So, these three directors of ESCOM walk into a bar, see . . .
South Africa has no good stand-up comedians, otherwise a joke like that almost writes itself. It only lacks a punchline. Fortunately, ESCOM and the “Electricity Regulator of South Africa” (ESCOM in a silly hat) have provided the punch, which can be summed up in a line.
Electricity tariffs up 71% in three years.
Notice, that’s allowing for inflation. In simple rands, the increase is 98%. And, of course, ESCOM was asking for 146%, so we are told this is a bargain. It is, of course, a bargain, but not a bargain for us electricity consumers; it’s a bargain for the multinational companies which will buy ESCOM’s assets on the cheap, divvy them up and stuff our money into their big pockets in the Cayman Islands. There is no longer any room for doubt that this process is all about facilitating electricity privatisation; the corporate financial consultants are now admitting it. Meanwhile, the fact that Barbara Hogan, our Minister for (Privatisation of) Public Enterprises, has declared that private consumers should pay more for electricity so that the poor corporate electricity users can have an easier time of it (she didn’t quite use those words, instead lying by pretending that the corporate users didn’t pay less for electricity, which they do) , we know what the score is.
Well, we aren’t supposed to know what the score is. No news outlet at all has pointed out what is happening now. Let alone the ENRON-style scam which made it possible, by panicking the lame-duck Mbeki government into allowing ESCOM to first order massively overpriced new power plants in an unnecessary rush, and then blackmail the government into massively subsidising the excessive payment. However, Mbeki’s bungling could have been reversed; the Zuma government has locked the system into place, while big business has helped it out by systematically lying. But you can tell what’s going on behind the curtain because of the orgasmic shrieks of the fat cats.
This is what the Creator has been saying for some time, but it gives no pleasure to know it. Note, please, that this increased cost of electricity translates into less corporate investment, less small business development and less consumer spending, therefore slower economic growth. It also translates into more inflation, therefore higher interest rates, therefore less borrowing for investment. These are mostly, probably, small effects, but they are there, and a few economists are even admitting that they are there, though of course these economists nevertheless support increased electricity prices because their best friends are getting the cash and some will trickle down to them. (Virtually all economists are corporate economists, these days.)
More to the point, the buying out of ESCOM will not represent more wealth for South Africa. It is extremely unlikely that ESCOM will be sold for enormous sums. Instead, it will be sold off piecemeal, to various buyers (often, of course, fronts for the same multinational) which will make it possible a) to charge much larger consultancy fees kicked back to individuals involved in the deal, amongst whom will undoubtedly be Hogan and her friends, and b) to conceal the actual cost of the sale, which will be low. Then, of course, the profits will leave the country. Within a couple of years, this capital flight will be more than the entire sum obtained from the sale of ESCOM’s assets. And every year after that the capital will continue to flow out of the country. It is like our mining companies moving overseas.
Meanwhile, there will be as little investment in electrical infrastructure as possible. If you don’t like that, move somewhere else where the state owns the electricity companies. But don’t blame the companies providing the electricity. Blame the government. The newspapers will tell you to, because they will be paid by the companies providing the electricity.
What’s also interesting is that Hogan has hinted that the new price will fall particularly heavily on rural electricity users. Those lights that are on in the valley? Those lights are going to go out. It’s cheaper to supply electricity to the cities than to the countryside. The whole ANC push to electrify the villages and thus give poor children the opportunity to study after dark is going to be reversed.
The Creator was right about all this just because this is how things work in this modern world (™Tom Tomorrow). However, you might, if you have been paying any attention at all, be a little surprised by one of the features of these remarkable developments. This is the massive uprising against the electricity price increases and the openly proposed privatisation of electricity companies, the great electricity war, rivalling or exceeding the water war in Bolivia eleven years ago.
You might be surprised; why didn’t this happen?
It is true that the trade unions have made a noise about this affair. To be precise, the white union Solidarity has complained that the electricity price increase will be bad for business. (That surely tells you what you need to know about Solidarity; a trade union so passionately concerned with the rights of employers.) COSATU has said that it is “unacceptable” that this electricity price increase is so high. However, neither trade union has said anything about either a) the scam around a supposed need for more power plants (the need was less great than claimed, and it was filled by tremendously overpriced plants purchased without competitive bidding), or b) the whole privatisation project, in which we are paying to provide ESCOM with both plant and profits calculated to make privatisation more attractive. Why aren’t the trade unions talking about these things? Why aren’t they noting that this whole affair is straight out of the neoliberalism IMF/WTO handbook, the kind of thing Naomi Klein and Arundhati Roy used to write about?
They aren’t mentioning these things because their workers are very, very concerned about such issues. South African workers are not stupid and they can join the dots. Point out the extent of ESCOM’s crookery and the workers will scream. They’ll scream and demand action, because this is a gun pointed at their heads. They know that the goal of big business is to cut their wages and destroy the Labour Relations Act, and they will easily see that expensive privatised electricity is a strong potential tool to enable businesses to say “We can’t afford high wages or high employment any more because of this pesky electricity thing”.
Electricity market flexibility equals labour market flexibility?
So you’d think that the unions would mention these things, not so? Except, of course, if they do that, if they get their workers het up, then the workers might demand that they stop these things from happening. They have the clout to do so, too. If the workers of COSATU so desired, they could stop Hogan in her tracks, not to mention all the corporate consultancy Sirens singing in Hogan’s unblocked ears.
But the leaders of COSATU don’t want that. The leaders of COSATU make much of their money from COSATU’s corporate investments. They are also, most of them, engaged in BEE scams, getting directorships in white companies in order to act as black front-men in pursuit of government contracts and good PR. In short, the interests of the leaders of COSATU and the members of COSATU are diametrically opposed. What’s more, COSATU’s leaders are getting a good deal out of the Zuma government, which they supported and which is now pressing for privatisation. The Zuma government survives by virtue of the support of big business. COSATU does not want to rock Zuma’s boat — to do so would have to be to admit that the leaders of COSATU took all their workers into battle on behalf of Zuma on false pretenses, at the behest of big business. If they admitted that, the leaders of COSATU would be lucky to get out of town with their pants still on.
So that’s why the unions are urging their members to look over here, at the increased price, and not over there, at the process by which the increased price was obtained and the purpose for which it was introduced.
But, thank God, we have the Trotskyites. They have not benefited from any of these corporate matters, being principled Marxists of the Leninist (but definitely not Stalinist, Maoist, Titoist or Bolivarian) stamp. We have Patrick Bond, Richard Pithouse, Ebrahim Harvey and Ashwin Desai. We have the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee dedicated to promoting the cause of cheap (actually, free) electricity. We have the Anti-Privatization Forum, which, its name subtly hints, is devoted to discussing opposition to privatization. Well, the Creator has been critical enough of the Trotskyites, but at least they are there when we need them.
Wait a minute. Where are they? In the old days you could be sure that when there was an opportunity for a bit of good PR, the Trots would be there in the nearest friendly township, handing out T-shirts and lunchpacks to anyone willing to hop in the back of the van and drive to where a demonstration was required. There might have been only a dozen Trots, but thanks to the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation there would always be funding for a modest mob to stand and chant, and be photographed carefully for the newspapers to indicate the mass support for whatever was being chanted.
There were plenty of occasions last month for this. The electricity regulator was holding “public hearings” (basically opportunities for those fat-cats who weren’t in on the deals to whinge ineffectually). Had the Trots been there, possibly relevant issues could have been raised. Instead, they were not. Not the APF, not the SECC, not anybody. It’s as if they didn’t exist.
Why did the Trotskyites suddenly decide that the primary issue which they had campaigned about for fourteen years, namely the contention that the ANC was going to sell the people out to foreign big business and privatise state assets, no longer mattered? Was it because the ANC is selling the people out to foreign big business and privatising state assets? Can it be that the Trotskyites were supported, not actually to prevent the ANC from doing these things, but to undermine those elements in the ANC which did not wish to do these things? Can it be that the Trotskyites are just as corrupt as COSATU, and in precisely the same way?
Gosh, the concept of a corrupt, dishonest Trotskyite is so shocking to the Creator that it’s just impossible to go on. Sorry. Loss of illusions is a terrible thing to experience. Next you know, it’ll turn out that my tooth wasn’t taken by a fairy . . .
So, these three directors of ESCOM walk into a bar, see . . .
There was nothing especially surprising about the first Zuma budget, presented by the fat-cat’s inflatable dolly Pravin Gordhan. There was not even an interesting neoliberalism. It was just cheese-paring abuse of the poor, coupled with trivial gifts to the rich, alongside a willingness to waste money and run up needless, heedless deficits. Nothing what would not have been expected; everything characteristic of Zuma.
As is always the case with every Budget, this one was welcomed with preposterous enthusiasm by the press. This ballyhoo is surely what is interesting about the affair. What was it about the Budget which made them so enthusiastic? Some, like the laughable Niren Tolsi of the Mail and Guardian, were told to say that it was a left-wing budget which was serving the poor. It is difficult to know what to make of such people. Possibly this signifies that South African journalists have been fed on publicity-agent pabulum for so long that they are incapable of reading or listening. Possibly, indeed more probably, they just don’t care.
Others, like Reg Rumney, former corporate spinmeister by appointment to the Mail and Guardian and now trying to crank out docile corporate hacks at Rhodes University, are a bit more in touch. Rumney, on the newspaper’s Orwellian “Thoughtleader” blog, revealed that he had allowed his students to read Gordhan’s speech. (A dangerous precedent, teaching journalists to read; next thing you know, they’ll be learning to write.) They had discovered that the language was about ninety percent bullshit. (They were not invited to test the dodgy figures which Gordhan larded his lying spiel with; they are only financial journalists in training, so need not bother to learn arithmetic.) Rumney’s conclusion was that Gordhan needed a course in presentation dynamics. With better presentation, argued Rumney, Gordhan stood a better chance of persuading his audience to try to shine their shoes with the shit he was selling.
Gullible imbeciles or willing stooges or toadies eager to polish arseholes with their tongues — I’m shocked! Shocked!
However, the thing with all this wondrous waffle is that it makes the Zuma government look good. Of course one may say that since the budget is more right-wing than any of Manuel’s budgets (none of the people critical of Manuel’s budgets had anything to say about this — Patrick Craven, COSATU’s bumsucker-in-chief, waffled on about inflation targeting and that was the most intelligent comment anybody made), the right wingers love it. But, realistically, right wingers want real righteous rightiness. This wasn’t really it. The real right-wing stuff will only come after the budget deficits provide an excuse for slashing services and abolishing social grants, which will be only in a couple of years, if it happens at all.
A clue, however, is that two weeks before the Budget the newspapers suddenly discovered that Jacob Zuma was a sleazeball. I mean, who could have guessed it? He had sex with the daughter of a soccer promoter, and did not wear a condom! What conceivable precedent for such bizarre conduct could have been imagined? The shocking details, including a great deal which was probably made up in the same coke-sprinkled rooms where South African PR agents invent campaigns to persuade us that South Africa’s ungainly models, talentless actrons and voiceless singers should be counter as celebrities, were on every outlet. Even the Sunday Times was appalled that Zuma had had sex with somebody. It was rather as if the entire media had been taken over lock, stock and barrel by spotty-faced thirteen-year-old nerdy virgins.
What the hell? A few people wondered whether Zuma was doing this himself, leaking stories about all the women he had made pregnant either to distract public attention from the real corruption and bungling which characterises his regime, or perhaps because he’s a thump-headed Zulu nationalist male chauvinist who thinks that all South Africans will be ready to believe that the sun shines out of his uncircumcised cock.
Perhaps, but not very likely and too Macchiavellian for the Zumatics. The issue goes wider. Most newspapers denounced Zuma’s State of the Nation address, pointing out, with perfect truth, that it was a mass of meaningless statements, empty promises and irrelevant remarks, and that Zuma delivered it both unconvincingly and incompetently. Of course, in order to say this, they had to pretend that this was something new, for that characterises all of Zuma’s public utterances since the unbanning of the ANC. Zuma is not a public speaker, nor is he capable of selling used cars. For the last five years the press has pretended that Zuma’s halting, flat delivery of incoherent, waffling texts is a sign of his true humanity and closeness to the People, in sharp contrast to Mbeki whose smooth, confident speeches on clear, relevant topics marked him out as someone not to be trusted (especially because Mbeki, with characteristic Mfengu duplicity, went around keeping his promises and thus fooled the ignorant masses into thinking he was honest).
But for a period the press started actually reporting on Zuma’s speeches in the way that the general public perceives them. This was a bit puzzling, unless you think that the press was genuinely troubled by Zuma’s sex life. Which is plausible — after all, look at Tiger Woods, look at Bill Clinton, even look at Paul Wolfowitz, who could slaughter a few hundred thousand people and destroy a dozen economies with no criticism from the press, but God forbid he should shag his tarty PA — that’s going beyond his mandate.
More plausibly, however, this is a kind of shot across Zuma’s bows. There is, for instance, the widespread press claim that unspecified ANC heavyweights have told him to keep his pants zipped in future. This is not a very believable claim, because Zuma appointed most of them. If they tell him to do something, he can simply ask “And precisely what are you going to do about it, comrade?” and they can have absolutely nothing to say. Also, nobody in the core of the ANC has any doubt about the kind of amoral, self-indulgent, indolent person Zuma is, and so it is impossible for them to pretend that this is a new development in Zuma. So this is surely a press lie, but the purpose of the press lie is to draw a distinction between Zuma himself and the ANC, thus showing that the press does not have to support Zuma in order to support the neoliberal tendency currently running the ANC.
The ruling class, running Zuma through a kind of remote control, is well aware that the control is not tight. Since the ruling class doesn’t really control the ANC, but only controls factional leaders within it (who run the ANC through their circle-jerking support for Zuma) they can’t afford to be too choosy about the tools they employ. Although the ruling class rarely learns anything, they are probably dimly aware that when they attacked Mbeki he simply went rogue and refused to do what he was told — whereupon they fired every cannon at him, and every one proved to be loaded with blank ammunition. After which they spent five years with no influence on the government whatsoever while Mbeki went from strength to strength, treating the press with the disdain they deserve and the ruling class with contempt which terrified them.
It’s unlikely that they want a re-run of that. But, Zuma is not Mbeki. He has no particular agenda he’d like to follow. He has, thus, less motive to be his own man. So when the ruling class threaten to give him a hard time in the newspapers, he is likely to sit up and take notice. What, he might ask, should he do in order to restore the press’s sycophancy?
The Budget hysteria is another shot in this barrage. The press’s praise for Gordhan is as preposterous as their former praise for Zuma. However, it is significant — even though Gordhan’s little speech was as soaked as a syrupy koeksuster in praise for the Dear Leader. Gordhan is Indian, so the white racists who make up the chief readership of the ruling-class press and the principal electorate of the ruling-class party can be happy with praising him. (Praise a black man and they feel rather uneasy; no doubt it has to be done, circumstances warrant it, but — is he really to be trusted? What if he cools his soup with his hat and pockets the silver teaspoons?) Gordhan has no political power-base of his own (the NIC has been fragmented by greed and selfishness) and thus he can never become a truly significant player. Alone, this characterless little apparatchik could never be built up into a threat to Zuma. But by showing that they can at least pretend to turn Gordhan into something which looks much more impressive than it is, the press is flexing a few muscles.
Zuma, remember, is still terrified of Trevor Manuel, whom he tried to fire repeatedly but has not yet been able to get rid of. Manuel raised himself up to a strong position by virtue of hard work, talent and a relationship with Mbeki which made Gordon Brown and Tony Blair look like Laurel and Hardy. However, Zuma probably doesn’t understand the work and talent bit, and certainly has no understanding of loyalty, and therefore not only fears Manuel, but fears the image of Manuel. An Indian Minister of Finance (and these Indians are crafty, unlike banjo-playing hotnotte like Manuel) — what if he makes a power play? What if he becomes Sultan Pravin I?
Don’t worry, say the journalists quietly. It won’t happen to you, Big Jake. Not if you do what you’re told and follow the script. You’ve been doing nicely so far and we’ve been good to you. You have a good thing going. Be a shame if we had to end it all, wouldn’t it?
For if the journalists threw their weight behind someone else of significance, in the service of the ruling class, then the SACP would probably go along (the SACP does nothing against the interests of the ruling class) and COSATU would follow behind and so would the rabble of neoliberals who cheer and stamp in Parliament on both sides of the House when someone says something stupidly reactionary. In which case Zuma would have to fight, and without money and power behind him, and in the utter absence of the people, could he win? He undoubtedly has no reason to wish to find out. Meanwhile, just to ram the point home, the ruling class is trying to destroy Julius Malema, whose silly attempts to position himself as a left-winger are biting him in his ample behind. (The ruling class shriek “How dare you express an opinion, you dreadful little darkie?” while the SACP booms “We are the only true fraudulent plutocrats pretending to be socialists in South Africa — reject all imitations!”).
No, Zuma doesn’t want that. He wants a quiet life with drinks, flatteries, perquisites and well-lubricated vaginas all immediately available without question or problems. And he’ll undoubtedly get that — in exchange for pushing South Africa and all its people over the cliff.
The indications are that South Africa is heading for disaster because of bad political leadership which compounds a bad political institutional culture. Let’s assume this — if it isn’t true, we lose nothing in a thought experiment — and ask how we can get out of this. Manifestly, we cannot change the institutional culture until we change the government, so we have to change the government. How do we do that?
In 2014 an election is due. It is quite possible that by this time, almost everybody will have agreed that the situation is dire. By then it is very probable that the fiscus will be irretrievably in deficit, capital flight will be rampant, unemployment soaring, the external debt rising as South Africa imports to make up for its failure to manufacture goods at home, and social services deteriorating or privatised.
However, it is remarkably unlikely that, assuming that the status quo persists, there will be a change of government in 2014. Note that in 2009 South Africa had a split ruling party which was led by a corrupt, selfish crook and yet that ruling party only lost a moderate amount of support, falling from 70% to 66% — a decline of 5,7%. The DA rose from 12% to 17,7%, an increase of 43%. However, this was an unusual accomplishment for the DA, explicable by the collapse of coloured ANC support in the Western Cape. It will be very hard for the DA to break into the african vote. Therefore, it is unlikely that african ANC supporters will change over to the DA. Much more likely is for ANC people to sit the election out.
But suppose that 2% of the ANC voters do go to the DA, and another 15% decide not to vote for Zuma. That means that 1,3% of the total electorate cross over, and 10% abstain, reducing the overall vote to only 90% of what it was. Hence, the DA would rise to 19,7/90, while the ANC would fall to 49/90. That translates to just 21,9% for the DA, and 54% for the ANC. That’s based on fairly extreme assumptions. It suggests that the ANC’s position, under present political conditions, is all but unassailable. (It’s likely to be less bad than that, in practice, because the collapse of CoPe will mean that some voters will return to the ANC, although doubtless a few would go elsewhere, and disaffected CoPe members who decided not to vote would raise the proportion of ANC voters.)
Why is it that it’s so hard to demolish the ANC? The answer is simple: there is no other party worth voting for. In the past the ANC has done a tolerably good job, and voters naturally hope that it will get even better in future. But if they fear that the ANC will do worse than it did in the past, they are still likely to voter for it, because all other parties are likely to do even worse than that.
Another problem is that the voting public is simply confused. Nobody, of course, is explaining to them what the core problem is. The ANC, of course, is not going to say “We are a gang of incompetent crooks, don’t vote for us”, but the other parties have been consistently accusing people of being incompetent crooks when they manifestly are not incompetent crooks. Therefore, even if the other parties denounce the ANC today with perfect accuracy (and for the most part they do not) no sensible voter believes them. The newspapers are similarly tainted with dishonesty in the eyes of ANC voters. However, both opposition parties and newspapers are generally more sympathetic towards Zuma’s ANC than they were towards Mandela’s and Mbeki’s ANC (since Zuma’s ANC represents something closer to what they want). Naturally, ANC voters take this endorsement with less of the grains of salt it deserves, than they would take hostility. Everybody likes to see that the party they support is praised by those who used to abuse it. What’s more, the specific problems with current ANC policies are, again, problems which the ruling class quite like to see. (Failures of “service delivery”, for instance, are desirable because the ruling class would like to reduce service delivery to a minimum, and these failures can be spun by the ruling class as the unfitness of government to provide social services.)
So what do we do?
If we can’t vote out the ANC, why not have a revolution? Good question. There is a contention among South African Trotskyites that this is indeed the answer. We have to notice, however, that these political organisations have never managed to poll as much as 1% of the vote in any municipality, and massively less than this in national polls. We are talking about, at most, a few hundred people, many of whom are hangers-on. This is not a force with which to overthrow a party numbering at least a third of a million, backed by 150 000 police officers and numerous other armed forces.
But, one may argue, the Bolsheviks were only a small group. Yes and no. The Bolsheviks were a minority of a large revolutionary socialist movement, which was a minority of a vast socialist movement, which was a minority of a majoritarian body of disaffected people. The Bolsheviks could simply don the insignia of the leaders of a revolutionary army, to find numerous people willing to serve as their infantry. What was more, they were, when the crunch came, the people who had the courage and the self-confidence to carry through their pledges, in sharp contrast to the Mensheviks, which greatly reduced the support of everybody else. And, needless to say, the two great Bolshevik successes, in 1905 and 1917, both happened in explicitly revolutionary circumstances when the public had lost faith in the capacity of the state to serve its interests — in both cases, economic crisis and a lost war, and in the latter case, a disaffected and mutinous armed forces, many of whom sided with the revolutionaries.
Only some of these conditions are likely to be met in South Africa. The armed forces are not going to be engaged in foreign wars. The ruling class is not going to become so confused and disaffected that it fails to act in its best interests in a crisis, or loses the capacity to act in its best interests because its agents have disappeared. Hence, although there may well be economic crisis and a disaffected mass public, the armed forces are likely to act on behalf of their paymasters. The ruling class is unlikely to endorse a socialist perspective which would inevitably act against the ruling class, however gently. Hence, any South African revolutionary overthrow of democracy would happen through military power rather than through popular power, would happen with the blessing of the anti-democratic ruling class, and would be aimed to suppress the working class. It would, in short, be much more like the seizures of power in Latin America in the 1970s; whether it would be a pure military coup, as in Chile, or a military coup working closely together with populist political forces, as in Argentina, the consequences would be the same.
It is probably painfully true that if this happened, many of our far-left brethren would welcome it. Their dedication to the ruling class, to authoritarianism and to elitism is always more passionate than their nominal pledges to serve the people.
But then, if we can’t overthrow the ANC by revolution with any hope of a favourable outcome, can’t we just kick out the rascals and remake the ANC in a healthier image?
That would seem logical. The Creator is not an ANC member, but presumably could join. ANC members surely cannot every one be a sleazeball. There must be some people who are intelligent enough, and principled enough, to develop an understanding of the appalling danger of rule by dishonesty. If only a couple of hundred such people banded together, they could spread the word among thousands of others.
There are perhaps a third of a million active ANC members, and that means that there are ten times as many ANC members as there are available sinecures. Overwhelmingly, ANC members support their party because they believe it is good, or at least because it is better than any alternative available. If they were persuaded by a growing movement within the ANC that their party no longer reflected that best interest, but also if they could manage to change the ANC into something better (more capable of running the country and also more capable of winning elections) they would surely be motivated into doing so.
So it would seem that this could certainly be done. The renovated branches would demand extraordinary provincial conferences, which would vote out the Provincial Executive Committees and press for an extraordinary national conference. There the whole National Executive Committee would be voted out, and an entirely new set of principles would be formed. Just as the ANC was turned on its head between December 2007 and September 2008, thanks to a cynical and money-centred campaign of dishonesty and innuendo, so it could inarguably be set back on its feet again, and have its integrity restored, by a campaign on an even larger scale but based upon the familiar and popular principles of efficacy, non-racism, hostility to global corporate capitalism and desire to build a better life for all South Africans.
If that could be done, one must ask why it has not been done. The reason might, of course, be that the assumption that there are huge numbers of sane and decent people in the ANC is the flaw in the scheme. Possibly everybody in the ANC is either a scumbag, or sound asleep at the switch. However, a more plausible conclusion — because only a minority of people in the ANC have any real reason to be dolts or sleazeballs — is that the ANC’s membership are cowed. The leadership is constantly purging the membership of those who do not shout loud praise of the Masters — there is a purge of this kind going on in the North-West at the moment, with many cries that those who are disobedient to orders and ask the wrong kind of questions of the wrong people are counter-revolutionaries. When elections happen, the delegates are closely scrutinised for their personal loyalty to the leaders, and should their loyalty be suspect, their credentials are unceremoniously withdrawn. Hence elections are only held in the ANC when the results are known in advance (much like elections in other South African political parties, those which bother to hold these at all). The idea that under such conditions branches could successfully demand even a special regional conference, let alone provincial or national congresses, is simply absurd and unworkable.
Indeed, the stillborn party CoPe derived from this very problem. Those who questioned Zuma’s deification were simply booted out of the party; then their supporters went, then their supporters friends-and-relations, and so on until the ANC had managed to kick out enough people to make up 7% of the electorate. The point was that Zuma would always rather have people outside the tent pissing in, than inside the tent pissing out. He’d rather lose the Western Cape than win it courtesy of people who aren’t his pliable lackeys.
In other words, the current ANC government is not going to be defeated by the existing parties in Parliament, it is not going to be overthrown in a revolution, and it is not going to be transformed into a better ANC government. It appears that we are trapped at the bottom of a pit with no way out and no hope, like the central character in Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
Or can we expect to be rescued by a pubescent girl in an elegant bikini or a self-confident herring-scarfing tabby?
When the ruling class was overthrowing President Mbeki and installing President Zuma, they naturally did not wish to see Zuma too empowered or his regime too stable, for that would have benefited the ANC whom they hate, so therefore they allowed a little criticism of Zuma. In terms of space, this criticism was swamped by all the spurious smearing of Mbeki, but it was problematic because the general public tended to distrust Zuma and so the criticism of him stuck painfully. Of course that was fine while Zuma was not yet in power, but the ruling class did not want Zuma to be too weak to do their bidding, and so since Zuma’s apotheosis there has been a tendency not to discuss anything which might rock the ship of state.
The fact that the ship of state seems to be in imminent peril does not bother these people because they are concerned only with illusion, either because they are so rich that reality does not impinge on them, or because they are utterly and devotedly deluded.
The biggest and most obvious danger to the ship of state is presented by macro-economic mismanagement. We know that the Zuma administration has presented us with a titanic budget deficit which is growing. This is not because, as in the Anglo-American instance, Zuma has borrowed immense amounts to give to the rich, but it is rather because, as in the Graeco-Portuguese example, the government has refused to adapt its fiscal policies to changed circumstances. Greece and Portugal have the EU to bail them out; South Africa does not, and so this failure to respond to the crisis may well lead to an Argentina-style economic meltdown. (Also, Argentina was surrounded by healthy, growing economies and the global economy was not so badly damaged then, so the fact that Argentina survived its meltdown with little worse than a mass civil upheaval and nationwide immiseration for half a decade should not console us.)
Unfortunately, this danger is not the only problem which we face.
A major part is the breakdown of the state. It is obvious from the previous paragraph that the economic management of the state has become dismal (which is all the more alarming because in the Mandela-Mbeki era this was the element of the state which was most effective). We also know that the judiciary are hopelessly incompetent and corrupt, and unfortunately the present administration has a strong and growing stake in promoting this fact. However, other aspects of the state seem to have grown less effectual as well. The central state control of nationalised industries appears to have almost completely collapsed; no leadership is offered except a feeble desire for privatisation. As a result, the concept of a developmental state is stillborn.
Education, healthcare and policing are the core functions of the state. The leadership offered to these ministries by central government is dismally weak, and it is perhaps unsurprising that the actual performance of these functions by the state is certainly not improving from a poor level in the past. Furthermore, most of these functions are devolved to provinces. A lack of central control means that the provinces are free to do as well or as poorly as they choose — but at provincial level, government has been considerably weakened and corrupted in the last few years (again, starting from a very low level of calibre). In consequence, the provinces are not offering satisfactory leadership or planning. Even the spending appears out of control — here excessive, so that there is no money to maintain roads in a province for a fraction of the financial year; there inadequate, so that money which ought to have been spent on buying police vehicles is seized by the central state for who knows what purpose.
To this, of course, one must add the assumption that there is a lot of corruption going on. However, it is difficult to tell whether underperformance is due to corruption, incompetence, or simply a shirking of responsibilities which might be due to low morale or to lack of patriotic consciousness. No doubt many people in provincial administrations are working with Stakhanovite diligence. Notwithstanding this, the Stakhanovites must notice that, unlike Stakhanov, they do not receive commensurate rewards for their labours. Meanwhile, those who underperform, those who shirk and those who steal receive at worst gentle raps on the knuckles and, more often, are heartily praised.
At municipal level it is much harder to tell what is going on. We can see that there is a lot of corruption in the big towns; Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Durban, East London, Johannesburg, Pretoria, all have their scandals and scams. (Cape Town, of course, is DA-administered, and it is significant that Cape Town is no different from the rest, so this is not simply a party problem; it is a weak-administration problem, a problem of neoliberal, “can’t-do” government.) If you happen to live in a smaller municipality you tend to notice the corruption and incompetence of officials who are often out of their depth (or claiming to be) and so outsource planning and operations to corrupt and incompetent private companies which enjoy the delightful immunity of not being responsible to electorates into the bargain. Probably this is extremely widespread and probably even in those municipalities where the problem is visible, there is a lot more mismanagement going on which is not being looked at.
All this is in part not being looked at because government at all levels is prepared to tell lies. We have ministers (like S’bu Ndebele, who had to give back the limousine generously provided in exchange for services rendered by the taxi industry) solemnly proclaiming that they will not tolerate corruption. (Which is like saying, when one has the ‘flu, “I will not tolerate a runny nose!”) We have promises made at all levels, sometimes specific, in which case they are not kept, but sometimes so vague (“We are developing a developmental plan for development”) that they approach the level of absurdist poetry. These noises are made to reassure us. Why should the leaders of our country need to deliver reassuring messages? They could simply say “We are doing X, and in consequence we shall do Y, and by the time Z we shall be finished with these things and will let you know our next move”. The fact that they don’t make such statements — or when they do, they don’t fulfil those obligations and when Z comes around they have invented a new lie already — is unnerving.
It suggests that this unhealthy situation is tolerated, and is getting worse. If it gets worse, then the performance of state administration will deteriorate accordingly at all levels. Eventually, the underperformers will overwhelm those who are continuing to do their jobs. (Also, it is utterly demoralising to work alongside well-rewarded underperformers, which contributes to further underperformance.) Thus, alongside the danger that South Africa will no longer be able to pay the bills for its administration, comes the danger that South Africa will receive steadily diminishing returns for the money that it does fork out.
The reason for all this seems to be the breakdown of the party. There are a lot of people in South Africa who want the ANC to break down. Mostly, these are the same people who didn’t want the ANC in power in the first place. These people view the above-cited indications of governmental failure with relish and sing happy songs about this, exaggerating where possible, in the letters columns of all newspapers and the editorial pages of most newspapers. These people are truly dull-witted, for they are under the impression that their favoured party will gain power when the ANC withers away. (Most of them are DA supporters, but a few, allied to them, are Trotskyites or spaced-out Stalinists of the Mazibuko Jara camp who imagine that once the ANC collapses, a left-wing party will suddenly come into being, bursting from the forehead of Karl Marx, take charge and bring about the expropriation of the expropriators and give them all Cabinet positions. This is the most pathetic crowd of all.)
The breakdown of the ANC, the SACP and COSATU is anything but a delightful fact. These people are in power, and they do not want to give it up. Above all, they are enjoying mighty private privileges, including kickbacks from tenders and bribes for favours rendered, which they would lose with a loss of power. Some of them might be in danger of jail if they lost out. Therefore, they battle diligently against anyone who menaces their power. Especially, they battle against anyone who is not part of their clique. So the ANC is in a permanent state of civil war, because the ANC is still nominally democratic; every election at every level brings out swarms of functionaries attempting to rig it. Generally speaking, the victors of such struggles tend to be SACP members because they have greater mutual loyalty, whereas the termites in the ANC are loyal only to themselves. Sometimes the SACP calls on COSATU support. However, in many areas (as in Buffalo City) the other side gives them a run for their money and can even whistle up rent-a-mobs. In the end, these are all tiny factions who are able to make use of conditions for their own benefit.
The conditions they are making use of are largely the breakdown of authority in the political party, which was originally facilitated to protect Zuma and his allies from disciplinary proceedings, and the breakdown of civil administration which provides public grievances upon which to hang one’s political career. “Look — two potholes in the main road! March with me, comrades, and I will save you from these evil, counter-revolutionary potholes!”. The result is a revolving door, for of course anyone installed in power by such means is terribly unlikely to use that power to serve the people. What’s more, the first step in pursuit of getting anything done would have to be to kick out the dead wood in administration, and at the first threat of such action, there would inevitably be another march and another “service delivery protest” ending in someone burning down the local library. After which none of the party members involved would be expelled from the party, and the process would start all over again.
The end product is not a revolutionary situation, but radical disillusion with the entire political process (which is, of course, what the DA and its allies want, as well as what Zuma and his friends want). One feels that the system is broken and that one cannot possibly mend it. Neither open struggle nor covert conspiracy generate results. On all sides, everyone seems concerned for private profit. What is more, anyone can denounce their confederates to those above them. The national ANC meddles in provincial structures, the provincial ANC meddles in municipal structures — almost invariably in order to ensure that a safe pair of hands is in charge at the lower level, safe in this case meaning someone who does not threaten the authority and comfort of the people at the higher level. This, of course, is what the DA is talking about when it complains about “cadre deployment”, although of course what the DA actually means by these words is that blacks should not be given government jobs. (The DA has very effectively kept blacks out of those jobs which it has in its gift.) By distorting this concept into racist propaganda, the DA is actually protecting the ANC from the rhetorical consequences of its own power vacuum. Likewise, since the press rarely focuses coherently upon what the ANC is doing at municipal or provincial level, the ANC, SACP and COSATU can get away with almost anything short of murder (and in some provinces that line has already been crossed).
But the problem is that escaping rhetorical consequences usually means rushing headlong into real consequences. The administrative problems of the nation derive from the political collapse of the ANC. It is impossible to get public support for political programmes when one’s goal is to keep the public out of politics. Anyway, it is almost impossible to establish political programmes when there is no individual or collective loyalty to either party or programme. Therefore, it is impossible for any national or provincial campaign to get meaningfully off the ground. (So it is impossible to raise taxes or cut spending, because the state is terrified of what the public might do or say. So even the economic crisis is a function of the party political crisis.) It is impossible to hold purges on a basis of competence; it can only be done on a basis of personal loyalty, with the replacement comrades all being beholden to the Chief. It is impossible, in short, to get anything done under these conditions.
Therefore the conditions have to change. But the current political leadership of the country has no interest in changing these conditions. If anything, they want the conditions to become more extreme, because this will make them more secure in their posts so long as the whole system does not break down. As a result, the political leadership of the country becomes more and more dedicated to the idea of being a giant conspiracy against everybody else in the country. The long-term consequences of this, unless the cycle is broken, will probably be dictatorship.
But can the cycle be broken?
One of Karl Marx’s most celebrated quotes is a load of complete bollocks. This is the one in “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” about how Hegel says that historical events recur “as it were”, twice; “He forgot to add; the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. Well, that is not true. (It is a bit of journalism, of course — Marx wasn’t trying to lay down the law here; when he does, he provides a touch more in the way of substance.) The grim truth is that there is no stopping politicians from replaying historical events as often as they please. It is, however, usually true that the replays become more farcical as time goes on. Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was certainly a shabby joke as compared with John Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.
This, then, is the context within which we ought to look at President Obama bin Braindead’s foreign policy.
Most recently he has taken up the cudgels with great relish. “Speak softly, and carry a big stick”, suggested Teddy Roosevelt, but in recent decades this has morphed into “Shriek incoherently while waving a club around” (Reagan, late Clinton, early Bush) and then “Mumble inaudibly and gesture with a limp twig” (late Bush, and now God’s anointed Kenyan).
It will be recalled that Obama announced in his State of the Union Address that he was going to get tough with Iran. What this meant is obscure. Iran has since launched an experimental spacecraft using a long-range rocket, and announced that it is prepared to export low-enriched uranium in exchange for high-enriched nuclear fuel (presumably from Russia or China). This doesn’t mean that Iran is going to go Doctor Strangelove any time soon, but it does mean that the Iranians have enough technology, and enough friends abroad, to get them through any sanctions regime. Furthermore, their borders are extremely porous (partly because the Americans have so successfully destroyed almost all the effective governments on their borders). In short, Obama can do very little to control Iran, but he can continue to irritate them, which has been U.S. policy for years.
More recently, Obama has taken a firm line on China, too. He started by having a meeting with the Dalai Lama, which will certainly win Obama the support of Richard Gere. However, it is not going to liberate Tibet, whereas it is going to niggle the Chinese. He went on by selling weapons to Taiwan. This may possibly save Taiwan from Chinese invasion, assuming that a Chinese invasion was going to happen, which is not tremendously likely. Once again, however, it niggles the Chinese, who feel that they would like to have the option of invading Taiwan if they wanted to, since in their opinion Taiwan is actually a part of China (in the same way that Lesotho is actually a part of South Africa, for all that its inhabitants may disagree).
And now Obama has said that he is going to “get tough” with China, demanding that they “open their markets” to “American exports”. Let us pass over the hilarious idea of Obama being able to get tough with the government of the People’s Republic of China, one of the hardest gangs of political thugs ever to get their hands on the levers of absolute power. Instead, let us rather ask ourselves what the Americans can produce that the Chinese cannot produce more cheaply and of generally higher quality. The answer is extremely little. Let us also note that Obama has recently announced his government’s intention to “buy American” whenever possible, which might naturally arouse the Chinese government’s determination to “buy Chinese” even when buying Chinese is not so cheap or desirable (though it usually is).
All these matters considered, Obama’s declaration is no more than flatulence, and the Chinese government has treated it as such, remarking (with masterly understatement) that it does not serve to improve relations between the countries.
An obvious question is what the hell Obama is playing at, ratcheting up conflict with China. As we all know, China enjoys a highly symbiotic relationship with the United States. The Chinese export goods to America, the Americans buy the goods, thus providing the Chinese with money, the Chinese use the money to expand production and spend their spare money buying U.S. Treasury bonds with which the Americans earn money to subsidise their imports. It all works fine, so long as a) China is growing, and b) America is buying. Obama’s proposal is to cut back on buying, and also to demand that China restrict its growth. There is no possibility that this can lead to any improvement in the economic conditions of either country. The only mercy of it is that the United States is actually almost incapable of carrying out Obama’s threat, because it cannot build the factories to produce the goods it buys from China in a hurry, and with its banking system in such a chaotic state it cannot afford to build those factories at all.
However, the Chinese might be annoyed enough by Obama’s combination of rhetoric and pinprick attacks to take a sterner stand against exports to the U.S., thinking that their prospects might be threatened, and also they might be alarmed enough to stop buying so many Treasury bonds, in which case the U.S. economy, already in extremely dire straits, would become completely unsustainable. (The U.S. has had the highest peacetime budget deficits in its history under Obama, combined with some of the highest trade deficits. The only thing protecting them is the relative lowness of their current-account deficit, and that is almost entirely due to money flowing in from China.)
Therefore, President Nothingburger’s goal cannot be to save the U.S. economy; his goal must be political. This is understandable, for he has some serious political problems.
It is difficult for a non-American to understand the political importance of American healthcare reform. Everybody knows that American healthcare is grotesquely costly. As a result of this excessive cost, many Americans cannot afford healthcare. Of course they have their “health management organisations”, but many cannot afford these because the administration of American health insurance is also grotesquely costly. Therefore, all Americans would benefit from having some of these costs removed. A minority of Americans are served by a state-controlled “health management organisation”, known as Medicare; a still tinier minority of ex-service people is served by state-run hospitals (much cheaper than the private hospitals and just as good), the Veterans Administration. So there are precedents for solving the problem.
However, Clinton couldn’t get his healthcare reform through. Now, it appears, Obama can’t get his healthcare reform through either. Basically, this is a struggle between vested interests and the interests of the public, in which the Democratic Party pretends to be supporting the interests of the public. Whereas Clinton was a President elected by a minority of the voters (a third-party candidate stripped the Republicans of victory) and with a limited majority in Congress, Obama was elected by a thumping majority with an equal majority in Congress, and Obama’s reform bill is more modest than Clinton’s. But Obama can’t, it seems, do it. The Democratic Party is not interested in helping the people; it is more concerned with obtaining alms from the corporate sector and with avoiding criticism from sociopathic reactionaries in the media, and Obama does not have the power to override this (even if he wants to, which is far from clear — he is a Harvard lawyer, after all).
So this is a calamitous failure. It could have dynamised the party and the Presidency and possibly even led to a renewal of hope in the capacity of government to solve problems, which was so undermined by the Clinton and Bush administrations. Instead, it seems to show that government can’t even pretend to do anything, let alone actually do it.
Meanwhile, however, it is against this background that Obama finds himself pinned to the wall by the policies of his predecessors, to which he has committed himself. He is fighting several unpopular wars, all of which would be still less popular if the media reported them honestly. He has unpopularly bailed out the American ruling class at huge expense (expense to be paid by the middle and working classes). Now, in order to pretend to support cutting the gigantic deficit which the wars and the bailouts have created for him, he has proclaimed a plan to freeze expenditure for the remainder of his term of office (apart from military expenditure, healthcare expenditure and Social Security, which together take up most of the budget). This won’t cut the deficit, but it will harm the people of the United States on whom a lot of the frozen money would have been spent.
So what Obama badly needs is a distraction. A very convenient distraction is Iran. Look over there — the Great Satan of the Gulf! Ahmedinejad is coming to eat us up! Booga! Booga! Booga! This plays well with most Americans, but there are problems. One is that it plays best of all with conservative Republicans, and next to best with the Israeli government. Both of these are groupings which cooperate and which hate Obama and his party. As a result, focussing attention on Iran energises the base of Obama’s enemies. The Right has virtually trademarked American hostility to Iran. Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, while it plays well with Democrats it doesn’t energise them much. Most Democrats would like to see something done about Iran (whereas Republicans are content, for the most part, to simulate outrage). Obama cannot do anything at all about Iran. Hence Democrats find this focus a little frustrating.
China is a much better distraction. Liberal Democrats dislike China’s human rights record. (Of course, the idea of America, any more, lecturing anyone in the world about human rights, is mildly amusing and mostly nauseating, but Americans are not aware of this.) More to the point, Democrats love to pretend that they care about the unionised working class. The working class has been told that their problems arise out of foreigners stealing their jobs (which is why they are strongly anti-Mexican). Therefore, pretending that, off, over there, across the water, there is a terrible country which we should all unite against in order to save our jobs, is a very satisfactory affair.
It is very reminiscent, of course, of the old campaign against Japan, when (similarly) American workers were told that their manufacturing jobs were being destroyed by the Japanese. This took the heat off the American corporate managers who were actually destroying American manufacturing jobs. However, this campaign was effectual because Japan was a colony of the United States and its Liberal Democrat government was totally under America’s thumb. In other words, there were no dangers of any comebacks from a campaign which had no links with reality. China, on the other hand, is very touchy about being bullied, and is also enormously more independent and more militarily powerful than Japan.
Obama’s farcical repeat of the old campaign against Japan (which also incorporates a farcical attempt to ignite a new Cold War) will almost certainly bite him in his skinny, unappealing backside.
The Daily Dispatch on the 26th of January bore a story which, if true, was immensely heartening. No wonder that it was on the front page; the wonder that it was below the fold. The headline was “HIV testing in men increases”, and the story was that a person called Dr Saul Johnson, managing director of Health and Development Africa, said that HIV testing had increased in twelve months from 24% to 60% among men. This was the Second National HIV/AIDS 2009 survey, based on a sample of 9 728 people. Other articles in other newspapers added further information that there had been an even higher increase in the use of condoms, (although Johnson bewailed the fact that married people were not using condoms enough) and a comparable drop in the number of people having multiple partners. Johnson attributed the change to “awareness campaigns”.
This is wonderful news which at last shows that the country is successfully challenging the AIDS crisis. The only effective way to reduce the spread of HIV is to wear condoms. Likewise, a major obstacle to challenging AIDS is to take personal responsibility for one’s status, and an important symbol of that is to take an HIV test. Also, of course, if people are faithful to a single partner, they will not spread the disease beyond that couple. So it seems that we have good reason to believe that AIDS is not going to be a massive problem in future, because all these vectors for its transmission are being choked off.
In fact, since the situation is obviously under control, the Creator now feels free to go out and have lots of unprotected anal sex with numerous people without telling the partner . . .
OK, that’s not exactly a joke. It’s an application of the notion that a newspaper report of AIDS denialism makes people into AIDS denialists; the notion, therefore, that all questions about AIDS should be censored lest the wrong ideas be given. The point is that good news can also generate the wrong ideas. But it is still good news.
Or is it?
Puzzlingly enough, different news outlets seem to have different stats. MSN South Africa says that whereas four years back 17% of men tested for HIV, the figure is now 32%. This is plausible as a change and as a figure, but it disagrees with the 60% claimed by Johnson in the Dispatch. News24 agrees with the 32% figure, but adds that 75% of men between 16 and 19 tested last year. This is interesting, if true, but it suggests that there are a lot of figures to play statistical games with.
Anyway, a 150% increase in twelve months is gigantic. That relatively low level of HIV testing had been stable for a long time. 60% of all males being tested in a year is a high level of testing. The Creator had occasion to go into a VCT clinic in the local town recently, assisting an HIV+ friend. There were no queues outside. There were a few people inside. Two thirds of these were women (it’s partly a paediatric clinic). This VCT clinic particularly deals, of course, with people who are already HIV+, and therefore a lot of the clientele would have been such people coming back for medication or advice. They definitely weren’t all there for tests. Where were all those men? Where were they hiding?
The Creator happens to know how many people are getting antiretrovirals in the Creator’s own village; it’s less than 1% of the male population. The village happens to have a VCT centre; most do not. It’s fantastically unlikely that this village has reached more than a fraction of those in need, and it’s also the case that the clinic is not crowded with males seeking testing, either. In villages which lack such centres there’s not even the option.
Now, that is only a limited sample, but it’s surely an indication. If there really had been so mighty an increase in testing this year, it would have become evident. There would be queues outside every clinic. There aren’t. It seems likely, then, that the claim is bogus.
The same, empirically, seems true about condoms. In the Creator’s knowledge, almost the only people who seem to take full advantage of the free condoms provided by the government are prostitutes. Most people don’t know how to get them (and most people don’t go to clinics unless they are ill, in which case they are rarely feeling randy enough to stock up on rubber johnnies). Besides, we know that the government’s purchase of condoms is simply inadequate to deal with the sex lives of fifty million people. (At one roger per night per couple, that works out at ten billion condoms a year, more than 100 times the size of the government’s annual buy.) Meanwhile, if everybody were really buying condoms, there would be condom palaces on every streetcorner and people would be charging off with shopping-baskets full. They aren’t. Moreover, condoms are pretty expensive; there are places you can buy a whore for less than the price of a commercial condom.
So, it would seem that Dr. Johnson is entirely mistaken about what people are doing with their johnsons.
But how can this be? Well, consider the fact that there is no way of determining whether people have had HIV tests (doctors aren’t supposed to release that kind of information) and there is certainly no way of telling whether people are using condoms. So what kind of investigation was this? Essentially, it meant asking people “Do you test, do you use condoms, do you screw around?”. Johnson’s survey was not a test of what people were doing, it was, at best, a test of what people wanted other people to think that they were doing. Unfortunately, empirical examination suggests that there is a discrepancy between what people say, and what they do.
Yet Johnson is not saying “There has been a dramatic increase in people claiming to go for HIV testing”. One wonders why not, because such a dramatic increase, while it would not be any real guide to the AIDS situation, might indeed indicate a change in public attitude. Such a change in attitude might, over time, lead to a change in behaviour which would be a good thing.
You might ask why, too, there’s such insistence on the value of “awareness campaigns”. In the last year there has been no significant improvement in such campaigns. There are no new billboards, nor new posters; a handful of fliers and a couple of not very convincing radio advertisements seems to be the bulk of what’s happened. How could such insignificant activity be seen as progenitor of a gigantic transformation of social behaviour? Johnson, however, says that 33% of the population at large use condoms, but 50% of the population who are aware of “communication programmes” do so. This, in spite of the obvious fact that condoms are not the core focus of such programmes.
But then, Johnson coyly fails to mention that he is in charge of the government’s privatised AIDS publicity, and has been since 2001 or thereabouts. This publicity is funded partly by the government, but mostly by the United States, via USAID and various NGOs and quangoes. It is run by a private company, most of whose leadership figures are corporate specialists rather than doctors or PR experts. In other words, Johnson’s survey is essentially quality control on Johnson’s own work, which is very convenient.
There’s more, of course. The government needs some kind of success in the healthcare sphere. They have just proposed privatising the central medication depot in the Free State (allegedly the location of the problems in providing antiretrovirals in that province, which seems an implausible accusation) which essentially acknowledges a problem. Is it possible for them to locate some good news? And, if there is no easily-located good news, can some be manufactured?
Until recently, the press was simply not prepared to print good news about AIDS. Any good news might have been seen as support for Mbeki and his Health Minister, and this was unacceptable to the press (whether out of ideological fervour or because all the other sheep were trotting in the same direction). Now, of course, the press is simply confused. Shall we print good news without question, because Mbeki is gone? Shall we print good news without question because our bosses like Zuma? Or shall we go to the trouble of asking questions, or even doing the most perfunctory check on a story?
Evidently not. Instead, what we are getting is self-contained happytalk news, where the makers of the news assess the factuality of the news and then determine how the news will be run. All that is necessary is for the people reading the news not to think about what it means. This is precisely what Nick Davies was talking about when he warned us in Flat Earth News.
The Creator has lately engaged on an unpleasant but vital task. The trouble is that one puts off such matters. One thinks “Oh, but this will be foul. Why me? Why now? Why not next year?”
Yet what is needed is always clarity — the clarity of the glass of tonic which the Creator’s current incarnation just absorbed to fend off a hangover. Looking down into the frothing crystal, the Creator gained resolve. So lucid, so boisterous. (Why did Philip Larkin, in his splendid description of making a gin and tonic, talk about the can “voiding” tonic into the glass — did he think about shit every hour of the day, or something?)
So this gave the Creator’s current incarnation the physical capacity to write about William Mervyn Gumede.
That book, Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC , has been sitting on the Creator’s bookstack for a couple of years. It’s very large. It’s notoriously plagiarised to a substantial extent. But it’s also a sort of Bible for South African crazies. Every political writer who has ever generated anything imbecilic has, sooner or later, praised Gumede. On the other hand, one rarely finds it being cited, in much the same way that most Christian religious fanatics appear incapable of reading vast chunks of the Bible and instead focus on those murderous, racist or sexist elements which they have heard about and which suit their psychoses.
So, yesterday, the Creator dipped into the work. Perhaps one should begin by explaining what the book is. It’s a presentation of the thesis that everything which has gone wrong in South Africa between 1989 and 2006 was Thabo Mbeki’s fault. Mbeki, being all but omnipotent, was able to make everything bad. Where he couldn’t do it himself, he corrupted others into doing the dirty work. Much of what a normal person might have considered good (restructuring the ANC, restructuring the economy) is transmogrified into badness by Gumede’s diktat .
It’s a mildly interesting but hardly unfamiliar thesis. It is a thesis which has been presented very frequently down the decades, sometimes from within the ANC or the Tripartite Alliance, sometimes (up until recently, more often) from within anti-ANC political bodies in and out of South Africa. It is the standard journalistic model of South African politics, which is why it appeals to crazies.
The obvious problem with this is that one needs to simultaneously show that things would have turned out very differently with the right people in charge. This is extremely difficult to demonstrate, because South Africa faced some tough problems during this period and those problems could easily have led to serious crises. In each of those cases one would have to show that there was a credible alternative which was considered and rejected by Mbeki and/or his allies. That could account for the fatness of the book, but it does not, for Gumede nowhere does this.
One must return to the title for guidance as to how Gumede gets away with this bizarre claim. The answer is, apparently, that the ANC had a “soul”, which was the good thing about it which led it to do the right thing, infallibly. However, Mbeki battled for the soul of the ANC and eventually won it. Now the ANC has no soul (or at least didn’t, while Mbeki was in charge) and therefore everything had to have gone wrong.
The first thing to notice about this is that, even on the evidence presented by Gumede, this is arrant balderdash. The ANC did not have a soul. Nor did it have a single political tradition which could be presented metaphorically as a soul. It had, instead, a variety of political traditions, most of which — the bourgeois tradition which dominated it until the 1940s, or the Stalinist tradition of the SACP, or the Africanist tradition which eventually formed the PAC — are remarkably unhealthy. The bulk of these traditions may be summed up as “Money and power for me!”. The traditions differing largely in tactics, where the bourgeois tradition wanted no change, the Stalinist tradition wanted a dictatorship in the name of the workers, and the Africanist tradition wanted a dictatorship in the name of the blacks. The latter two dictatorships were convenient devices for channelling national wealth into the pockets of a new ruling class which would replace the old, whereas the bourgeois tradition just wanted to seamlessly merge with the old ruling class.
So the “soul of the ANC” stank overall, albeit that there were some favourable elements within it which did not stink quite so badly.
The second thing to notice is the terminology. Who battles for a soul? The answer, surely, must be angels and demons. Ergo, Gumede’s choice of phraseology automatically demonises Mbeki, which is not unusual and not necessarily unjustifiable (demonising political leaders is often a good thing). However, it declares Mbeki’s opponents to be angels — which is almost always a bad thing, and particularly when the people declared to be angels are not only politicians (hence not angels by definition) but unusually sleazy and dishonest politicians, at that. Also, of course, the implication is that anyone opposing Mbeki is admitted to the angel band, come and around us stand, bear us away on thy snow-white wings to mine immortal home (which under present circumstances could be either the poorhouse or the concentration camp).
This prefigures the whole politics of contemporary South Africa, as reflected in the ruling class which Gumede served, with chilling accuracy, and it’s remarkable that nobody seemed to notice anything of this.
Meanwhile, what about the actual content of the book? Surprisingly, there isn’t tremendously much. Perhaps this is not so surprising, given Gumede’s overdependence upon journalism. When one generates a supposedly academic book but bases it almost entirely upon newspaper articles, one is running a big risk. When the book is on a subject which the newspapers were universally partisan about, the book will be almost certainly worthless except as a mine of disinformation. (Whatever the merits of the Clinton administration, if you wrote a book about Clinton which depended almost exclusively for its sources on the pages of the Washington Times and the Weekly Standard, with occasional excursions into the works of David Bossie and Newt Gingrich, such a book would not tell us much about the merits of the Clinton administration.)
However, Gumede does offer illusive peeps into something else. For instance, at one point he claims that President Mathatir of Malaysia suggested, in 1997, that South Africa should join his country in imposing strict exchange controls to help curb the capital flight and currency speculation which, at the time, was causing the rand to plunge. Gumede says that this was discussed in Cabinet, but that the decision was ultimately dismissed. This is potentially quite important. Reimposing exchange controls might have helped South Africa weather that storm better, as they helped Malaysia. On the other hand, Mathatir’s government was a virtual dictatorship, which meant that the almost universal hostility of Western capital and governments to its policies could be evaded; South Africa was a bit more vulnerable. So this doesn’t mean that the Cabinet was wrong in making that decision, but it raises questions about whether the South African government didn’t have more leeway for making decisions than seemed to be the case —
But there’s one problem here. Gumede does not provide any references at all. There is no way to check whether Gumede’s claim is true or not. (Which is quite important — it is certainly not common knowledge that the issue was raised, whereas Gumede offers references to many other things which are common knowledge, or alternatively, far less interesting.) Again and again, indeed, Gumede makes controversial claims which are completely unsubstantiated by evidence (and where there is substantiation, the substantiation often does not directly support the claims, to put it politely).
When an academic provides important, controversial but unsubstantiated claims, it is tempting to suspect that these claims are fabricated. (The book the Creator is reading is the second edition, so Gumede had plenty of time to set matters straight.) Alternatively, of course, Gumede might have heard these things as stories, or rumours, or gossip, and might have decided to include them in his book because they made good copy. How, after all, could anybody in South Africa sue Gumede for making false declarations about economic or political decisions? It would be necessary to prove that the declarations were false and that someone had been damaged, and even then, the “public interest” defense would apply.
But the problem is that we have no means of knowing whether these rumours that Gumede publishes are valid or not. Some of them seem to have been disproved over time, which suggests that the others might also be invalid but still awaiting actual disproval. Gumede never provides any basis for judging the merits of those of his claims which are unsubstantiated. Nor, indeed, does he provide much basis for assessing the conclusions which he derives, many of which seem to rely more on unsubstantiated claims than on substantiated ones.
For instance, his chapter on AIDS presents a number of pieces of evidence suggesting that Mbeki’s position on AIDS was fairly progressive, as such positions go; certainly better than that of his predecessor. He also presents a large number of accusations that Mbeki was an AIDS denialist. He provides exactly one piece of evidence suggesting that Mbeki was an AIDS denialist (an allegedly hand-delivered letter to the White House, which exists only in the form subsequently released by the White House to the American media — there is no South African copy, which is odd), which evidence contradicts most of Mbeki’s actual public statements on the matter. It seems that Gumede is not a very good judge of evidence or fact.
Of course the AIDS issue is one in which people are rarely honest and so it is a bit much to expect Gumede to be more honest than his contemporaries. However, most dishonest people are careful not to undermine their case as thoroughly as Gumede does here. There is a certain deranged honesty about such behaviour. Deranged because if Gumede cannot actually prove his case in most instances, how is it that he insists on presenting it consistently?
The answer is simple. Gumede knows the answer already. The book is an assemblage of whatever came to hand to prove the answer. The facts, however, are there as ornaments to the substance, no better than icing or silver balls. The substance of the book is the insistence that Mbeki is evil and a demon and corrupts whatever he touches, because he is evil and a demon. Saying that over and over while piously proclaiming one’s intellectual integrity and deep scholarship is what Gumede is paid to do.