A Faint, Feeble Glimmer.

Sampie Terreblanche’s Lost In Transition contains a faint element which should not go unrecorded. This is the notion that the South African revolution took place within a wider context — that of the seizure of power by the neoliberal plutocracy in the United States. It is therefore suggested in the book that the rightward shift of the ANC was driven by a rightward shift in the South African business community, towards becoming a neoliberal state controlled by a plutocracy.

This is important because it introduces elements of motive and agency into a left-wing political analysis. Unlike the mere partisan rants of Saul or Bond or their ilk, Terreblanche does not simply claim that the ANC is intrinsically evil. It might have desired to do something else, but it was co-opted, corrupted or compelled to do what it did. At the very least, this is plausible argument and consistent with historical fact.

From this, it is not obligatory to exonerate the ANC. Rather, it is advisable to analyse the situation and see whether anything could have been done, or could still be done, to counterbalance the power of capital in South Africa and elsewhere, and their agents of international imperialism. In other words, this makes a Marxist or at least socialist analysis possible, whereas the Saul-Bond position is no more than sectarian posturing empty of political or economic analysis and largely derived from right-wing or neoliberal sources. This is a quite ironic reversal of intellectual status, because most of Terreblanche’s analysis is actually plagiarised from a Trotskyite, namely Ben Fine, whose “mineral-energy complex” concept Terreblanche uses repeatedly without conspicuously understanding what exactly he is talking about. It’s also impressive because Terreblanche’s work has received a lot of media acclaim and public attention, so the fact that it is conspicuously superior in theoretical terms to the over-hyped pseudo-leftists who have been similarly acclaimed in the past might be deemed an improvement.

Unfortunately, there are immense problems here. One obvious problem is that the “mineral-energy complex” is an enormous oversimplification if one is talking about relationships between South African capital and the state. Undeniably the mining industry is extremely powerful and significant. It is, however, not the whole of the South African economy, and it is dangerous to simply assume that it is. Moreover, in the past the South African government was antagonistic to the mining industry. Meanwhile, the mining industry depended almost entirely upon the power grid and the rail network, both of which were controlled by the government. Terreblanche’s assumption that the mineral-energy complex is omnipotent seems nonsensical, and is certainly not substantiated by any actual argument or factual evidence.

There is also a problem with timelines which is rather significant. Most theorists agree with Hobsbawm  that the rise of neoliberalism happened in the 1970s, and many have traced its origins back even earlier. Therefore, when Terreblanche pushes it forward into the 1980s, ascribing it simply to Ronald Reagan, one perceives something odd. (After all, the Free Market Foundation had been set up much earlier by the mining industry to promote right-wing, anti-democratic, pro-plutocratic political activities. Moreover, the first key neoliberal act undertaken by the apartheid government — the privatisation of SASOL — happened before Reagan was elected.} Why should Terreblanche wish to do this, given that it does not derive from any of his sources?

There is another, perhaps more serious, problem. Terreblanche does not allow much time to enable the ANC to be captured, and also fails to note that the ANC was not actually in power between 1988 and 1994 — the period during which Terreblanche declares that it was turning South Africa into a neoliberal state. While this, again, does not make the ANC innocent, it becomes difficult to believe that Terreblanche’s analysis corresponds with reality. Although Terreblanche claims that the “secret” negotiations between big business and the ANC locked the latter into a neoliberal situation, in reality these negotiations were not so secret. Nor were the negotiations between the ANC and the white authorities at Codesa and after particularly secretive.

All this might just seem to suggest a few imperfections. However, these inaccuracies all seem to point in one direction. This is to reduce the culpability of the apartheid regime in introducing neoliberalism to South Africa and in assisting the big business community in its struggle to neoliberalise the post-apartheid settlement. This is, of course, understandable given Terreblanche’s own support for the old apartheid regime — and, though he denies it, his subsequent strong endorsement of the corporate community. So, very like the Trotskyites whom he attempts to transcend, a great deal of his narrative is not explication at all, but self-exculpation.

Another problem with these points is that they explain everything. Or, rather, though they give the illusion of agency and motive, this illusion is not substantiated by much. It is arguably true that the neoliberal revolution across the world was driven by forces based in the United States, but those forces are not simply President Reagan and his friends. Nor is it simply a matter of a small cabal of miners and smelters who control the government. And, of course, if the ANC were merely a front for this small cabal of miners and smelters, then there would be no point in denouncing them; one should instead focus on that cabal and work out ways of influencing them — whereas Terreblanche’s conclusion is instead that the ANC should do something differently. Also, of course, there is the question of why neoliberalism should particularly have appealed to the miners and smelters after 1980, but not substantially before. And there is the question of why the ANC fought against apartheid before 1990 and connived with something rather similar after 1990 — why not simply give in right from the start? All these problems are left in the air by Terreblanche, and can safely be left there because the bald statements he makes pointing fingers at the culprits are calculated to conceal the existence of the problems.

It’s understandable that Trotskyites ignore both the plutocracy and Western imperialism and place all the blame for absolutely everything on the ANC. By doing this they can pretend that if only the ANC were removed and they (or their friends in the liberal and corporate communities) were in charge, everything could be made all right without effort. They can also claim that they have always been right about everything (which is the only important thing to these narcissists). However, Terreblanche refuses to ignore these things — perhaps because he is unwilling to be quite as intellectually dishonest as the Trotskyites, which is saying something — and this places him in a difficult position.

If the ANC was originally intending to liberate South Africa, but instead was forced to pursue a different agenda by powerful domestic capitalist forces and by international imperialism led by the U.S. government, then it is not going to be easy to resolve the situation. It is all very well to say that this shows that the ANC was not wholly culpable in its behaviour; one could even argue (though Terreblanche, consistent with his own agenda, does not) that the ANC had little choice and made the best of a bad situation. The difficulty is that one now has to fight not merely with the ANC, but with the ANC (or at least the bulk of its captured leadership), the South African plutocracy, the global plutocracy and the forces of global imperialism. This is not a simple enemy — and part of the problem is that it requires anyone campaigning against this enemy to move beyond simple South African party politics into the arena of a struggle against the effects of capitalism on society at home and abroad. This, once more, is something which Terreblanche is unlikely to manage. Who would pay him?

So we should not be expected that the book does not display any sign that Terreblanche supports these goals, or even understands that they arise out of his expressed principles. He simply says that the ANC should not have acceded to the demands of big business (although they were also the demands of the apartheid government, and if the ANC had not acceded to or at least compromised with those demands, apartheid would not have ended). He also says that the ANC should do things differently now, although he is conspicuously vague as to what they really should do. In short, he wishes to criticise the powerful without antagonising them, suggesting that they should behave, or at least posture, differently without losing power. This is more or less exactly what Zuma wants, and so it is hardly surprising that Terreblanche has not faced massive criticism from anybody. (Certainly not from the far left, whom one might expect to be annoyed at the way in which Terreblanche has walked off with their ill-fitting garments left by the riverside.)

One should not condemn Terreblanche unduly. It is important that he has brought a degree of reality into the origins of the problem, even if he abuses these origins and even if his analysis is as pitiful as virtually all South African political analysis is. It is, in fact, ironic that a man of impeccably right-wing historical connections should take a left-wing stance like this. All the same, it shows the temptations of bad analysis and prejudice — the way in which people can take convenient widely-disseminated myths and exploit them for their own purposes. It also shows how destructive such behaviour can be — since Terreblanche’s failure does not only show the bankruptcy of his beliefs, it also leads others astray courtesy of the hype which he has received.

What is needed, of course, is sound analysis. There is no sign that we are going to get this, even if people start from the correct premises. Premises are not enough; what is needed is sound theory and the capacity to self-criticise and acknowledge mistakes. These things are lacking in our contemporary culture of opportunism, disinformation and self-serving pursuit of intellectual celebrity status through the neoliberal-bought press.

 

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