Midrand Blues I: How We Got Zuma.

November 10, 2017

If you read the propaganda sheets (and who doesn’t?) you learn that the problems of South Africa were all caused by Jacob Zuma and that the solution to the problem is simple; get rid of Jacob Zuma. This is obviously a pack of lies, a conspiracy theory which panders to the prejudices and the simplistic assumptions of the ignorant and bigoted who make up the bulk of Our Glorious Opposition. In fact, nobody sits down and says “How can I destroy my party, my society and my country to the greatest possible extent?”; even Iago was motivated by spite.

So, what exactly happened? Obviously, some force put Zuma where he is, and some force or forces encouraged Zuma to do what he did, but also encouraged many, many other people to do what they did to get us where we are today. Also obviously, some similar forces have been acting on every other society in the world, for the whole world has been circling the same plughole that South Africa is going down, but let’s focus on South Africa for simplicity without forgetting that we are not unique.

How did Zuma become Deputy President, a job for which he was far from well equipped?

Zuma and Mbeki worked together to neutralise Inkatha in KwaZulu-Natal; Mbeki was an outsider there and found Zuma’s schmoozing skills extremely helpful. As a result, this ineptly scheming place-filler whose previous job had been mismanaging ANC Security was pulled up by his fake leopard-skin and turned into a major influential player within the ANC. KwaZulu-Natal was a major part of Mbeki’s plans for the ANC, and by placing a Zulu in a prominent position he believed that he could win Zulu tribalists away from Inkatha — which proved to be the case, especially after Inkatha lost the patronage it enjoyed under apartheid. Mbeki was the obvious heir apparent to the ANC Presidency, and when he became President it was natural for Zuma to be made Deputy President; Mbeki the intellectual planner, Zuma the impulsive but outwardly amiable actor, and both of them formidable back-stabbers.

But the relationship between them naturally changed once the ANC won KwaZulu-Natal. Under Mandela, Mbeki as Deputy President had practically run the country with Mandela as a ceremonial figure. Zuma, on the other hand, was a much less hands-on Deputy President. He was less central to the government; despite having loads of nominally central positions (in charge of arms procurement, in charge of HIV/AIDS policy) he was fairly disengaged from his responsibilities in a way that Rasool, who fulfilled something of the same position with regard to Mbeki’s plans for the Western Cape, was not. So it was evident that Mbeki once again viewed Zuma as a place-holder until someone more suitable could be found, and it was increasingly clear as time went on that the replacement was Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Zuma’s ex-wife and therefore something of an insult to him as a Zulu tribalist and sexist.

None of this bubbling-under stuff was discussed in public. The ANC didn’t, in those days, wash its dirty linen in public. (Although that’s a good way to get the linen clean, the problem is compounded nowadays because the ANC and its allies tend to use shit instead of soap for its public washing ceremonies.) The ruling class was simply trying to get rid of Mbeki and therefore was not discussing anything he did, and also was trying to get Zuma on side, bribing him and schmoozing with him via bought-and-paid-for organisations like the Treatment Action Campaign.

It’s probable that Mbeki knew perfectly well that Zuma was a crook, although he may not have known the extent of his corruption. Most particularly he probably didn’t know how deeply endebted Zuma had become; Mbeki is far too cautious a person to get into that kind of trouble and probably underestimated the irresponsibility of others. To the extent to which corruption existed, Mbeki doubtless saw it as an opportunity, a tool to use against Zuma. This was his first major mistake, which was compounded when the Scorpions caught Zuma with both hands trapped in the cookie-jar over the corrupt deal he brokered under which his chum Schabir Shaik would front for the French electronics company Thales in supplying credit-card drivers’ licences, a tender worth hundreds of millions and from which Zuma trousered several million. The problem was that Thales had been involved in the arms deal, as had Zuma, and the investigation of the arms deal quickly flung up red flags all around them.

Legally speaking, Zuma should have been charged, so the fact that Shaik was charged and Zuma not must have been as a result of Mbeki’s interference. Why did he do this? Probably the most important reason was that putting Zuma on trial would have been damaging to the ANC (and to some extent to Mbeki himself, since Zuma was his right-hand-man). At least while the trial went on it was possible to pretend that, since Shaik might be found innocent, Zuma could not be held accountable.

Other matters relate to the nature of the judiciary. After the HIV/AIDS fiasco, Mbeki knew quite well that the judiciary was almost as much in the pocket of the ruling class as the media. If Zuma were put on trial, and if the ruling class decided to make trouble for the ANC, they could easily support Zuma by exploiting judicial corruption (as they later in fact did) and then Zuma would be found innocent and Mbeki would be tarnished and accused of misusing state resources. Shaik had no powerful supporters in the ruling class; their only reason for supporting him was making mischief for the ANC, and they could drop him as easily as they were later to drop the Guptas. Hence charging Shaik alone was a lot safer — and if Shaik were found guilty of corrupting Zuma, it would be much more difficult for the most dishonest judge to protect Zuma. Besides, after the HIV-AIDS fiasco, Mbeki was not eager to get into yet another fight with the ruling class.

But this also spun the process out, and this was Mbeki’s second mistake. In retrospect, charging Zuma might have solved the ANC’s problems right there, provided that he was found guilty — and if he had been let off, the situation could not have developed much worse.

Something else which Mbeki didn’t recognise about the consequences of putting Zuma on notice that he could face dismissal and possible prosecution, was that Zuma wasn’t simply afraid of jail. He owed immense amounts of money which he couldn’t possibly pay even from his salary as Deputy President of country and ANC. He desperately needed to hang on to his political offices in order to sustain his lifestyle, and if he did not, he would be ruined. What he needed, therefore, was someone to give him political and financial security against the threat posed by Mbeki — and towards that end he was prepared to sacrifice anything and anyone else. Mbeki created a desperate man with nothing to lose and with the enormous powers of the Deputy Presidency, plus the immense potential powers of the Presidency, and a willingness to promise anyone anything in exchange for financial or political support.

If Zuma could have been excised from the ANC, as Mbeki wished, well and good. However, the trouble was that there were immense forces within the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance who were prepared to cooperate with the kind of man that Zuma had become, and even to go further down the road of corruption which Zuma was treading.

The most immediately helpful forces were in the SACP, the most tight-knit body of people within the Alliance who had been allocated important but boring administrative positions in the ANC because they were considered hard-working and boringly loyal. The unrecognised problem was that they were principally loyal to their own party and only secondarily to the ANC. What many within the ANC, particularly Mbeki’s supporters, failed to recognise, was that the SACP was no longer particularly committed to socialism, in part because it’s only survival potential outside the ANC lay in the sponsorship which it received from business — sponsorship which was provided in return for the favours which the SACP could provide for business. But these favours depended on the SACP having government posts, which were only available through the ANC. Hence unless the SACP could sustain its power within the ANC, it was in danger of fading away. In this sense it was in a similar position, organisationally, to Zuma’s personal position; it could only survive by selling itself and betraying its principles, and therefore it had to do both things as much as humanly possible.

Meanwhile, of course, there was a large contingent of pro-business people within the ANC who had either been talked around into neoliberalism, like Trevor Manuel, or who had been corrupted by corporate interests, like Matthews Phosa. These people would be inclined to pursue the interests of their patrons and would therefore be happy to see a change of attitude within the ANC. They might not be directly supportive of Zuma, but they would be more satisfied with him in power than anyone else simply because he would be likely to leave them alone to pursue their agenda of enriching the wealthiest people in the country at the expense of everyone else.

There was also the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Obviously, the rank and file in these unions were not very interested in seeing rich people empowered and further enriched at their expense, but they were never consulted, only disinformed by their leaders. There were several reasons why COSATU leaders might support this, however. One was that union administration is notoriously financially corrupt and thus subject to simple bribery from business leaders. Another is that many union leaders are accustomed to working closely with business leaders and tend to see the world from their point of view — which would incorporate a Zuma Presidency. Another is that COSATU has historically tended to take its lead almost unquestioningly from the SACP, and with the SACP marching behind Zuma COSATU would be inclined to join the parade.

To this must be added the obvious influence of resentment against the way in which the SACP and COSATU had been sidelined by the ANC’s leadership, merely because they were dishonest, corrupt and deeply mistaken in their views, reasons which the SACP and COSATU felt were unfair (and in the SACP/s case self-evidently untrue since SACP members believe that the Party and the Leader is always right, that two and two make five and that black is white and rich is poor if the Party says so).

So, although Mbeki might have believed that Zuma would not betray the ANC to the white ruling class, and that the right wing  and the left wing would never combine against him, actually it was almost inevitable that this would happen, especially at a time when his control of patronage within the ANC was weakening.

This combination of Mbeki’s mistakes and misunderstanding (after ten years of tight-rope walking he seems not to have realised that he could fall) and deep-seated potential corruption within the ANC and its alliance, together with the eagerness of the white ruling class to corrupt the ANC and the alliance and the willingness of the media to hide the truth in the interests of rich people, all goes a long way towards explaining Polokwane. It’s easy to see how this was going to be a disaster. However, the extent of the disaster deserves much closer examination.



Klein in a Bottle.

November 6, 2017

Not so very long ago, Naomi Klein, former Wall Street journalist turned celebrity leftist, was the bright shining hope of the world. Her books The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything, which revealed the horrifying truth (which had been kept secret for so long) that capitalism exploits workers and harms the environment, were on every leftist’s bookshelf, crowding out Marxist theory because her books were enormously expensive.

Not everybody quite believed this, of course. Alexander Cockburn’s review of The Shock Doctrine pointed out that what Klein was representing as her own brilliant idea was something which had been around since Marx at least, and probably since Rousseau and Blake (and some of it went back to Savonarola). Also, the revelations about the link between CIA torture, CIA mind control and capitalism had been traced in the 1960s when the facts about the CIA’s experiments with hallucinogens and sensory deprivation started coming out — and the political implications came as no great surprise to anyone who had been paying attention to what happened in any fascist or quasi-fascist seizure of power in the twentieth century.

Of course, said Cockburn, it was good that someone was saying all this stuff again given the terrible drought of leftists in the twenty-first century. However, Klein is particularly mistaken in claiming that this “shock doctrine” is something relatively new, most particularly on display in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, based on the CIA ideas of the 1960s fused with the neoliberal triumph of the late 1970s. In fact, argues Cockburn, to say this is to pretend that the disastrous twenty-first-century neoliberals, the Bushes and Blairs and Berlusconis and their descendants, were something novel and something which can therefore be fought against as dangerous innovators. Instead, he remarks, they are very much within a long continuum of capitalism stretching back at least to the eighteenth century, and to fight against them you have to fight against the system which created them; it isn’t enough to vote out Bush. The long dark Obama era demonstrated that Cockburn was right and Klein wrong.

Now Klein has come up with another book. Unlike its three major predecessors, and like her journalism, it is very short on research and is unreferenced. Her argument is that we are in a big big crisis, due to Trump, and therefore we must do everything that we can, as fast as possible, to challenge the rise of whatever it is that we are supposed to fight against in Trump, and Brexit, the two official foes of the official liberal ruling class of the Western world.

The book is called No Is Not Enough. This is a weird title. Who ever thought that no was enough? When, in politics or anywhere else, has rejection been the be-all and end-all of activity? Perhaps, though, this is a sign that Western political thought has really lost its sense of self-worth and become no more than a knee-jerk resistance to right-wing initiatives which in themselves are not properly understood.

Manifestly there must be something positive towards which any political movement must mobilise its adherents. This is true of every political movement which can ever aspire to have any adherents for any length of time. So, then, what is the positive thing which Klein has hitherto provided? In the main, she has complained about the misbehaviour of big business and of Republicans, contending that it would be nicer if there were fewer sweatshops and more non-franchised coffee shops, that it would be better if capitalism did not entail using the government to frighten people into pursuing policies which harm their interests, and that it would be good if someone would do something about global warming. Effectively, this is nebulous reformism. It is the politics of hipster liberalism, wishing to carry on with one’s current life without change, but also without guilt or unpleasant news on the television or the social media, and without right-wing propaganda blaring in one’s ears.

Does this new book represent anything different? Ninety-nine percent of the book’s critique is an attack on Donald Trump and some of his Cabinet. This is not exactly courageous stand-taking; everybody who would purport to be on the left obviously opposes Trump. He is a very easy target to attack, and in attacking him it is easy to ignore the extremely odious and terribly powerful people who oppose Trump in order to put themselves in power and implement policies which are as destructive as Trump’s, but perhaps more coherently assembled and more effectively propagandised, and hence more dangerous in the long run. Ignoring such people’s existence — or worse, effectively allying oneself with them, as in South Africa where the same kind of sand-in-the-eyes leftism has been used to legitimate support for the richest and most right wing people in the country under the pretense of saving the nation from Zuma — is a suicidal policy.

So if the book were simply a criticism of Trump then it would be (in effect) propaganda for the kind of system which Trump represents. By claiming that the only problem to be addressed is this nasty chancre weeping pus on your cheek, you are ignoring the fact that your big problem is actually that you have syphilis. Fortunately, there is a 1% of the book in which Klein does mention that the opposition to Trump, in the person of Hillary Clinton, was a corrupt liar campaigning for the special interests of gangster capitalists. Also, she mentions the existence of that gangster capitalism and points out that it essentially runs the socio-economic system of the United States by remote control.

These are points with which any leftist can fundamentally agree. These are also points, however, which direct attention to a far more important problem than the problem of having a preposterous ignorant sociopathic gasbag in the White House, or even the people who helped to put that gasbag there. The solutions to that problem — the control of the system by a corrupt and largely invisible ruling class which uses that control to enrich itself at the expense of everyone else — are different from the problem of the wrong guy winning an election.

But this is the problem which Klein complains about. She endorsed Bernie Sanders as the Presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. Undeniably Sanders was a less odious candidate than Hillary Clinton; arguably, he was the least unpleasant prospect of all the figures who sought to stand for President in either the Democratic or Republican Party. However, Sanders is a right-wing figure, a military hawk, a Zionist and a supporter of most of the conservative policies pursued by the Democratic Party down the decades. His populist attacks on corrupt banks were unusual, but they also almost certainly led nowhere, since he had no mass base behind him and any attempt to implement an anti-trust law against the banks would certainly have been blocked by all parties. His claims to be a socialist are certainly as fraudulent as Hillary Clinton’s claims to be a feminist. Klein claims that the mere uttering of such terms is a good thing — but in both cases the term could be used safely because it had been drained of all practical meaning.

Furthermore, Bernie Sanders endorsed Clinton for the Presidency. Klein criticises Clinton, but it is clear that she preferred Clinton over Trump. Therefore she was prepared to vote for the system and to call on others to do the same. What is the point of criticising the system if in practice you refuse to challenge it? This seems like the same sort of ineffectual hipster politics characteristic of Klein. It also explains why Klein spends so much more time criticising Trump than criticising the system which allowed Trump to rise, or, for that matter, criticising representatives of the system like Obama and Clinton who happen to use rhetoric which resembles Klein’s own rhetoric, but whose agenda is essentially the same as that of Trump: the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many and through the degradation of the planet and its resources.

So Klein’s “yes” is a very small one compared to her “NO”, and it is also a very unappealing one. She tries to gussy this up (whatever that phrase means) with references to the victories which have been attained over neoliberalism and “Trumpism”. These victories include a massive populist revolt in Argentina against corrupt neoliberalism which eventually led to a slightly less reactionary ruling-class family taking power and pursuing a slightly less corrupt version of neoliberalism. There is also the massive populist revolt in Greece against corrupt neoliberalism, in which the Greeks boldly voted for the party which pledged not to implement corrupt neoliberalism, after which the party implemented corrupt neoliberalism. On the whole, Klein’s poster boys for the New Politics are neither attractive nor credible.

Victories over “Trumpism” appear similar. Her thesis is that Trump’s victory has ushered in a series of extreme-right movement, such as UKIP in Britain, or the BJP in India, or Duterte’s Presidency in the Philippines. She fails to notice that Duterte, for all his violence and populism, is rather different from Trump and his agenda, that UKIP is an insignificant party (the anti-EU vote was essentially a Conservative victory) and the BJP has been around since the 1930s in various Hindu incarnations.

Meanwhile, her evidence of victories over this nonexistent fascistic united front include the stitched-up victory of the vicious reactionary neoliberal Macron in France and the victory of the xenophobic reactionary populists in Holland (where she praises a “Green” party which committed itself to supporting the European Union in its current neoliberal form). It seems obvious from this that Klein is trapped within the confines of the status quo, like a cockroach in a corked bottle waiting for the ammonia to be dripped in. Since that status quo is essentially neoliberal and reactionary, her campaigns against neoliberalism and reactionary politics appear wholly cosmetic.

Indeed, she went on a lot of marches in the United States to protest against Trump. Good for her; it is good for the legs and the lungs, assuming you don’t breathe too much of the city air. These marches, however, were mostly organised by the Democratic Party and were essentially calls for the installation of Hillary Clinton as President, so Klein was marching against her own professed principles and policies. The purposes of the marches were to mobilise specific interests, such as technology professionals and women, who normally tend to support the Democrats. Of course one may try to take advantage of such campaigns to challenge the system. There is little sign, however, that this happened, and Klein certainly did nothing to pursue that.

In the end she does come up with a call for the masses to rise up in what she calls the “Leap”, a call for a transformation of society on Utopian grounds. At last! Someone who will save us! Indeed, she says that this has happened before — when big oil spills happened in 1969, the people rose up and called for someone to do something about the environment, and lo, someone did and the Environmental Protection Agency was formed and the Clean Air Act passed. Klein says that this kind of triumph of the people can be done again. Erm, well perhaps, but shouldn’t we remember that the person who answered the call of the people was President Richard Nixon, saving the environment in his spare time when he wasn’t murdering hundreds of thousands of Indo-Chinese and overthrowing Latin American governments.

Her other inspiration is Standing Rock, where the evil government wanted to run a pipeline carrying Canadian tar-sands oil through an Indian reservation (this being government land the pipeline could travel free there). To further save money they wanted to run the pipeline slap through the local lake. And there the people rose up and said NO! Hurray for the people! Oh yes — except that the government rose up and said PISS OFF!, violently chased the Indians and their supporters away, and built the pipeline slap through the local lake. So she is celebrating the disastrous failure of weakly-supported single-interest campaigns to attain anything positive.

Her Leap is no leap. It’s a vague call for someone to do something, something nice, something like a higher minimum wage and more windmills and solar panels and child-minders and fewer police shooting black people. It has no political support worth mentioning  and no capacity to develop any. It is the feel-good politics of hipsterism, incapable of accomplishing anything and devoid of any potential to build the political analysis — the class analysis, especially — which it completely lacks.

And there we leave Klein in her bottle. A Klein bottle is a three-dimensional Moebius strip, a bottle with no actual inside or outside. As a result it’s difficult to see how to get out of the bottle. On the positive side, it cannot actually be build in the real world, any more than can Klein’s mythical politics.



Blah Wars Episode MMXVI: A New Despair.

November 6, 2017

It’s not just easy, but inevitable, to become despondent about the political, social, cultural and economic future of South Africa and the global network within which it exists. Much of what we can make out about the circumstances of the nation and the world suggest that we are in a state of chronic slow decline which is most likely to become precipitous decline within the next decade or so.

There are many ways of coping with this. One is to take so many happy pills that one wears a permanent grin under any and all circumstances, including imminent death in grotesque agony. A related method is to close down all access to the outer world, stopping reading the newspapers, listening to the radio or watching TV or accessing the Internet, and thus supplying a private Freedom From Information Act, because, like Oedipus, what could we see that could bring us joy?

Unfortunately, an easier method is to accept that, despite the absurdity of almost all the propaganda generated to deceive us by the media, and despite the obvious mendacity of the ruling class and its corporate and governmental agents, everything is for the best and what we are told three times (or three times three times, or three times three times three times) is true. So many people are prepared to march along the paths that the press and the politicians and the pundits tell them to follow.

The problem with believing lies is not just that you will inevitably be led to do the wrong thing — the real problem is that you lose contact with the right thing, with the idea that you might gain access to the right thing, that you might be able to think for yourself, let alone act for yourself. Being a willing participant in your deception means abandoning all individuality; you become a person in a pod, a volunteer for the Matrix. You then are unable to take action even when it is clearly necessary and when the proper action is blindingly obvious — and as for when the situation is obscure, and it is not clear whom one should support or what is to be done, you might as well never have been born, for all the use you would be to anyone else.

And that’s the real problem; we have to act as a collective, or we are lost, and the more people who cannot participate in any such collective, and who do not believe in participating in such collectives, the more likely it is that the bad guys will win.

Ah yes, the bad guys. They’re out there. But, yes, they’re also in here. So how to distinguish between the bad guys and the bad guys? Which evil scumbag who’s out to get us should you support? You have to choose between Clinton and Trump, between the narcissistic psychopath with a jawbreaking record of evil-doing, and — well, actually, the other one is the same, isn’t he? Or she?

So those who have a desire to gain political understanding in order to take political action in order to reverse the chaos which seems to be impending, face the immense difficult of not being able to know what needs to be done. The media are a mass of disinformation — again, the only thing to do is to try to pursue the least bad disinformation, which usually means that the disinformer is concerned with falsifying reality in a relatively narrow zone. Someone who hates a particular person, or a category of persons, might tell some of the truth about other people.

But the problem is that virtually all the narrow disinformers are incapable of gaining access to information for themselves. They rely on the Internet for their information, and are therefore obliged to sift through a mass of disinformation and attempt to distinguish what is bogus. Often this means that they are deceived by plausible but bogus information, or by half-truths used to conceal a greater lie. Which means that it is very dangerous to assume that even the most seemingly honest Internet commentator (often this means, the commentator who says what the observer wants to hear) is either genuinely honest, or accurate in response.

Which, again, is depressing.

The solution, then, is to cleave to personal experience, what there is of it, and to impressions of trustworthiness, which relies heavily upon knowledge of the speaker’s class allegiances, but also upon their private loyalties. If you know that everybody around you is short of cash, if you can see the vast numbers of beggars on the streets and the people desperate for jobs, and if you can see the huge public infrastructures going unmaintained, then you know that the country is in bad socio-economic condition, and you can take things from there. The solution, obviously, is to increase the amount of money going to people who have jobs (at the moment everyone except the very rich are going backwards, as is admitted by the media bragging about how people’s income is going up by as much as 1% a quarter — which is lower even than the fake inflation figures). Then the solution is also to create jobs. And the solution is to maintain public infrastructures. And there are lots of other solutions, but at least personal experience shows you what the answer is.

Then you cast about for people talking about how to resolve these problems, and you discover that virtually everybody is talking about how vitally important it is for the very rich to hang on to the wealth via intensified property rights, how essential it is to keep salaries low by crushing organised labour and eliminating the minimum wage, and how necessary it is to allow public infrastructure to continue crumbling in order to keep taxes low and to preserve the policy of austerity. Everybody who says these things must know that they are the opposite of what is actually needed. Therefore, they are lying. Therefore one casts about for people who are saying the opposite. There actually are a few such people out there, even though not all of them can be trusted to fulfil their claims.

But, more importantly, it is important to campaign for the real stuff. And once one has started campaigning for the real stuff, it is also important to recognise that there is more real stuff out there, and that there is an enormous majority of people out there who are massively worried about the real stuff, the people whom the propaganda and the lies are designed to deceive and confuse. If only those people can be spoken to — and most of them are at least dimly aware of what is really going on — then they would rise up and shake off the shallowly-embedded parasites on the body politic, the journalists and lawyers and politicians and NGOs and pundits who are all working for the plutocracy. And then it might be possible to do something about the power of the plutocracy.

So the thing to do is to keep one’s eye on the main issue and ignore all the lies. Without, however, simply sticking your fingers in your ears and ignoring all inputs because (as the liars say) everybody is a liar and everybody is corrupt except the few individuals whom the liars are promoting. Abandoning hope means that the liars will win.

We really have to get down to it. But it’s not easy.


Captivation (II): “Jump in the urinal and stand on your head: I’m the one who’s alive, you are all dead.”

November 6, 2017

The decisive and smashing victory of the Republican wing of the 1% Party, over the Democratic wing of the 1% Party, has not gone unnoticed. With speed and stamina the heroes of American liberalism and their bought-and-paid-for toadies across the world have rushed into the breach (after making sure that there were absolutely no weapons trained on them from anywhere).

Their conclusions are straightforward: the American people have betrayed the Party and therefore deserve neither support nor allegiance. Therefore they have sent their minions out into the street to fight against the American people. Down with the people, down! Or, at best, as Brecht sarcastically put it, the call goes out to dissolve the people and elect a new people who will vote for the correct candidate.

The Democratic Party faithful are also pointing out how bad the people are for voting for the wrong candidate. Obviously they must be racist, misogynist and fascistic. How could one vote against the Democratic Party when its previous candidate was black, except on grounds of racism? How could one vote against the Democratic Party candidate when she is a woman, except on grounds of sexism? Obviously, too, voting for a bullying male candidate shows that one is voting for the bully because one is embedded in Nazi-style politics. Besides, the enemy candidate is known to be covertly supported by Vladimir Putin, who is Hitler, and therefore the Republican Party are all Hitler supporters. The evidence is clear, and only a racist misogynist fascist could challenge it.

Notice something interesting about these conclusions: they say essentially nothing about what the Democratic Party was planning to do, had it happened to win the election. In fact it was openly admitting that it was planning to do very little. Instead, where there were policies, these amounted to “Defend the Obama legacy!”; the extension of state-subsidised but private health management organisations to large numbers of people who would otherwise be unable to afford such healthcare. (Unfortunately, the soaring cost of these private health management organisations is increasingly making this Affordable Care Act unaffordable, which rather undermines the project.)

The rest of the legacy that they make a fuss about is Obama’s enthusiastic signing on for the Paris accord on climate change, which is non-binding and hasn’t been approved by Congress so his signing means nothing. Also, his actual energy policy involves building more coal-fired power stations, promoting tar sands in Canada, and fracking for oil and gas all over the United States, so Obama’s policies are aimed at accelerating climate change even though he and all his supporters claim the opposite. (Trump is supposedly a climate change denialist. Which is worse, a climate change denialist who pursues policies which encourage global warming because he doesn’t realise it, or a person who acknowledges climate change but encourages global warming because it’s good for the income of his financial backers?)

As for the rest of the Obama legacy, it’s difficult to make much out; the extension of NAFTA across the Atlantic and Pacific seems to be collapsing, the wars in Ukraine, Africa and the Middle East are not going well, and apart from that, promoting the interests of the banks and the stock market ahead of everybody else in the country doesn’t seem to play very well in Peoria. So, basically, the Democratic Party ran on a platform of “Vote for us despite the fact that we haven’t done anything worthwhile in eight years and have no plans to do anything worthwhile in the next four!”.

The remarkable thing about this is how few Democrats can see that this wouldn’t have been a winning strategy even if they didn’t have a widely loathed candidate who had alienated a vast chunk of Democratic supporters by strenuously undermining and then dismissing a widely admired and much more popular competitor, Bernie Sanders (who seems a much more amiable person despite his lack of any clear distinction from her Hillaryship). It seems quite obvious that the Democrats are politically clueless. They don’t even know how to deceive the voters any more; they are so committed to serving the interests of the American ruling class that they’ve forgotten the political tricks which the American ruling class, like ruling classes everywhere, have played to game the system and fool the boobs.

Now, this is not new. It was in the pipeline when Hillary’s husband was running the show in the 1990s, when his speciality was going to working-class people and telling them that they were going to be fired, but that he felt their pain, and that in the long term they would be better off for it. After eight years of that the New Democrats were thrown out of power when they tried to elect Al Gore, an animatronic captive balloon. On mature consideration of their defeat, the New Democrats concluded that they had been robbed of power by their evil enemies and should become more New Democrat, which would obviously lead to success because their policies of rewarding the rich and punishing the poor were the royal road to victory in all elections. They then decided to cover up for this by putting up a black candidate, thus gaining themselves the black vote. However, when they put up a female candidate, they somehow failed.

The French Socialist Party, the German Social Democratic Party, the British Labour Party and of course the South African ANC have gone essentially the same way. They have adopted the economic policies of their enemies, thus betraying every principle they ever professed, and then tried to cover it up by adopting some of the practices of their enemies, such as identity politics, demonized enemies and figer-pointing at everyone but oneself. It is hardly surprising, then, that these parties have become almost indistinguishable from their opponents, and also hardly surprising that their support has plunged because nobody who really cares about the policies which they once professed will vote for them.

The shrewd-looking assumption of these parties was that people who care about policies are only a tiny minority of the voting public, and therefore the overwhelming majority of their supporters wouldn’t mind if they sold out. This turns out to be a highly problematic assumption. Of course most voters couldn’t be arsed to understand exactly what they are voting for, so they vote for glamour and surfaces.

However, the people generating the glamour and surfaces need to have some dim idea of what their potential customers are attracted to – and when you burn out the brains of your leadership and abolish all purpose in life, you also lose touch with your customers. Then you have to hire market research companies to tell you what the customers want, and these companies are trained to tell their employers what they want to hear. So in the end the people who destroyed the party on the assumption that destroying the party would do their interests no harm, are paying people to tell them what they desire to hear. They might as well be listening to the voices in their heads.

Apart from the fact that this leads to a ridiculous political disconnection from one’s constituency – and this is an almost universal characteristic of modern political parties – in the long term it also means that a whole class of self-deluding people with complete contempt for voters become the leading fitures in the cabal. Since nobody ever criticises them for this in their hearing (or if anyone does, they don’t listen, because anyone who disagrees with them is wrong) it follows that they don’t understand that their behaviour is conspicuously alienating their supporters. So they start behaving like this where their supporters can hear, and they start attacking their potential voters, because they hate and despise them all and they are arrogant enough to want to show it. And then they alienate those voters (very often by attacking the supporters of their opponents and thus making those supporters resentful).

This was what Mitt Romney did in 2012 with his “moochers” remark about the entire Democratic Party constituency, and what Hillary Clinton did in 2016 with her “deplorables” remark about the entire Republican Party constituency. It’s worth remembering, incidentally, that Romney endorsed Clinton and her moochers. The fact is that they both hate not only those who vote for their opponents, but those who voter for them. The political system has generated a “political class” in Peter Oborne’s term, which has essentially the same attitude towards the people living in their nation that Marie Antoinette had. (And if you doubt this applies to South Africa, listen to a senior South African politician talking about his opponents; the DA/EFF alliance claim that everyone opposing them is a crook, while the ANC claims that everyone opposing them is a racist.)

This is an understandable process; it is a natural product of the hostility of the social democratic movement in Europe and the psuedo-social democratic movement in the United States, to any serious pursuit of socialism. Once they were fully convinced that no socialist movement could pose a threat to their status, they naturally stopped pretending to be socialist, and once they did that, they had no defenses, or even any desire for defense, against a hostile takeover by the forces of neoliberalism.

However, this has always been the way of the social democrats. What of the actual left which appeared to have some kind of commitment to socialism? What steps have they taken, over the last fifteen years when this process has been on the go, to build structures which can accomplish something? Obvious policies would be either to take over the social democratic parties from within and turn them into something more meaningful, or build an alternative party which draws away all the dissatisfied and purged membership from the social democratic parties and then tries to beat them at their own game.

It seems obvious that, apart from the extremely flimsy campaign of Jeremy Corbyn in British Labour (which seems more nostalgia than anything else, even if it was a hopeful sign at the time) the left has done nothing of the kind. Nor has it built, nor attempted to build, a radical non-parliamentary alternative, whether revolutionary or reformist. All that the Western left has been able to manage has been to ineffectually criticise multinational corporate capital (without finding any means for practically expressing that criticism where it is substantive) and to critique the residue of Third World nationalism which still survives, and in doing so to support, possibly intentionally, the activities of NATO imperialism in attacking that nationalism and supplanting it with theocracy or plutocracy or, ideally, both.

So, we are in a bad way because not only is the system rigged against us, but the people whom we trusted to protect us against the system being rigged, or to expose the rigging when it happened, are doing absolutely nothing about this. This cannot end well.

Captivation (I)

November 6, 2017

When the concept of “State Capture” came to the fore in the propaganda media early this year, the issue was the dismissal of the apparently incompetent and (if a muckraking magazine is to believed) corrupt Finance Minister, Nhlanha Nene. He was to be replaced by a completely unknown figure, Van Rooyen.

In a sense the Finance Minister is the most important person in the Cabinet outside the Presidency. The Finance Minister determines spending priorities and can therefore decide whether the rich or the poor benefit from government policies, so that if desired, the Finance Minister can actually reverse the intention of those policies. Backed by the Treasury, the South African Revenue Service and the Reserve Bank, the Finance Minister is almost invincible within the Cabinet. So, the only way to change course is to remove him from power, and the only person who can do that is the President.

On the face of it, Nene was not doing anything that his predecessor Gordhan had not done before him. That is, he was pursuing an austerity policy for the poor and the middle class, while shovelling cash into the insatiable maws of the very rich, mainly via the parastatal companies which were the recipients of “infrastructure” money intended to facilitate minerals exports. (Since the overseas market for minerals has plummetted, this was a disastrous investment, but Nene continued to pursue it as if he had no choice. Possibly he was doing it not in pursuit of a mythical return on investment, but because the ruling class wanted him to continue to bankroll them.)

Van Rooyen, however, lasted only a weekend. There was a storm of violent propaganda in the usual agencies. More importantly, big financial interests sold off their holdings of South African currency, causing the value of the rand to collapse and the interest rate on bonds to soar. (It is possible that the Reserve Bank, which is largely privately owned even though its governor is state-appointed, was involved in some of these shenanigans.) The U.S. credit ratings agencies let it be known that Van Rooyen was not an acceptable Finance Minister and that they would downgrade South Africa’s credit rating accordingly. As a result of all this pressure from the ruling elite inside and outside the country. President Zuma removed Van Rooyen from office and replaced him with Nene’s predecessor, Gordhan.

So, why was Nene removed, and why was he to be replaced by someone who did not have any obvious contacts with the ruling elite, of the kind which Gordhan and Nene and their cronies had?

This was the question which has most particularly been avoided ever since last December in the propaganda agencies of the ruling elite. Rather, instead of asking a question, the propaganda agencies have been propagating a myth, plausible on the face of it, ridiculous when one digs a little deeper. The myth is that Nene was fired, and Van Rooyen installed, on the orders of an Indian commercial family with ties to President Zuma’s commercial interests, the Gupta family.

This victory for the ruling elite over the wishes of the government (whatever motivated those wishes) represents a decisive shift in power. In consequence of that shift in power, the myth went into high gear, and the front-man for the myth very rapidly became Gordhan himself. The banking industry, with which Gordhan had always enjoyed cordial relations since the days when he had protected them against taxation when he was Commissioner of SARS, shut down the Guptas’ accounts, essentially making it impossible for them to do business in South Africa. The press, which is controlled by corporate interests which dominate government policy and have done so since before South Africa was a country, denounced the Guptas as enemies of the people, and declared that Zuma and anyone who supported him, or even who endorsed policies which the press didn’t like, was an agent of the Guptas.

The Minister of Finance claims to be defending South Africa against enemies seeking to steal its money — that is, what remains of its money, much of which has lost most of its value under the stewardship of the Minister of Finance and his friends.

Who are these thieves? Apparently, they include ESCOM, DENEL, TRANSNET and South African Airways, all of whom are under attack by the Ministry of Finance for failing to act in a responsible manner, for failing to do as the Treasury tells them. What we are also told is that much of this is not simply irresponsibility, but actual criminality, for these entities are under the control of the Gupta family, a medium-sized business family based in India.

How is it that a (comparatively) small Indian family, hounded out of South Africa and currently lurking in Dubai, whose wealth amounts to a few paltry billions of rands (as compared with the hundreds of billions available for deployment from companies like Billiton and Anglo and even LonMin) could have seized control of the country? Supposedly, they have somehow outweighed those bigger companies in the corruption stakes with Jacob Zuma and his henchpeople. Zuma is supposed to be corrupt and biddable, but apparently he is also committed to supporting Indian people over white people.

Well, perhaps. No actual evidence for it, though.

The people in charge of South Africa’s state-owned enterprises are mismanaging them — often preposterously so; they make blunders which nobody with the slightest familiarity with the issues involved could make out of ignorance. Either they are complete fools – fools of such stature that they make other government hacks look like geniuses – or, more likely, they are corrupt.

Unsurprising; Zuma is corrupt, so why should his appointees not be corrupt?

Logically, then, we need someone who is not corrupt to challenge corruption in state-owned enterprises. And, somehow, we are told that the man who is not corrupt is Pravin Gordhan, late of the “Indian Cabal” in the Natal United Democratic Front, the man responsible for making SARS what it is today, and also responsible for making the South African economy what it is today. And this shining light of competence and probity is portrayed as the man the Empire – that is, the ruling class and therefore all the rest of us who are merely appendages of the ruling class – wants.

This is such a convenient and simple narrative — the bad guys happening to be the people who have supposedly always been opposed by the ruling class, the good guys happening to be the best friends of the ruling class — that it’s hard to believe that there can be much truth in it. On the other hand, if there is a legitimate basis for the decision to dismiss Nene, then why was it not revealed? And if Nene was not tolerable, why should Gordhan then be tolerable? Why be so hard-line one moment, and as soft as butter in a blast furnace the next?

The most likely answer is that the reason for dismissing Nene was that in some way he was interfering with policies which Zuma and his allies supported — for whatever reason. It could be that he was trying to take the side of the established big business which dominates the state against the Gupta interlopers. It could also be that he was trying to undermine the financial stability of the state enterprises, as was hinted at the time — something which also potentially serves big business, which wants to see those enterprises weakened and sold off. It could be that he was doing both to varying degrees, and therefore pressure was put on Zuma to remove him and replace him with someone more pliable. At which point, established big business launched an attack on South Africa’s financial state in order to force Zuma to back down — which he did, but not to the point of reinstating Nene; instead he reinstated Gordhan. Perhaps this was simply face-saving. Perhaps, however, Gordhan was the chosen man of the ruling class, for whatever reason.

Certainly, what has happened since then has been a remarkable outpouring of allegations about the Guptas and the titanic threat which they pose to the state. Apparently they control the Minister for Mines, Zwane, as well as Van Rooyen (who was shifted to Cooperative Governance). One can understand why they would want the Minister for Mines, but why would they want Cooperative Governance? Of course, perhaps they bribed someone to make him Minister of Finance — but then why didn’t that person stay bribed, given the vast amounts (hundreds of millions) which the Guptas supposedly offer as bribes? And if they are giving hundreds of millions in bribes, how can they possibly be making a profit on transactions which are only ten times bigger? For surely they are not only bribing one person; one captured minister doth not a captured state make. We are also told that they have bribed the CEO of ESCOM (who has now resigned, either because he is guilty, guilty, guilty! or because he couldn’t handle being hounded and abused by journalists on a daily basis) in order to do, well, not very much.

What is also interesting is the claims by various people that they were offered ministries. In particular, the Deputy Minister of Finance, Mcebisi Jonas, has declared that the Guptas offered him both the Ministry of Finance and a gigantic bribe to accept the job. (He didn’t mention the fact at the time, but only several months later, once the anti-Gupta campaign was in full swing.) Suddenly Jonas has been elevated to a stardom which he never enjoyed before; he is the Leader of the Good Guys. The fact that if the Guptas are so corrupt, then they must have believed (on who knows what basis?) that Jonas was as corrupt or more so, does not, apparently, matter.

The “State of Capture” report rushed out by the former Public Protector to bolster all this press propaganda is essentially a compendium of media and other allegations, untested and untestable, which is given credence by her previous report on Nkandla (which was carefully tested, within the limits of a body which has virtually no real investigative ability but has plenty of lawyers and accountants who can read documents).

Meanwhile, it is interesting that the ruling class, which has been trumpetting the instantly-impending doom of Zuma for several years, has in recent months turned against their candidate, Cyril Ramaphosa. It will be recalled that the ruling class persuaded Motlanthe to stand against Zuma and then dropped him, because Ramaphosa was prepared to step up to the plate as Deputy President with the endorsement of Zuma and the SACP and the ruling class and the press. After that came the deluge of ruling-class attacks on Zuma in the press, and the denunciation of Zuma by the SACP, and the endorsement of Ramaphosa for President by COSATU. Self-evidently the ruling class had their man in position, and did not seek any alternatives (particularly not the hated Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Zuma’s favoured successor – and, ironically, also Mbeki’s favoured successor).

But recently, journalists have been denouncing Ramaphosa and touting all manner of alternatives – Mkhize, Gordhan, anybody who might conceivably be willing to do whatever he is told by the ruling class. Apparently Ramaphosa the corporate toady is just too independent to be tolerated, or perhaps he is so unpopular within the ANC that he is not considered capable of beating Dlamini-Zuma.

Meanwhile again, in the background, Jonas (who, like Gordhan, is a Communist) has come out to declare that the royal road to saving the economy is by changing labour legislation to serve the interests of bosses rather than workers. (No trade union or leftists condemned him, for he is the hero of the anti-Gupta revolution.) And this, along with selling off the state enterprises and cutting income taxes (recently mooted by the SACP Secretary-General, who wants to increase sales tax instead, thus hammering the poor) is what it’s all about.

This is where the South African left has led us.


Let’s Sing Another Song, Boys . . .

November 6, 2017

. . . this one has grown old and bitter.

There is wholehearted consensus among all honest observers of South Africa that the problem of the country relates to two significant factors: the refusal of government to serve the genuine interests of the nation’s people, and the consequent collapse in public trust in government. The former factor has brought with it the steady deterioration in social services and in the general performance of government in such fields as foreign affairs and constitutional rule. The latter factor has brought with it social unrest and political paralysis.

These observers do not offer much in the way of practical suggestions about how to resolve these problems. The worst of them (the overwhelming majority) merely say that we should get rid of the African National Congress and then somehow everything will be all right. The best of them (such as Hein Marais) merely say that we need to establish a government which serves the genuine interests of the nation’s people, mostly by redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor in an efficient way and by promoting productive investment in the economy, and thus wins back public trust in government. Of course, if this were as politically easy a thing to do as these observers pretend, somebody would have done it simply out of the self-interest of installing themselves as saviour of the nation and winning a Mandela-style popularity with the majority.

There are, however, dishonest observers. These ones agree that the problem of the country relates to the refusal of government to serve the genuine interests of the elite, and the consequent collapse in elite trust in government. The former has brought with it redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor, and the latter has brought with it the anger and resentment of the elite directed against the government. It is this which motivates most of the criticism of the ANC which is made by journalists and the purported intelligentsia in ruling-class-friendly segments of academia and the ruling-class-sponsored non-governmental organisations (many of which are also organised, and often sponsored, by governments, though not the South African government).

The consequence of listening too closely to the dishonest observers who make up the overwhelming bulk of those empowered to make commentary, and to those honest observers whose observations are appropriated for the purposes of such commentary, is pretty bad. It entails believing that something needs to be done, and what needs to be done is to get rid of the government, without ever specifying what it needs to be replaced with — because that means allowing the government to be replaced, not with what the people want, or with what might be best in running the country, but rather with the people whom the power elite wish to see running the country. In other words, just like what happened at Polokwane in 2007.

So, what happened in South Africa in 2016?

Just over 26% of the electorate voted for the Democratic Alliance; just over 54% of the electorate voted for the African National Congress. Under normal circumstances that would be deemed a blowout victory for the ANC. Just over 8% voted for the Economic Freedom Fighters. Under normal circumstances that would be deemed, at best, a respectably pitiful performance by the EFF. However, because the EFF was able to cooperate with the DA to hand power to them in Johannesburg and Tshwane metroes (the DA was able to take over Nelson Mandela Bay, although they lost it, because they could cooperate with any one of the political catamites — the UDM, CoPe, PAC, etc — who were eager to collaborate with them in exchange for money and jobs. So, suddenly we are told that the EFF are wonderful, not because they are, but because it is convenient to say so from the perspective of the ruling elite who back the Democratic Alliance.

In reality, the ANC lost a good deal of support because people stayed away. They did not go over to the Democratic Alliance, presumably because they knew that the Democratic Alliance opposes everything they want to see done. Therefore, they showed more sense than those European leftists and American liberals who, abandoning faith in fake social democrats and false populists, instead went off and voted for the right wing — as many of them must have done. But they were not fooled by the ANC either. Therefore, we are in the position in which nobody in politics is truly trusted, perhaps because the tasks which they are hoped to perform are simply beyond realistic expectation.

This is because of the rightward shift in the ANC, not in anything else which has happened. Granted, the DA and the white establishment generally has become a little more openly right-wing, but this is not of any great significance, since it mirrors the global shift of the NATO countries (to whom the DA owes allegiance) towards outright fascism. It is the ANC which is correctly perceived to have abandoned its principles, and therefore people either stay away or vote for the party perceived to at least pretend to maintain those principles, namely the EFF.

This, however, also tells us little about what will happen in 2019; the only thing which can be said for sure is that the DA is not going to win. Its support base has possibly peaked; the rapid growth of the black middle class or perir-bourgeoisie, the only road by which the DA can gain much electoral traction, has stalled with the stagnation of the economy and the looting of the state engineered by the tiny super-rich minority who fund the DA; hence, ironically, the super-rich minority has sabotaged their own party. Just one of the little contradictions of capitalism, comrades.

But the trouble for those who want to sort out the problems of the country is that the weakness of the DA does not mean the salvation of the country. Assuming that the EFF doubles or trebles in size (an unlikely proposition) and assuming that the EFF’s pretensions to stand by the Freedom Charter have some basis in fact (almost as unlikely) then the ANC could find itself pushed below the 50% mark, and the ANC could find itself needing to shift to the left in order to get EFF support and keep itself from disintegrating. That could, just possibly, bring some kind of redemption to the country.

However, if the EFF remains relatively small, then the ANC, under new management but possibly with the same horrible policies (or even more right-wing ones, if the Gordhan/Ramaphosa gang have their way) would probably hang in there with more than 50%, a mixture as before. And if the ANC’s right wing continues in its paranoid ascent, then even if the ANC’s support dips below 50%, a deal with the DA would probably be what the ANC would desire. (The DA wouldn’t want such a deal, but would probably be pressured into accepting by its corporate bosses — and such a deal, since it would probably lead to a further rightward shift and thence another split in the ANC, would ultimately benefit the DA by causing the ANC’s support to disintegrate.)

Maybe we should simply give up on electoral politics? Maybe what we need is what Hunter S Thompson called “some high-powered shark with a fistful of answers” like Yoweri Museveni? Or maybe we’re just doing it wrong?


Challenge/Response On #OPENSTELLENBOSCH.

November 6, 2017

Since the Association of Commonwealth Language and Literary Studies (which, although an Association, has not much to do with the Commonwealth and deals to only a limited extent with language) invited two former members (an interesting fact in itself) of #OPENSTELLENBOSCH to address it, the least one can do is respond to this address, which took the form of a challenge to the academics of ACLALS to uncritically support the organisation (although it no longer actually exists).

The organisation deserves attention. It was set up to make Stellenbosch University a more hospitable place for non-Afrikaans-speaking and particularly black students (including both coloured and african in the mixture). As such it deserved support, insofar as this agenda is indeed followed and its tactics and strategy are worth following. On the other hand, if there were major problems, it wouldn’t deserve support until it had reformed itself — so the call for uncritical support was itself problematic.

The address consisted of two elements: a video with parts which the presenters didn’t like omitted, and a rather long and jargon-laden talk by one of the members.

The video, oddly enough, was not by students, but by the Johannesburg-based film-maker Aryan Kaganof, whose films tend to depict the received ideas of the white Johannesburg media elite. The problem with this is that although Kaganof has some talent (though much less than is claimed for him) as a film-maker, he has no original political ideas, nor any commitment to the movement which the students had constructed — so it might be expected, and so it proved, that the video would provide little context or useful information.

Nevertheless there were a few interesting points. It was claimed that the movement at Stellenbosch had been initiated by a sympathetic white lecturer, who was later hounded out of the movement because she was white; the lecturer seemed aggrieved about this, as liberal-minded whites usually are, but she really should have anticipated it. Certainly the representatives from #RHODESMUSTFALL, addressing the camera or clowning for audiences, came across as bombastic, self-glorifying and largely delusional, and appeared to offer nothing for their Stellenbosch colleagues except racist rhetoric and power-fantasies.

Of course it is understandable that young people engaged in their first political action over-dramatise themselves. All the same, someone solemnly proclaiming that in Stellenbosch he shares Steve Biko’s feelings about black oppression as expressed in I Write What I Like is going too far. Biko was living in an overtly racist, exploitative society dominated by white people who wanted to kill those who refused to be crushed; Stellenbosch is a mildly racist (but deracialising) university dominated by white people who want to teach students under the overall supervision of black people. There is no reality underpinning this extravagant metaphor.

The insertion of some footage from the prelude to the Marikana massacre was not, of course, the fault of the students; it was Kaganof, following on a little group who sprayed “Remember Marikana” around the University of Cape Town one day. Over the footage Kaganof superimposes tachistoscopic flashes of various words which supposedly give meaning. In fact they do not, and the footage itself is empty, because there has never been any real debate about Marikana or any serious attempt to understand what happened there — it has simply been appropriated without debate, a tactic which ultimately has only benefited the same ruling class which was responsible for the Rustenberg unrest and the massacre in the first place. It would seem that Kaganof is appropriating #OPENSTELLENBOSCH in the same way that he is appropriating Marikana, and it also seems that the students in the movement have no objection to this. This latter is the problem.

It relates to the immense valorisation of the removal of the statue of Rhodes from the plinth at the foot of Jameson Steps at Cape Town; while the statue has been removed, the steps remain with the same name, that of an odious British imperialist agent. This scene is the only one in the video which depicts a large group of people, although the vast majority are simply looking on. But furthermore, it is a scene which leads nowhere, since unless one manages to turn Rhodes into a symbol of American neoliberal imperialism — a difficult task — it is a symbol without a referent, given that “colonialism” is not now undertaken by Britain (at least not independently so). At least the attack on the statue of Rhodes at Oxford had some meaning as an attack on the existing British ruling class; condemning Rhodes means nothing to the modern South African ruling class, and no effort was made to inject meaning into it by the students. It was simply a carnival of forcing management to do something they did not wish to do, but which, in itself, meant nothing.

The great accomplishment of #OPENSTELLENBOSCH, at least according to Kaganof’s video, was to disrupt a class taught by a young coloured junior lecturer, an event excitedly framed by the legend “HIDDEN CAMERA”, suggesting that something outrageous and hitherto secret is being revealed. In fact, it is simply cellphone footage of students bullying a young woman and preventing her from doing her job. No doubt they feel justified in doing so, and if the consequences had been significantly positive, perhaps this would have been fair. As it is, however, the footage shows the potentially ugly side of the movement. It also shows — with the chant of “I can’t breathe!” — its reliance on American iconography. There is nothing automatically invalid about this — although it should be viewed with suspicion — but the appropriation of the slogan of Black Lives Matter seems a little problematic given that the American protest related to a black man murdered by white police; the implication is that this young coloured woman, by performing her duties, is murdering the students.

After this presentation came a speech by one Mohammed Shabangu. He said all the things which one expects to be said under such circumstances; the protests were revolutionary, according to him, because they struck at the university’s residue of racism, hence represented a program to transform the university into an institution serving the people, hence represented a blow at the oppressive government, a blow at neoliberalism, a blow at capitalism, a strike against apartheid and colonialism as well. What a lot of walloping, with very little actual effort displayed!

But unpacking these claims reveals a lot of ill-justified conflation. It is natural that there is a residue of racism at Stellenbosch, but the evidence that this is monolithically imposed by management is absent, and the way in which this racism manifests itself was not clearly identified (the use of Afrikaans is not evidence — and, incidentally, Stellenbosch was unusually multilingual in its policies). This, again, is not clearly an attack on the corporatisation of the institution, which was hardly mentioned in the video and for which attack no evidence was led in the talk. (Apart from the campaign to insource functions in the institution, which seems to have collapsed, there seems to be no such attack.)

Then again, although universities are state institutions, they are autonomous, and attacks on them are not exactly attacks on the state, which can use such attacks to gain more authority over universities (and hence drive more neoliberal corporatisation). The state itself is neoliberal in orientation, but its orientation is partly driven by the corporate sector, which is not only in South Africa, but global. Hence lumping all these things together, when they are rather ill-fitting portions of an immense and ill-directed machine, is problematic if one wishes to do something effective to change the functioning of the machine. Neoliberalism is highly adaptive and manipulative, and is also extremely powerful and seductive. So a blind denunciation of everything one does not like as “neoliberal” and a claim to be fighting against neoliberalism regardless of what one is doing, looks like telling lies and claiming easy victories when these are not actually victories.

Apart from these intellectual failures (which may just be Shabangu’s, but in fact they look suspiciously similar to the rhetoric of most of the student protesters) Shabangu and his colleague Greer Valley displayed some uncomfortable attitudes. Shabangu admitted that he had only spent a year at Stellenbosch, and had hated it. So he had left. For another South African university more attuned to his cultural concerns? No. For an African university more sympathetic to his identity? No, he had gone to Germany to study (a common destination for graduates of Afrikaans universities, incidentally).

For a professed anti-colonialist to go back to the metropole to further his studies is a little problematic, but Shabangu went further, declaring that Germany was a much better country than South Africa, much less racist, much more caring about immigrants, and compared himself with the refugees from Syria. The fact that this speech was not followed by the sound of hundreds of academics slapping themselves in the face in shame and embarrassment at sitting through such horrible subaltern subordination suggests rather that his audience was waiting for everything to be over rather than that they were endorsing it.

One question asked was what about other institutions. Significantly the students did not mention the feminist protests at Rhodes or the homosexual protests at Cape Town; some have suggested that these protests are extremely problematic, and even that they were created to derail and undermine the more substantive student protests, but at least they should have been mentioned, but weren’t. Shabangu went so far as to claim that nobody knew about the protests at black institutions because the racist media did not cover them; in reality, there was some coverage, but Shabangu had obviously not bothered to find out what had happened in preparing for his talk. Had he provided substantive information about the Stellenbosch protests this might have been justified; instead, his generalisations would have been buttressed by such research (and therefore he appeared either ill-prepared or unconcerned about anything happening beyond the Grape Curtain).

He was also asked, since he hadn’t spoken about this in his talk, what the consequences, the “bitter fruits and sweet fruits” had been of the protests. His primary response was to point out that the movement appeared to have collapsed. He argued that this was partly due to repression — the deployment of more security guards on campus — which is probably true, although the burning or otherwise destruction of various buildings on various campuses certainly provided a useful pretext for such security guards without doing anything to further the objectives of the movement. However, he admitted that it was also due to “identity politics” — that is, racism — which had led him and Valley to leave the movement.

So what had the accomplishments been? Taking down Verwoerd’s plaque, apparently — which seems rather insignificant in comparison with the claimed objectives. So no sustainable movement was built, and no substantive accomplishments were gained, and the movement, by its determination to attack sympathetic academics and alienate supportive students on racial grounds, rendered itself undeserving of support, meaning that it could not be reformed or transformed into something more efficacious.

It didn’t seem to occur to either Shabangu or Valley that this was not really an advertisement for academics to join the movement. Obviously it is desirable for academics to join a struggle to change universities into something more like what academics would want to see happening. Obviously it is unfortunate that many academics are unwilling to recognise that this is important. But it is particularly unfortunate that students at the moment are not capable of putting together a movement deserving of academic support, nor of presenting an image of that movement which would create the illusion that it deserved academic support.

Perhaps something is wrong here.