Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

A promising PhD-student’s take on the so-called ‘Zupta’- phenomenon

What follows here is a piece by one of my and Prof. Pieter Duvenage’s graduate students, Casper Lötter, who is a PhD-candidate in Social Philosophy at the University of the Free State – it first appeared in the Weekend Post on 5 November:

‘In a recent and valuable contribution, Raymond Suttner asks, “What is the plan beyond Zuma falling?”(Creamer Media’s Polity). It is often repeated now that Jacob Zuma is a corrupt leader, that he has violated the constitution, that he influenced the National Prosecuting Authority’s decision to prosecute Gordhan so he and those close to him could get their hands on the treasury, etc. While all these allegations might well be true, it neglects a very important perspective in the debate on “state capture” claims. I aim to explore Suttner’s question by taking his analysis one step further.

A Marxist reading of crime in capitalist societies provides this perspective and an appreciation of this insight is likely to enhance our understanding of the so-called “Zupta phenomenon.” The compressed term of “Zupta”, made up by joining the names of Zuma and that of the Guptas, is of course the well-known formulation of Julius Malema. This piece is not meant as an apology for the Zuptas. What it is, is an attempt to see these shenanigans in perspective in view of our legitimate expectations of a post-Zuma government.

Contemporary scholars such as Jeffrey Reiman, Anthony Quinney and the well-known US prison abolitionist Angela Davis (who once featured on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, on a trumped-up charge!) have built on Marx’s insights on the role of law in capitalist society as an instrument of oppression to further the economic interests of the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor. In his provocatively entitled book The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison (1990), Reiman develops the idea of a “Pyrrhic defeat theory” to explain the workings of law in capitalist society.

A Pyrrhic victory, as is generally well-known, is a victory gained at such a cost in lives and material that it is hardly worth the effort and investment. By the same token, a Pyrrhic defeat is a defeat in name only – i.e. victory was never the objective of the exercise. Reiman’s argument, and that of Quinney, is that the fight against crime in capitalist societies is such a Pyrrhic defeat. The objective is not to root out crime but to “stimulate” it in an effort to demonize the poor as criminogenic and thereby divert attention away from the behaviour of the wealthy and powerful. I wish to note three arguments illustrating the contention that crime is stimulated (rather than attempted eradication, as one would have hoped for) in capitalist societies.

Firstly, Alexander and Davis’s argument is that law enforcement agencies tend to police African-American and Hispanic (typically impoverished) communities more vigorously than they do affluent, White neighbourhoods. This allows for the production of more bodies for judicial processing. Reiman’s contention that the poor have generally less privacy than the wealthy and the powerful, is a valuable perspective on the reasons for the poor’s crimes being more easily detectable and pursuable.

Secondly, Haney (2005:78-87) contends that the rationale which underpins the idea of incarceration as a punishment gained currency and momentum during the nineteenth century based on a model of human behaviour – individualism and the concept that persons need to take responsibility for their actions – which has since been thoroughly discredited by modern psychology and the understanding that contextual factors are the determining issues in behaviour that is labeled “criminal”. Haney (2005:81) insists that “contextual, situational and structural forces” are absolutely imperative to assuage human behaviour, but imprisonment feeds off the individualistic model of accountability and responsibility.

In the words of Mary Bosworth (2010: 169), “while prisons have always been used to control the poor and the disorderly, the extent to which incarceration in the 1990s became divorced from any of its historical justifications for justice, crime reduction, or rehabilitation is remarkable.” As Jeffrey Reiman (1990:131-133) argues with some force, emphasis on individual responsibility (however misguided) is essential in a society that denies its own responsibility for crime and its lack of accountability to the marginalized communities created by structural oppressions (such as poverty).

Thirdly, the neglect of such basic crime prevention strategies as poverty elimination and the reintegration of ex-offenders into our stigmatizing, shaming culture (my doctoral topic), has given impetus to rates of recidivism between 70-90% (depending on the category of crime in question). Braithwaite (1989) suggests that stigma rather than reintegrative shaming practices (found in communitarian societies such as China or Japan) drive ex-offenders into the arms of criminal rackets in order to shield themselves from the shame. These are the examples illustrating the stimulation, rather than the eradication, of crime in capitalist societies.
Some criminologists also suggest that fear of crime is used to divert attention from the failings of government. Since almost everyone focuses on criminal behaviour that generally emanates from the ranks of the poor, i.e something which I will call “conventional crime” here, the rich folks can get on with their prime business: making money at the expense of all else.

Human-induced climate change is a good example. Wealthy industrialists have succeeded in endangering life for all on this planet for their own selfish enrichment, and yet this is not regarded as a “crime” in municipal legal systems. In Robert Kenner’s award-winning documentary film Merchants of Doubt (2014), Naomi Oreskes – an historian of science – points out that climate change denialists make an effort to throw doubt on legitimate scientific findings that prove that the climate is changing for the worse. Another example is the economic meltdown in 2008 that was the direct result of an unsustainable and fraudulent real estate boom in the US, leaving, when it crashed, millions of people unemployed and homeless.

Against this background of Reiman’s Pyrrhic defeat theory, Jacob Zuma’s behaviour can be understood with some profit. Even if it is true that Zuma has stacked strategic posts for the sole advancement of his private interests, how is this different from the way the criminal justice system works anyway? The wealthy and the powerful have always held sway with important players. Or is Zuma’s behaviour particularly shocking because he is a leader with struggle credentials? I suspect that the latter consideration is at least partly the answer.

In my view, there is no difference between Zuma’s theatrics and that of the otherwise powerful and wealthy elite save for the consideration that Zuma is an excellent example of how the system “actually” works. For reasons best known to himself, Zuma has flaunted all decorum and we are now privy to new disclosures of corrupt practices on almost a weekly basis, directly or indirectly sanctioned by the President himself. South Africans will be forgiven for asking why taxpayers still pay the President a salary when he devotes the lion’s share of his time in office to enriching himself, members of his family and his friends. But Reiman’s idea of a criminal justice system as a “Pyrrhic defeat” enables us to understand the logic driving such moves as the clandestine flogging of our entire strategic fuel reserves during December last year (around the same time Nene was fired) at below market price. The same goes for the notorious nuclear deal. The former has precipitated the pending increase in our fuel levy while the prize of petrol everywhere on the globe is going down.

Lest we think that getting rid of Zuma is the answer to South Africa’s current problems, let us be reminded that Zuma is only a foolhardy illustration of how the criminal justice system worked before him and is bound to continue operating (although almost certainly in a less obvious manner) once he has left. From a Marxist perspective, Zuma should be complimented on his “transparency” (albeit not intended for our benefit) on laying bare the oft-secret machinations of the criminal justice system in capitalist societies. In conclusion, one reply to Raymond Suttner’s question would be: The Zupta phenomenon is very bad but it is worth the effort to see it in perspective. It is but one symptom of a much more endemic and systemic problem in capitalist societies, namely unbridled and entrenched greed fuelled by the ideal of individualism.’

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