Janice Winter
Janice Winter

Black economic extortion, Malema style

If we had a national genie, my three requests to her would be:

  1. To make us a country rich in the resource of leadership defined by wisdom, vision and integrity;
  2. To make us a forward-looking nation, while never forgetting our past; and
  3. To enact sufficient social and economic justice to foster a genuine sense of shared national identity in order to prevent internal divisions from destroying our country’s potential.

Though we don’t have a genie of the sort about which I daydream, we sadly have another kind: the largest Gini coefficient in the world. Yes, according to South African economist, Professor Haroon Bhorat, South Africa has overtaken Brazil as the most unequal country in the world, with the largest (and still growing) gap between rich and poor. In response, Trevor Manuel declared his confusion about “what it tells us about anything”. Seriously, Trev? I thought you were brighter than that. Quite frankly, I find the sentiment offensive.

Almost as offensive as invoking the Freedom Charter to justify an excessively opulent lifestyle garnered from a career claiming to represent “the masses”. Yes, we are back to Julius and his lavish living, which the ANCYL has defended as justified by the aspirations of the Freedom Charter. Honestly? Is this really what we’ve reduced our nation’s struggle to? It seems so, yes. Malema has proudly declared that he is part of “the elite that has been deliberately produced by the ANC” and that the struggle for today’s youth is for “economic emancipation”, for the masses to “take command of the economy from the hands of white males”. Congrats, you’ve found your freedom. But while you have masses, Malema, you no longer constitute one of the masses. So please don’t defend your excessive spending as somehow being for their benefit.

The need for economic emancipation is indeed paramount, central to which is democratising the economy from the economic oligarchy of the minerals-energy complex — predominantly still owned and controlled by white males. However, simply switching the race or sex of these economic oligarchs will not result in the economic emancipation of the black majority. This will merely change the demographics of the wealthy elite; it will not transform the system of wealth accumulation or the consequent levels of inequality. We need both. As Moeletsi Mbeki cogently argues in his new book, Architects of Poverty: Why African Capitalism needs Changing, BEE has not “proved to be the fatal blow to South Africa’s oligarchs that Nelson Mandela and black nationalists of his era once envisioned. In fact, it strikes a fatal blow against the emergence of black entrepreneurship by creating a small class of unproductive but wealthy black crony capitalists made up of ANC politicians … who have become strong allies of the economic oligarchy”.

It is not Malema’s unbridled pursuit of wealth that I find so offensive. In some respects I agree with his statement that there is nothing wrong with a flashy lifestyle “if you can afford it”. My primary problem is with the political avenues through which such wealth is acquired and assertions that it is part of the noble struggle for economic emancipation for all those previously disadvantaged. Both Malema and Zuma have gained immense popular support by building their image as peasants marginalised by the political elite of the ANC to keep the poor from benefiting in the post-apartheid redistribution of wealth.

Rather than expressing surprise or even anger at the news uncovered by impressive investigative media reports, the ANCYL has, unsurprisingly, attacked numerous newspapers for their questions into Malema’s tenders, tax and (lack of) transparency and are threatening legal action: “The scurrility of these reports is a sad reflection on the absurd state of journalism in this country which has gone to the gutters.” Which is certainly not where Malema and his men have gone. They prefer multimillion-rand mansions in suburbs like Sandton. Who wouldn’t? While the ANC is (defensively) defending Malema, few other organisations are, with all other major political parties and — more significantly — Cosatu, demanding a lifestyle audit of key political players. Malema defensively argues: “I didn’t rob anybody, I didn’t take from the poor to have what I have.” But that’s not strictly true. As Moeletsi Mbeki argues, the creation of the legal category “previously disadvantaged individuals” (PDIs), which encompasses a massive 91% of the population “created the impression that all black South Africans could or would benefit from BEE. This legitimised the co-option payment to the black political elite by dangling before the black masses the possibility that one day they, too, would receive reparations for the wrongs done to them during the apartheid era”. BEE, in its existing incarnation, is a lie that robs the poor of what should legitimately be given them: a credible effort by their represented leaders to change existing economic relations both in terms of race, but also crucially, in terms of power so that the lives of the majority (not only the lives of their leaders) improve practically.

Mbeki further argues that “one of the most destructive consequences of the reparations ideology is the black elite’s relationship with, and attitude to, the South African state. As the state is said to have been party to the disadvantaging of the PDIs it is therefore also perceived to owe them something … the approach of the black elite to the state is, therefore, not that of using the state to serve the needs of the people, but rather of using it, in the first instance, to advance the material interest of PDIs … not surprisingly, corruption under the ANC government has grown by leaps and bounds”. This is one of the rare instances in which the Mbeki brothers agree. Former president Thabo Mbeki similarly noted that: “Within the context of the development of capitalism in our country, individual acquisition of material wealth, produced through the oppression and exploitation of the black majority, became the defining social value in the organisation of white society … and thus has it come about that many of us accept that our common natural instinct to escape from poverty is but the other side of the same coin on whose reverse side are written the words — at all costs, get rich!” Malema’s government tenders are one example of this impulse in the post-apartheid state. Indeed, Malema admits that many of the youth working in parliament have salaries “far beyond the duties they are responsible for”. Yet he sees nothing wrong with this reality “as long as they don’t forget where they come from and their obligation of serving the working class”. Remembering your roots is great, Malema, don’t get me wrong, but while it may assuage your guilt of being an elite, it does little for those still in the working class, particularly when your wealth relies on reproducing exploitative economic imperatives.

Moeletsi Mbeki writes of the tension facing the ANC in choosing between inheriting and enjoying the existing system of economic and political power (celebrated through the rhetoric of racial transformation) and sacrificing the fruits of that system for a more equitable one (the reality of social transformation): “The ANC is caught in a quandary. On the one hand, its members and leaders want to preserve, largely intact, the economic system inherited from the National Party era so they can benefit from it. On the other hand, they hanker for change that will ameliorate the growing inequalities and pauperisation among blacks.” Despite the short-term attraction of the easier and less costly former option, let’s sustain our support for the spirit of the Freedom Charter that envisions the latter and, as citizens, hold our leaders accountable both through persistent media pressure and through the power of our votes.