrell worked closely with the white right-wing Democratic Party/Democratic Alliance, and the Mail and Guardian ran a lot of DP/DA propaganda (shifting sharply from sympathy for the ANC in 1994 to covert support for the DA in 1999 through to open support for the DA in 2004, and playing an important propaganda role in the DP’s takeover of the old National Party). However, this does not seem to have been its primary objective (significantly, it never attempted to promote individuals within the DA before the rise to power of Helen Zille, and was even mildly critical of the DA’s repugnant leader Tony Leon).
By 2002, however, the newspaper had essentially shot its bolt. None of its propaganda operations had succeeded in the sense of improving the political situation for either the white right-wing in South Africa, or the British government, or global neoliberalism. On the contrary, the ANC was firmly in the saddle and the neoliberals were all but excluded from power (the DA’s internal squabbling handed power to the ANC in Cape Town temporarily, and the Western Cape until 2009). More to the point, the Mail and Guardian’s hysterical hatred for the ANC, while it appealed to the white right-wing which was the core of the anti-ANC coalition, was not a way to win over anyone outside that fairly narrow band.
There did seem to be possibilities of this happening. Already in 2002 the Treatment Action Campaign was sounding out Jacob Zuma as a possible ally. He was, of course, the do-nothing head of the government’s AIDS programme (which was really run, because of Zuma’s idleness and self-obsession, by Mbeki and Health Minister Tshabalala-Msimang). However, the TAC leaped to support for Zuma — obviously not because of his policies or his practices, but almost certainly because of his obvious pliable conservatism. Mbeki had appointed him because he was personable and would do what he was told — qualities which naturally appealed to the South African white elite, too. Could Zuma possibly be the right weapon?
But in that case, Barrell would have to go. The Mail and Guardian’s circulation figures were inflated and its profits were faked. It was easy to stage a bankruptcy which created the impression that there was going to be a dramatic change in the newspaper. (Beresford was also falling ill with Parkinson’s disease, and was eventually packed off — conceivably this made it easier to get rid of Barrell, although unfortunately Beresford’s daughter stayed on for an unbearably long time as in-house pharmaceutical-company publicist). The newspaper was trumpeted as having been bought by Trevor Ncube, a Zimbabwean. At last, the newspaper had been Africanised! The curse of white reactionary politics was lifting (not that it would ever have been admitted before).
Of course this was bullshit. Ncube was the front-man running the British-funded loss-making newspapers in Zimbabwe, which had recently closed down because they dared not face the new media regulations in that country (which had been specifically designed to expose foreign control). He had essentially no cash of his own; significantly, he “bought” the newspaper through a Botswanan-incorporated shell company (and the Botswanan government is in the back pocket of the West, which may help explain this). It seems possible — even probable — that this represented a much more direct control by the British Foreign Office of the newspaper, no longer having to work through the Guardian (which was occasionally critical of British policy) or through relatively unreliable local journalists like Barrell (who had used his position to fight his private vendettas against real or imagined enemies in the local press). So Ferrial Haffajee, a colourless, odourless, tasteless figure, was installed.
By 2004 it was becoming increasingly obvious that Zuma was a crook. Despite the efforts of the Mail and Guardian to distract attention away from Zuma and pretend that Mbeki was the real criminal (which did not take much creativity, as no evidence had to be deployed) the net was closing on him. It is possible that the neoliberals genuinely feared that Zuma was being attacked because he was moving closer towards them, and that this explains their increasingly strident defense of Zuma across the entire press establishment (but particularly in the Mail and Guardian). It is less likely, however, that this was true; throughout his last four years, Mbeki worked very hard to try to protect Zuma from suffering the full consequences of his actions. Ironically, but for Mbeki’s loyalty in return for services rendered, Zuma would certainly not now be President.
As will be remembered, in 2005 came the trial of Shaik which confirmed that Zuma was a crook. The Mail and Guardian devoted an immense amount of effort to trying to prove that the trial was a frame-up. It ran innumerable stories from the Zuma camp, particularly cloaked by spurious left-wing propaganda. (The newspaper was the core force which constructed the myth of Zuma’s left-wing populism — a notion which was obviously promoted by Zuma’s handlers, but which could never have become part of white received wisdom if the newspaper had not repeated it over and over.) In essence, the crimes of Zuma were covered up because the ruling class now recognised that Zuma, having openly broken with Mbeki, could be manipulated into a tool for wrecking the ANC.
This was duly done. Significantly, the Mail and Guardian was much more stridently hostile about Zuma’s rape trial than about Zuma’s potential corruption trial, and for good reason. The newspaper, for one thing, knew that Zuma was bound to get off; rich people are almost never found guilty of rape in South Africa because it is pathetically easy to exploit the sexism and corruption of the judges in such an episode. Meanwhile, attacking Zuma for his sexual thuggery played well in the white community (where kaffir penises are a constant source of panic) without having any impact at all on the black community (where patriarchal violence is covertly endorsed even though publicly condemned). Most significantly, the big criticism of Zuma was that he had taken a shower after unprotected sex with an HIV+ woman (which might have reduced his infection risk, but was not usable as pharmaceutical-company propaganda). Hence this became the focus of criticism of Zuma over the entire issue; the question of rape rapidly faded from sight.
Thereafter, of course, the purpose of the Mail and Guardian’s political propaganda was to present Zuma as an unstoppable force of the people, as opposed to Mbeki who was weak, corrupt and out of touch with the masses. Once again this had a two-sided significance; while Zuma’s backers were happy because they were being supported, the concept of the “people” naturally panics white racists at home and abroad. Thus, paradoxically, the newspaper’s support for Zuma boosted both the opposition and Zuma’s support base. Meanwhile, promoting Zuma as a stupid buffoon who was nevertheless going to win undermined the traditional Mandela-Mbeki approach of dignity and expertise; it thus prepared the way for Julius Malema and the MK Veterans’ Association.
One must not take this all too far. The Mail and Guardian is not wholly responsible for our current mess. There is no doubt, however, that on every substantive issue in South African domestic and foreign policy, and in every political crisis, the newspaper has come down firmly on the side of the ruling-class, which usually means that it has come down on the side of greed, corruption and incompetence. More to the point, it is a newspaper which tells an incredible number of lies (its front-page story is almost invariably a lie nowadays, whereas even under Howard Barrell it told the truth almost half the time). In other words, not only is it a reactionary, plutocratic enemy of the people and tool of global imperialism, but it’s also a lousy newspaper.